How a Controversial Rap Duo Won Germany's Top Music Prize, Sparking a National Debate Over Anti-Semitism in Hip-Hop

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Farid Bang and Kollegah perform on stage during the Echo Award show at Messe Berlin on April 12, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.

Kollegah and Farid Bang's ECHO win comes at a time of rising concern about anti-Semitism in Germany, especially among the country's growing number of immigrants.

And you thought this years Grammy Awards were controversial?

The ECHO Deutscher Muskikpreis, the German equivalent of the Grammys, made headlines worldwide this week after the award for best hip-hop/urban album went to rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang, who faced criticism and allegations of anti-Semitism over a lyric about Auschwitz. Even German Justice Minister Heiko Maas weighed in, telling Der Spiegel that "Antisemitic provocations do not deserve a prize; they are repugnant."

So far, the German recording business association that runs the ECHO awards has apologized. And BMG, which distributes the album, has said it will no longer work with the duo -- nor, Billboard has learned, release a box set of the project due in June. The company also made a €100,000 donation to fight anti-Semitism in German schools. 

As a front-page The New York Times story makes clear, Kollegah and Farid Bang's ECHO win comes at a time of rising concern about anti-Semitism in Germany, especially among the country's growing number of immigrants. The intensity of the outcry against the rappers win may ultimately say less about their music than about widespread worry over the erosion of one of postwar Germany's core values. 

Like the Grammys earlier this year, the ECHO awards are being blamed for a choice -- and the perceived politics behind it -- that has less to do with the organization that runs the ceremony than the process used to pick the winners. In most categories, including best hip-hop/urban album, ECHO nominees automatically consist of the five best-selling albums in a given genre. A jury of about 50 critics and former honorees then votes to select a winner. In this case, they picked Kollegah and Farid Bang's Jung Brutal Gutaussehend 3 [Young, brutal, and good-looking]. The lyric that caused the most controversy -- "My body is more defined than those of Auschwitz inmates" -- is only on a deluxe edition of the duo's album and the song was not performed at the ECHO ceremony.

Although the ECHO organizers do not play any role in determining who wins, they now plan to change the nomination process. "We acknowledge responsibility and we said in a statement that we stood up for cultural freedom in the wrong place," Florian Drücke, chief executive of the BVMI, the German recording business organization that runs the ECHO awards, tells Billboard. "We will reform the ECHO completely."

BMG, which distributed Jung Brutal Gutaussehend 3, has also come under fire. Initially, the company seemed to stand by the rappers, issuing a statement that "we take artists and artistic freedom seriously," while condemning anti-Semitism and making the donation to fight it. In the last several days, however, the company decided not to release the box set of the album, even though it had the rights to do so. The rights will presumably revert to the rappers themselves.

BMG is a division of the German media giant Bertelsmann -- it also owns Random House and the television company RTL -- which is sensitive about these issues, since it made money during World War II by printing Nazi propaganda and has since made extensive and widely acclaimed efforts to deal with its past. In a statement to the German Press Agency, the company said that "Bertelsmann distances himself from any form of Anti-Semitism and discrimination."

Given the corporate culture at Bertelsmann, it's reasonable to wonder whether top executives at BMG even heard the controversial lyrics, especially since they were on the second disc of a box set that wouldn't be available on streaming services. "Anyone who knows Hartwig [Masuch, BMG CEO] knows he wouldn't approve of this," a German music business source told Billboard.

This isn't the first time the ECHO organization has had problems with nominees' politics. Years ago, after a nomination for best national rock/alternative group went to the band Frei.Wild, which is perceived by some to advocate extreme right-wing views, the ECHO awards organization set up an independent group that could eliminate acts from consideration that were racist or anti-Semitic. After some discussion, however, that group approved Kollegah and Farid Bang's album for award consideration.

"We saw the need for an independent body to consider the boundaries of freedom of expression so we created one, with people from various cultural institutions," says Drücke. "When Kollegah and Farid Bang were nominated, we called the committee, the majority decision was to leave them in, and we respected this decision." That part of the process will presumably change.

Some music executives believed that Kollegah and Farid Bang would apologize for some of their lyrics at the ECHO ceremony, since Farid Bang apologized to the Auschwitz survivor Esther Bejarano on Facebook earlier in the month. The rappers have said they aren't anti-Semitic and have invited Jewish people to attend their concerts for free. (A representative for the duo did not respond to a request for comment.) 

Before Kollegah and Farid Bang went onstage, however, they were condemned in an acceptance speech by Campino, the singer for the German punk band Die Toten Hosen. "It crosses the line of acceptability when lyrics include misogynistic, homophobic, right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic insults," said Campino, who declined to accept the award he won. Coming from the iconic singer of a veteran punk band known for its political conscience, this message received a standing ovation. But it also may have made Kollegah and Farid Bang believe they had to stand up for themselves against the music business establishment. "I do not want to make a political debate out of it here," Kollegah said. 

The debate that has taken place has been frustratingly inconclusive. Kollegah and Farid Bang's line about Auschwitz is offensive to any reasonable person, even by the standards of hip-hop. But in the context of the group's lyrics -- which mostly consist of put-downs of rival rappers -- it's clear that it's not intended as an attack on Jews so much as on good taste itself. One of the next lines is a fat joke about another rapper.

But this controversy isn't just about one line. The album also includes another troubling lyric -- "I'm doing another Holocaust, coming with a Molotov" -- and Kollegah's video for the song "Apokalypse" [Apocalypse] includes a sinister depiction of a man with a Star of David ring. (That song is on another album, which was not released by BMG.) That's harder to fit into a headline, but also arguably more serious.

A new documentary, The Dark Side of German Rap, covers a troubling trend of anti-Semitism within the genre. Complicating matters, many hip-hop artists have roots in Middle Eastern countries where negative stereotypes of Jews are common. German politicians worried about anti-Semitism can find a convenient scapegoat in rappers, but criticizing them isn't likely to solve what seems to be becoming a significant problem.

SpongeBOZZ, a Jewish rapper from Germany with his own over-the-top lyrics, told the German Press Agency that Kollegah and Farid Bang's line about Auschwitz was "tasteless -- but not anti-Semitic." Instead, he said, "I see an anti-Semitism problem in our society."