Written by: Aaron Sidhu
At first glance, ‘right-wing nationalist hip-hop’ appears to be an oxymoron. Forged in the ghettos of New York City during the late 1970’s, hip-hop quickly established itself as a genre of progressivity through its use as a tool of black expression against institutionalised African American oppression. Early pioneers and exporters of the genre (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run D.M.C, and Public Enemy – just to name a few) reiterated core, and oftentimes militant, messages of black nationalism as espoused through the likes of Elijah Mohammed, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X. This led the prominent cultural theorist Stuart Hall to describe hip-hop’s progenitors as ‘organic intellectuals’, teaching young and marginalised African Americans to be proud of their roots, thereby challenging defeatist, slavery-focused textbook narratives. Whilst hip-hop’s relationship with afro-centricity and black nationalism tapered as the genre became more commercialised, it nevertheless remains a powerful and popular method of articulation for African American concepts of resistance and emancipation.
It is therefore hard to imagine that such a genre could find attraction with far-right nationalists and white-supremacists. Yet in Poland, nationalist rap not only exists but is thriving. Music videos produced by artists such as Basti, Tadek, Bujak, and Toony frequently gain millions of views, with lyrics focusing on the importance of maintaining a homogenous national community, historical memories, the dangers of globalisation, and the crises of weakness plaguing modern liberal societies. How is this apparent contradiction between these artists’ ideologies and chosen medium of expression reconciled? Closer inspection finds that it is precisely because of hip hop’s origins as a means of articulating resistance, that far-right nationalists have been able to successfully nestle themselves within the Polish rap scene.
Hip Hop as a history lesson
The last decade has witnessed extensive debates take place surrounding Polish history. These debates centered around Poland’s struggle during the Second World War, especially with regards to the Warsaw Uprising and Polish behaviour during the Holocaust. Refuting claims of Polish compliance and participation in Nazi-led anti-Semite initiatives, nationalists instead present a narrative of Poland as an innocent and recurrently targeted victim of expansion – first by the Nazi’s and Soviet’s, and now again by Russian influence, European liberalism, and immigrants. The core relationship between nationalism and hip hop lies in the latter’s origins in providing an easily digestible means of packaging historical narratives, and subsequently delivering them to youth audiences as essential ‘street knowledge’. History is almost always at the centre of nationalist modalities. Hip-hop thereby provides a powerful means for Poland’s far right nationalists to ‘educate’ the youth, aiding the construction of collective memory – a key marker in fueling nationalist identities – for a new generation. Below is an excerpt from the song ‘Bloody August’ – a reference to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising – by the nationalist rapper Basti:
Treating the lives of Varsovians like a game of chess
That is how easily the West sold us out…
…Youth arise – break free from your chains,
The song is explicit in its linkage between the failed uprising of 1944, and the need for the contemporary youth to strengthen themselves in order to restore national glory. The ‘betrayal’ by the allies teaches Basti’s, primarily rural, youth audience that the Polish can only trust themselves – a common theme found within anti-globalist and anti-EU rhetoric. In addition, the imperative of survival indicates the nation is once again under siege, further legitimising the importance of protecting national identity through following nationalist doctrines. Importantly, this narrative is presented by Polish nationalist rappers as a grassroots expression of anti-establishmentarianism, much in the same way that early African American hip-hop was, thus serving as a means of allowing nationalists to justify their participation within this specific genre.
An artificially constructed counterculture
In contrast to the organic grassroots origins of African American hip-hop, whose messages of black empowerment were a primary target for censorship during the conservative revolution of the 1980’s, Poland’s nationalist rap scene is hardly anti-establishment insofar as their beliefs are directly supported by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government. Indeed, following major sales declines of Polish hip-hop during the mid-2000’s, the current mainstream nature of Polish nationalist rap owes much to the support of right-wing media enterprises and cultural policy institutions. Realising the power of the medium in appealing to youth voters, these institutions began to sponsor artists and songs which conveyed a specific version of Polish historical memory. Such efforts reached their pinnacle when Tadek, a nationalist rapper who frequently refers to himself as a ‘rebel patriot’ seeking to expose the liars distorting Polish history, was requested to perform at the Presidential Palace for the 2017 National Day for the Polish Language showcase – a day of remembrance for Poland’s greatest writers.
This contradiction between messages of underground opposition, and grandiose state-sponsored performances highlights the fallacy at the heart of Poland’s nationalistic rap scene. ‘Patriot rap’ – as it is referred to in Polish right-wing media circles – is simply an articulation of the dominant governing ideology, repackaged as a supposedly organic form of bottom-up resistance. Drawing from hip-hop’s tradition as a vocalisation against oppression and powerlessness, patriot rap has allowed nationalists to control the narrative from multiple angles. In this regard, far-right nationalists can assert themselves as both the marginalised and oppressed subject (Basti’s hip-hop label ‘Persona Non Grata’ and Tadek’s self-proclamation as a lone rebel serve as two immediate examples) as well as the powerful guardian of the nation – represented through an increasingly authoritarian PiS government. By propelling patriot rap to the mainstream, the PiS has greatly extended the appeal of their ideology to the youth generation, who become aware of its core ideology long before they are able to formally interact with the political system. In maintaining their anti-establishment image, patriot rappers have been able to cultivate a hardcore base of support, especially amongst the rural youth hit hardest by neoliberal economic policies, who believe themselves to be an exclusive group of insiders to the real truth behind their marginalization.
Hip hop has provided a useful, albeit unexpected, vehicle for right-wing nationalism to spread amongst the contemporary Polish youth. Through framing itself as a form of opposition to a fallacious mainstream power structure, far-right patriot rappers have been able to manoeuvre themselves within a form of medium traditionally reserved for messages of progressivity and equality. The perpetuation of a ‘nationalist-as-victim’ mentality, legitimised by state-sponsored revisionist narratives, has allowed artists to cultivate a new national memory; one which has found specific attraction with the country’s economically marginalised rural youth. Ironically, it is the extensive portrayal of this message as a form of anti-establishment street knowledge which has furthered the legitimacy, reach, and appeal of the dominant right-wing governing ideology at the heart of Poland’s political institutions. The case of Polish patriot rap therefore serves as a striking example of the ability of nationalists to craftily fuse their ideologies into a variety of mediums and forms– even those in which it may at first seem completely incompatible with.
Featured image by Angie Schwendemann (CC BY-SA 2.0)