German Rap is shaking up the cultural landscape of Germany. It is street rap from the vibrant migrant communities that co-creates an urban youth culture characterized by thrilling sounds, a capitalist lifestyle and heavy sociopolitical views. In the middle of the epedemic of trap beats, word games and the mixture of different languages of the migrant circles, Celo & Abdi – two conscious rappers from Frankfurt – show that German rap is an ultimative way not only to express their street stories and emotions, but to criticize the system without missing to have fun.
I am still living in the same flat since I have been a child, still in the same children´s room. What has changed? My wardrobe is full of Gucci clothes
Notorious as illustrious: Celo & Abdi are one of the most important rappers in Germany who consider themselves as conscious rappers. Their lyrics are sociocritical. The rap duo is controversial. They are authentic. The everyday survival in the jungle of the metropolis Frankfurt while running an illegal business is a main topic of their lines. Celo & Abdi are drawing sympathetically the migration story of their parents while they are offending politicians and police officers aggressively. Like many German rappers they do not glorify violence directly, but telling with their music that violence has been part of their life. Before there was music, there was violence. State power, police violence, street violence and structural violence in form of discrimination. Is it a cry for help? Not at all. They had to learn to accept, they learned to resist, they learned to attack. They use a sexist language and violent metaphors in their lyrics, but they think about criticism rather than shoot it down. It is worth to read between their lines, to get to know their personalities without falling into the parternalistic or pedagogical trap.
I meet Celo & Abdi in Bornheim, the bohemian middle-class district of Frankfurt, the hometown of Celo, for which he is very proud. Local patriotism is an important attitude of German rappers with non-German roots. Frankfurt, Hamburg or Berlin. They love their cities and try to represent their own stories which differ from those told by mainstream media and known by the dominant German culture. „Our stories are worth to tell“ Abdi says. „Snatched from life experiences“, Celo continues and refers to their song „Frankfurter Zoo“ where a drug dealer get robbed by his friend.
With their fourth album „Diaspora“ they place the migration theme in the middle of their artistic existence. And still, their music is not only wholehearted criticism on German society and discrimination against its daughters and sons with a migration story, but a homage on making the best of living in socio-economically weak districts and having less perspectives than a „Christian“. Their narrative style is not based on a „I am a victim“-habitus, but on a sober statement that accounts the complexity of life.
Celo & Abdi are Erol Huseinćehajić and Abderrahim el Ommali born and raised up in Frankfurt. They have met while working in a call center 9 years ago where they decided to make music together. Both parents immigrated to Germany as guest workers. Abdi is 30 years old and has Moroccan roots. Celo has recently turned 35 and is proud of his Bosnian background.
They suggested a Ćevapčići (grilled dish of minced meat from the Balkans) fast food place to talk. The diner is close to the stylish cafés and restaurants for which Bornheim is known, but it belongs to another world. Small tables with shabby chairs in a tight corridor. The smell of minced meat spreads all over the small diner accompanied by Bosnian words and a lot of laughter between Celo and the chef. Those, who want to escape the smell and the sound, can take a seat in the winter garden. A bit cold, but calm.
They see behind the curtains of our world
„Rap is for me a valve for every kind of emotion.“ says Abdi. When he does feel „shitty“, he can take a piece of paper, he writes „shit“ on it and develops a track out of it. It is not aggression, what drives them, but anger „against everything“, Celo says, „against the society“, he continues. As storytellers of their own worlds with their own words, they reach white middle class students as well as Germans with foreign roots with few chances for a brilliant future. Some of their tracks give support to their listeners during their hard times. The track „Besuchstag“ (visiting day) for example deals with the feeling of being imprisoned and the regret to disappoint the parents. They have received a lot of messages telling that this song has given their fans the strenght to overcome difficult times. Not only those who have been in prison, but this song meant a lot for their relatives. „My brother is in prison, my son is in prison, my father is in prison. But also people who have been imprisoned listened to this song and thought When I am released, I will directly go to my mother and kiss her feet.“ Abdi says with proud. And those who did not go through the same experiences they have? „They see behind the curtains of our world“ Celo says.
It is the shit we grew up with that made us to talented rappers
The path of life for young men with a migration story growing up in socially weak districts, their way to criminality and their inner struggle is the essence of the new generation of German rap. „It is the shit we grew up with that made us to talented rappers“, Celo says. „But it is also our talent“, Abdi opposes.
Their talent is to play with words from different languages, to connotate names, notions and metaphors. The unique language of Celo & Abdi and their azzlackz family (azzlacks is the name of the rapper network around one of Germany´s most influential rapper „Haftbefehl“ in the Frankfurt region) is characterized by neologisms and the use of foreign languages such as Arabic, Kurdish, Hebrew, Turkish or Bosnian words they they know from their friends in a multicultural and multiethnic neighbourhood. The German language is important for them as it is also essential to rap in Hebrew (shalom), Arabic (habibi) or English (on point). Although they do not define German as their mother language, they admit that they are speaking German more than they speak Bosnian or Arabic. „German is the commercial language and the language of our society“ says Celo. The slang of azzlackz has reached spheres beyond the hiphop and migrant community. A German politician for example used Celo & Abdi´s notion of „Hinterhofjargon“ (backstreet slang) in a political debate while criticizing another politician who expressed herself in an inappropriated way. „Our group did their bit on the society. That is beautiful. Whether it is important or not. It is there, it has happenend and that makes us proud.“
„We had a lot of James Bond moments in our life“
Celo & Abdi like other street rappers in Germany are criticized for glorifying violence and for romanticized street life. „Everything can be romanticized“ is a weak answer by Celo. But he admits that he makes a lot of efforts to stay away from bad habits of the hood. „When a rapper tells me that he makes music to stay on the street, he lies. You make music, to get on, to get away, to get away from problems.“ Of course, they kept their old friends. „But I do not have to put myself on the street corner to sell packages of hash, in order to prove myself.“ Celo adds. Their lines are based on stories which they went through. „When you have to run away from the police and to hide under trucks, in garbage cans, in front yards …“ Abdi says and Celo continues „… than you feel like you are in a movie. We had a lot of James Bond moments in our life“
„I listen to my heart. I make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. When I fall, I stand up again. What else do I need?“
It is their down-to-earth habitus that they do not want to give up. „I have my mother, I have my father. I am fine. What else do I need? I listen to my heart. I make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. When I fall, I stand up again. What else do I need?“
Influenced by French rap music, the sound of their music is often melancholic or stimulating. „We like it“, Celo says.
When Abdi called the leggings of the female German hiphop journalist VisaVie „saftig“ (juicy) and made it clear that he considers her leggings sexy (during an interview) -for them and Visa Vie a joke – a debate within the German hiphop media community has launched. Since than female music journalists received a lot of sexist comments with the word „juice“ or „juicy“. Although they are becoming more and more aware about what sexism means, how it functions and how hard it hurts, it is still an issue for them they cannot abandon easily from it. Sexist ideas and notions such as „Hurentochter“ (daughter of a whore) and „Fürsorgegen“ (gene for taking care of others) of women belong to the basic ideas of the biggest part of their social world. Celo & Abdi do not only belong to the male-dominated hiphop community where sexism is an everyday business. They are not only influenced by their traditional and patriarchal social environment in which they grew up. The rap artists are also challenged by those questions from mainstream media. They do not build a wall and stay in a comfort zone where they earn money, sell tracks due to the motto „sex(ism) sells“ and feel great and brave as „men“. They try to understand what it means to be a woman and to be faced with those offending comments. „Okay, as a Turkish girl you are more fucked up than a German girl while growing up“ Celo was commenting on the question whether being an adult in a migrant community in the German culture is more mischievous than being an adult as German with German roots.
The values that had an influence on Celo & Abdi were those from their religion. „With my faith I have learnt certain values, being human, being helpful.“, Celo says. But not only. For Abdi, German values are as important as those of their religion and culture. „German values such as punctuality together with those of our parents have formed us.“
The question of belonging and Heimat (homeland) together with the migration story has always accompanied their music. „To the question whether I am German, I can only say that I am gladly in Germany“ – this is Abid´s line in „Diaspora“ that was awarded as the „Line of the Year“ by hiphop.de. „Nador is the home of my father, but since I have been always welcomed there with open arms, I have recognized it as my home.“ For Celo home is where you feel good.
Are there any moments, in which you feel excluded? Abdi: Yes, when everybody around me was at home, but I wasn´t home for three days. When everybody comes fresh from home and I come from anywhere (laughing) … then I feel excluded. When my friends ask me „Have you also had a great breakfast, have you watched cartoons, then I feel excluded.“
But we are talking not about 15 years ago? Abdi: I am talking of few days ago. Watching cartoons? Abdi: Yes, watching cartoons. Of course. Celo: Do you see us as cartoon characters? Abdi: No, no, she says, watching cartoons means escaping from reality.“ Celo: Mhhm.
When talking about their concert in the internationally renowned exhibition hall „Schirn“ in Frankfurt, Celo & Abdi were swarming about that night. „Schirn was baba (in Turkish: father; German slang for something huge in a positive way)“ Abdi told us. „It was one of our best concerts. Our friends, my brother, all of them were there. Everything was perfect.“ They feel honoured when people around them, friends or fans sincerely like their music. The biggest recognition, for Celo, is when „people who have studied, academics and journalists are dealing with me. When people who have studied, listen to me.“
Celo was a student, too. He tried to study but then gave up, jobbed in the callcenter that changed his life. Both of them tried to get to the Gymnasium (advanced secondary school in particular preparing students to enter university) and their parents convinced successfully their teachers to qualify them for it. Celo & Abdi learnt French as their first foreign language and struggled at school. Both of them could not fulfill the high expectations. Celo could get Fachabitur (qualification college), Abdi could at least manage to sell drugs at his vocational school.
What expectations did their parents have towards them? „They parents want me to become what I want and they want more for me than they want for themselves.“, Abdi says. „Well, my father did not immigrated to Germany, so his son can become a rapper.“ Celo says and laughs.
Is there anything what your parents tell you to do or not do do? Abdi: Come home, where have you been, do not spend all of your money, what is about this receipt? Why do you sleep in hotels?
Do not sleep in hotels, do not spend all your money, bring less receipts home, save your money, think about your future, do you have a pension insurance? These kind of things.“
Celo & Abdi do not refuse to have certain roles such as a streetworker, a street psychologist, being integration ambassador who mediate between the worlds of migrant communities and those of the dominant culture. They use rap music to deal with their experiences and observations. Not only what happened to them, but to their friends, to people in their surrounding. „That affects us deeply.“
Although their music is political – more than the music of other German rappers – they tend to be leftists. „But“, Celo rejects „like it is said in Star Wars: As Celo & Abdi we have never had the luxury of political opinions.“
Nevertheless they are observe their social and political environment and they do social criticism. Not in an intellectual but smart way. Not friendly but unsparingly. In their song „A.C.A.B“ of their first mix tape „Mietwagentape“ they say „No, because you hate other cultures. That is the reason why we remain among our own anyway“
We do what we do. We are who we are
They drink often their coffee at Café Ecke Konsti, a mix of an American whiskey bar and a oriental men´s coffee house. And we meet there, too. As passionate football fans Celo & Abdi are watching the African Cup, Morocco against Nigeria. With every goal for Morroco, Abdi cheers to his other homeland while Celo is taking a Instagram story about the football game.
They had a lot of Oprah-moments. When Abdi brought his Cartier sunglasses to the Cartier Store in Frankfurt to replace its glasses, one staff assumed that his sunglasses was fake. Another staff member checked the number in the system and told them that it was a vintage sunglasses of the 80s. That is why Celo & Abdi tend to spend their time in areas in which they do not feel discriminated. They do not only blame Germans with German roots, they can feel not being respected by anybody „who sits in a café in Fressgass and thinks that his father owns the street. Although the street belongs to Germany.“, Abdi complains.
Music is not their salvation, but Celo & Abdi´s way to express their creativity, their thoughts. Music is their calling, their destiny – not less than an artist who was born in the upscale district Westend and who studied at Städel. „Our art college was the street.“ Celo once said.
To criticize the system and the use of a certain language was the main base for rap music. „We want to criticize the system in our slang. We want others to understand street life, our world view, our language. That is Celo & Abdi. That is our essence. Packed with sympathy. That is why people likes us, because we do not play-act. We do what we do. We are who we are.“
Celo & Abdi are on their Germany tour. Here you can check their concert dates.
They say that Salafism is the new youth culture for Muslims in Germany. That was not always the case.
When we were really young we only wanted one thing: to be free. We loved our Turkish, Arab, or Kurdish culture, our Islamic, Alevi, our Maghreb, Afghan and Anatolian traditions – but we wanted to express them on our own terms – as they are in a modern society.
Every summer we wanted to go to swimming pools; we wanted to go to clubs that, at 16, we were not actually allowed to go to; we wanted to go to the cinema with boys or girls; we wanted to be able to call our crush; we wanted to have a real relationship, and introduce him or her to our parents at home – just like our German friends did. We wanted to be young, we wanted to be free.
Since we had strict parents, regardless of whether we were Alevi, Sunni, Arabic, or Kurdish, we – especially girls – had to hide much of our lives. And that was not easy. When we were heartbroken we locked ourselves up in our rooms and we could not talk to our parents about it.
We never missed out on love, but we often missed out on freedom.
We looked for ways to get out of the house in the evenings – we begged our parents for every hour that we spent away from home. We did not want to give in; we wanted to break through the prevailing social norms.
In the days before mobile phones, the guys always had coins in their hands to call us on our home phone, in the hope that we would pick up and they would hear our voices, and not one of our parents. We wrote love letters and painstakingly hid them at home.
We girls thought about what it would be like if we were lesbian – without our parents noticing it. We could have spent as much time with our long-term girlfriend as we wanted – she could hang out at our house, go on holiday with us and we could even move in together after finishing school.
We spent a lot of time dreaming. We also dreamt about what life would be like for the next generations. We often asked ourselves whether they would have more freedom than us. We hoped so. We hoped that we could be as free as our “German” friends – so free that we could hold hands in the street, without worrying that an uncle or one of our father’s friends would catch us. We just wanted to be young.
And we fought for it.
We were constantly branded “foreigners”, the distinctions were clear. What was possible for the Germans was not possible for us. We never rejected their values. We were just annoyed that the Germans did so little with their freedom. We would have done more with it.
Then some of us noticed that there was no ray of hope, that they were simply punished if they broke the prevailing social norms of the Muslim communities. As the most beautiful, most self-assured and coolest Moroccan girls got married at the age of 16, when the freedom-loving and rebellious girlfriend had to marry her cousin after graduating from school and subsequently took her own life, as only a few managed to have an autonomous, free and open life – without cutting off your parents, or being a “bad Muslim” or “dishonourable”. That was when you started to conform. Conform to the expectations of your parents. And your youth was over.
In the end the boundaries became blurred
Whilst our parents, our aunts and uncles had been socialized in Turkey, Morocco, Afghanistan and Algeria, and always felt strongly connected to their homeland, their traditions and norms – this was no longer the natural course for us. We were born in this country, but for us – it was like this for everyone, even for “the Germans” – different rules applied, and there were different expectations. We were overwhelmed; not only with homework and visits from our loving relatives, not only with the summer holidays in our Middle Eastern homelands where we were also stigmatized and harassed, but also with helping our parents with translations with German authorities – but also something more, we were overwhelmed with explaining, justifying and excusing ourselves.
We had to constantly apologize for who we were and what we wanted to be.
This injustice hurt the most. In our hearts, we felt a twinge every time we realized the limits which came too close to our dreams. We lived in fear. Fear of being caught. Fear of being punished. Fear of what reproaches we would be confronted with this time. We just wanted to be young. We wanted to be free. “We foreigners” stuck together, we showed solidarity when our bourgeois classmates failed. We had created our own world. We became friends because of our cultural identity, because we had our own different cultures – starting at school, where we came into contact with the German middle class and so did not have much to do with our cosmopolitan and transnational identity. And it was not our religion which was our identity. It was our common goal, our pursuit of freedom, of acceptance, of recognition. From our own community as well as from the German world. And when our teacher asked us what jobs our grandfathers had, we three “Turks” were the only ones whose grandparents had not even finished school. But we realized that it did not bother us. It turned out that not only in maths and physics, but also in ethics, history and German, our grades were much better than those whose grandfathers had been doctors or teachers.
We were newcomers. We had no idea what price we had to pay for that.
We listened to Hip Hop, we loved Pharrel Williams – long before the middle-class students did. We mourned for Tupac and Aaliyah. We knew American slang and so we chose to study advanced English. That was our youth. We had very few role models in the German media or in the public eye to show us a way to reconcile the expectations of our parents and our community with the expectations of society. We did not feel like victims, but we were marginalized and at some point this made us into victims.
We never got to grips with Islam or the Koran – like perhaps our parents did. We fasted during Ramadan and celebrated the religious festivals. With a really bad conscience we took time off school – since our parents did not want us to miss school for Eid. They did not want us to be primarily religious – but always practising.
We always waited for the summer: the guys had been working out, the girls had been dieting because we knew we’d meet at the pool in bikinis and swimwear. And if we managed to, we wanted to graduate from school, we wanted to study, we wanted to get out into the world. That was our world. And we hoped that the next generation would lead lives which were even more open, free, and modern. That the next generation would break down social norms. That they did not have to become “German”, but could become freer. “That they would be allowed to do more.”
To be allowed – that was one of the phrases we used most regularly.
We did not just want to consume a modern lifestyle, with our Reebok shoes, Nokia phones and Nike trousers. We wanted all the other things which went alongside. We tried to imitate Jennifer Lopez. Her style, her hair – her world from “Jenny From the Block” could become our world. And while Lil Jon and Ludacris were rapping “Move Bitch” on the car radio we smiled gratefully that our parents could not understand English.
The names of our male friends were stored in our mobile phones as German women’s names: Tarek became Tatjana. We were officially friends with Julians and Christophers, but we weren’t allowed to so much as look at a Milad or Cem. Our parents always trusted German boys more than the sons of their friends and acquaintances. We never talked about who was a “bad Muslim” – but we always talked about any acquaintance, cousin or friend who had “run away from home”. They just broke out and disappeared because they could no longer cope with the strict rules of their parents and brothers – and when our own parents saw this happening, they panicked. And they suffocated us even more with their love and their fear.
We did not want to be primarily Muslim. We wanted to be free. We wanted to be young. But we noticed that it was becoming difficult for society to accept us for who we were when our identities were so complex.
And we realized that our own community would find it difficult to tolerate the way we wanted to live – freely, openly, critically and autonomously.
We never wanted to live lives of conformity. But our struggle for freedom was not seen, recognized or rewarded. At some point they began to see us in categories. We had to fight these stereotypes. Years later I had to explain to people I had gone to school with for years why I don’t attend a mosque, why I don’t wear a headscarf.
We had to explain what we thought about 9/11. We were labelled as Germans, although we felt that we were not even accepted as foreigners. Neither by the Germans nor by the foreigners. We were dragged back and forth. Not between tradition and modernity – because we had already decided on modernity – but between the different labels that were given to us.
From now on we would be German Muslims. We had a migrant background. We had to be understood. We had to be tolerated. Almost no one asked us who or what we wanted to be. We just wanted to be young. We wanted to be free.
– Translation Myfanwy Craigie