Ethnicity and migration, two central topics for studies of the Yugoslav region, have been and are intimately linked to race. Just as ethnicity has been more central than race in south-east European studies, certain migrations have been more central than others, which tell the history of majoritarian ethnicity but are integral to understanding the place of 'race'. Indeed, even the ethnopolitical violence responsible for forced migrations within and away from the region has often involved translating ethnicity and nationhood through 'race' to more effectively dehumanise the subjects of violence and harden the symbolic boundaries of ethnic difference to their extreme. The Great War is a part of the history of race and the Yugoslav region as the theme on which the explicit discussions of race in the region have turned. The racialisation of ethnonational and religious boundaries facilitated genocidal expressions of Serb and Croat ethnonationalism during the Second World War.
This book began its Introduction, and begins its chapter structure, not in the mainstream of international affairs (the politics of state socialist Non-Alignment, or postsocialist European border control) but with what might seem a more distant topic: popular music. It does so because the everyday structures of feeling perceptible through popular music are a readily observable sign that ideas of race are part of identity-making in the Yugoslav region; proving this point opens the way to revisiting other open questions in the study of the region through the lens of ‘race’. Both the transnational histories of popular music's globalised production and circulation, and the narratives and fantasies of identity revealed in its audiovisual and embodied dimensions, are encounters with and often reconstructions of global formations of race, where musicians, media workers and listeners–viewers respond to music from outside the region and participate in musical cultures grounded inside it. It is integral within what Gloria Wekker (2016: 2), showing how to study race and whiteness in societies where prevailing identity narratives position the nation ‘outside’ race, calls the ‘cultural archive’: the often everyday and ephemeral, but no less significant, sites that make explicit how deeply race has permeated constructions of individual and collective identity.
The cultural archive, alongside ‘innocence’ (neither knowing nor wanting to know about racism) and ‘white Dutch self-representation’ (in which the national self belongs to Europe while national Others do not and cannot), is one of Wekker's three central concepts in White Innocence, which builds on Said's reference to imperial fiction and poetry as a cultural archive via Ann Stoler's sense of the archive as a ‘repository of memory’ (Stoler 2009: 49 in Wekker 2016: 19) for everyday legacies of imperial rule in postcolonial metropoles. It is
located in many things, in the way we think, do things, and look at the world, in what we find (sexually) attractive, in how our affective and rational economies are organized and intertwined. Most important, it is between our ears and in our hearts and souls.
(Wekker 2016: 19)
Popular music is just such a repository; moreover, across south-east Europe ideas of ‘popular music’ are very often given meaning by relating them (by claims of continuity or performative distance) to folk traditions. South-east European folk music, in turn, has long been a symbolic resource in constructing collective cultural identities by ascribing or denying ‘modernity’ and ‘Europeanness’ to certain territorial–demographic spaces but not others (those ‘non-European’ ones are ascribed to ‘the Balkans’). This characteristic of ethnonational and socio-economic identity-making in south-east Europe reveals both the music and the discourses as part of a common post-Ottoman space (Buchanan (ed.) 2007). The break-up of Yugoslavia, meanwhile, enmeshed popular music in the same political processes of ethnic separation and marginalisation of social alternatives that operated throughout post-Yugoslav public spheres (Čolović 1994; Pettan (ed.) 1998b; Gordy 1999). The powerful interventions in everyday public consciousness necessary to normalise the primacy of ethnic identity and polarisation against national Others placed popular entertainment, including music, in a continuum with phenomena more conventionally thought of as ‘political’ (Baker 2010), where one might often look for evidence about nationalism and race.
Wekker's search for the affective legacies of racialised colonial imagination in the ‘cultural archive’ reinforces Anikó Imre's argument that scholars of European media ought to apply the lens of east European postcoloniality to everyday popular culture as well as highbrow literature and cinema (Imre 2014). Indeed, south-east European studies uses the critique of balkanism to discern a common politics of representation and exotification – with many incentives for creators to internalise exoticising Western gazes on their region – affecting music, cinema and literature alike (Iordanova 2001; Baker 2008; Volčič 2013).1 More than just a parallel to what Stuart Hall termed the ‘spectacle of the “Other” ’ (Hall 1997) driving the construction of racial difference since imperial consumer and visual cultures were born, gazes that partition the globe into national cultures and expect essentialised representations of identity from each (but the most tradition-bound zones most of all) originate from the same fin-de-siècle international expositions (Bolin 2006) at which white Europeans as gazing audiences could form first-hand stereotypes of Africans and indigenous peoples (Pieterse 1992: 94–7; Blanchard, Boëtsch and Jacomijn Snoep 2011; Novikova 2013). The conclusion is more complex than saying the stereotypes the West projects on to eastern Europe racialise eastern Europeans as non-white, though in certain contexts they may (Longinović 2011; Fox, Moroşanu and Szilassy 2012); it also raises the uncomfortable, silenced, necessary question of what else eastern Europeans, identifying with ‘Europe’ and modernity, might be identifying with.
Popular music itself, meanwhile, belongs to a history of globalisation structured by the routes and legacies of colonialism and Atlantic slavery (Gilroy 1993; Erlmann 1999; Radano and Bohlman (eds) 2000; Weheliye 2005; Lipsitz 2007; Denning 2015). Gilroy's ‘black Atlantic’ as a transnational cultural space of struggle, communication, memory-work, history-making and political critique is constituted by soul, reggae, Afrobeat and hip-hop musicians as well as the poets, novelists and scholars who have expressed written black thought (Gilroy 1993). Their music takes its sonic and embodied forms because of the movements of people, capital, technologies and sounds that resulted from European colonialism, Africans' enslavement and what this violence left behind (Weheliye 2005). Simultaneously, it is part of a global consumer culture that commercialises racialised gazes and desires into exotica (Gilroy 2000) and of the complex global imagination of ‘America’: indeed, African-American music and musicians were important for US cultural diplomacy during the Cold War (Von Eschen 2006), towards Non-Aligned Yugoslavia (Vučetić 2012) as well as the USSR. Sounds, songs, stars and genres deeply embedded in US racial politics, from jazz to Michael Jackson through Motown, were also cultural artefacts that entered Yugoslavia as symbols of Americanness, coolness and hipness, feeding into how vocalists, musicians and producers thought performers should sound and move; while black diasporic musics from Jamaica and Nigeria, from Britain and France and Germany, were also part of Yugoslav popular music cultures for at least some listeners, via multilateral and Non-Aligned routes of musical circulation as well as historic western European cultural entrepots.
Anglo-American popular music's influence on the Yugoslav region or anywhere else is not – as studies of global hip-hop, especially, emphasise (Mitchell (ed.) 2001; Alim, Ibrahim and Pennycook (eds) 2008) – one-way cultural homogenisation or ‘Americanisation’. Rather, it is an active vernacularisation or ‘cultural translation’ (Stokes 2003: 298) interpreting the sound, style and content of foreign popular music through the lenses of existing local identity narratives (such as the modernity–Europe–West/tradition–Balkan–East narrative) and combining foreign musical elements with musical practices understood as belonging to a collective (national, urban, regional, ethnic) self. Foreign frames of reference for popular music in this region have included Anglo-American music, Italian and German light-entertainment traditions (peaking in the 1950s–70s), northern European pop–dance–rap (late 1980s–present) and music from the wider post-Ottoman space (Rasmussen 2002). For instance, one pan-south-east European genre with different national inflections, ‘pop-folk’, combines post-Ottoman elements of musical meaning and practice (such as vocal styles; instruments; rhythms; melody; lyrical devices), which themselves bridge ethno-linguistic boundaries and the greater symbolic boundary between ‘Europe’ and ‘the Middle East’, with elements from the Anglosphere and larger European centres of musical production (electric guitars; synthesisers; drum machines; hip-hop beats; rap; electronic dance music), in resonance and tension with ideologies of national and ethnic cultural identity (Buchanan (ed.) 2007; Samson 2013).
While ethnomusicologists of south-east Europe pay important attention – more than many other disciplines – to the politics of Romani identity and representation (Imre 2008; Pettan 2010; Silverman 2012), even they still rarely consider the racial politics of popular music in a transnational sense, or how expressions and signifiers of those politics are translated, recognised and reappropriated (or not) as music circulates. Every musical genre connected to the Anglosphere, however, exists within the Black Atlantic's racial formations – whether inherently and symbolically connected to black struggle, like hip-hop and soul; whether implicitly defined through whiteness, like country, metal or rock; or whether they have been racialised in changing ways as they gained popularity, as occurred in the history of rhythm-and-blues or rock'n'roll. The transnational circulation of popular music and its translation into local musical cultures, therefore, inherently bring ‘a politics of race and power’ (Gilroy 1993: 103) – acknowledged or not – as part of what musicians and listeners hear, see, interpret and transform. Popular music does not just reflect ‘race in translation’ (Stam and Shohat 2012); it is race in translation. Some of these translations exemplify as racialised a European colonial imagination as anything from Britain, France, the Netherlands or Germany; yet others have situated the region's national identities in genuine solidarity with the subjects of colonial oppression and the marginalisation of blackness. The puzzle of how the same collective identities could lend themselves to both positions is the subject of this book.
Translations of Black European dance music: national and racialised bodies
The most unambiguous identification of nationhood with Europeanness through an explicitly racialised geopolitical imagination in the region's popular music is perhaps the very musical movement with which this book began: Croatia's mid-1990s translation of ‘Eurodance’ music (a Dutch–German–Nordic format) into ‘Cro-dance’. Cro-dance combined sung vocals in Croatian, and English-language rap, with adaptations of the sound and style of Eurodance acts like Dr Alban and 2 Unlimited, who were very often black Europeans. Cro-dance producers explicitly named the Western, modern identity they ascribed their music as evidence that Croats had a completely different cultural mentality from the Yugoslav state they had left (Baker 2013: 318). Cro-dance differed from Eurodance as an audiovisual spectacle both in its linguistic translation and the whiteness, rather than blackness, of its performers. Media presented Cro-dance acts as from a white, Croat ethnic background even if performers were Bosniak and/or Romani (which would have positioned them outside the nation in post-Yugoslav Croatian identities' hierarchical symbolic geography). Blackness as a signifier was nevertheless part of Cro-dance's symbolic language: in performances of African-American street style through dress, simulations of African-American Vernacular English in rap, and most visibly when directors placed black dancers alongside the white musicians in some videos that gave the genre an audiovisual identity.
One 1996 video featuring two Cro-dance singers who established longer pop careers than most, Nina Badrić and Emilija Kokić, for their song ‘Ja sam vlak’ (‘I am a train’2), for instance, used graffiti-covered concrete urban sites to evoke the inner-city landscapes (racialised as African-American) of US hip-hop photography and video, and featured the two women flirting with a multiracial trio of shirtless men.3 The central dancer was a black model who was a minor celebrity in mid-1990s Zagreb, whose one moment of agency was to contribute the (English) words ‘Move it, move it, move it’ to the soundtrack. Explaining why a mid-1990s Croatian director or viewer considered this an attractive and sexy way to direct a black male dancer goes back, through critical race theory, to the objectification and sexualisation of black male bodies through which, Fanon (1986 ) argued, colonialism had removed black men's agency as political subjects.4
Cro-dance's sonic and visual presentation evoked blackness through ‘African-American’ urban space and fashion blended with images of a tribal, primitive and rhythmically ecstatic Africa. Ivana Banfić's first major hit, ‘Šumica’ (‘Little forest’), in 1994, added exoticism with stamping and chanting sounds (repeating the invented word ‘mumbayao’) to its lyrics about swimming naked off what was probably (with red wine and olives) the Croatian coast.5 Her ‘Šumica 2’, in 1995, repeated the formula with a faster beat.6 Both songs' videos connoted primitivism through dancers shaking raised palms and performers wearing fluorescent costumes and body paint, blurring mid-1990s European rave aesthetics with evocations of a ritualistic, sexualised Africa on which rave's own ‘tribal’ and ‘shamanistic’ imaginaries (Hutson 1999) already played.7
‘Afrika’ itself was the title of a 1995 hit (voted ‘Hit of the Year’ and ‘Best Arrangement’ in Croatia's annual music awards) by Dino Dvornik, a Split-born funk musician crossing over into commercial dance. Croatian critics before and after his early death in 2008 regarded Dvornik as Croatian dance's most accomplished musician and as epitomising the irrepressible spirit Croatian place-myths commonly ascribe his home city. The song, in Split dialect, identified first its character, then ‘the whole world’ and ‘the whole of Split’, with love of Africa and its ‘madman's rhythm’.8 Its video's psychedelic computer graphics (again matching mid-1990s European rave culture) incorporated bongos, zebras, globes, African tricolours and a photograph of a black porter beside a white man in safari clothing, while Dvornik himself briefly appeared both in a pith-helmet (the white explorer's iconic headwear) and dancing with abstract paint-like patterns projected on his body – making shifting identifications with coloniser and colonised via ‘Africa’.9 Dijana Jelača (2014: 254) argues that such identifications should be seen ‘not [as] a mere literal translation’ of masculinity and whiteness into Yugoslav society but through the lens of local social issues at the time of reception. In Split, these included the whole country's difficult economic conditions at war's end, their acuteness in Split (a large port and naval base which had been on the front line) and the sense of lost future (often alleviated by heavy drug use) many young people felt in Split (Lalić 2003).10
In Serbia, meanwhile, mid-1990s ‘turbo folk’ also updated 1960s–80s practices of incorporating fashionable or newly possible sounds, instruments, rhythms and styles into Yugoslav ‘newly-composed folk music’ (see Rasmussen 2002) by adapting arrangements, style and movement from Eurodance and transatlantic commercial hip-hop. Serbian anti-nationalists and feminists criticised turbo folk for celebrating patriarchal masculinities and organised crime when paramilitaries and gangsters formed Milošević's social elite (Gordy 1999; Kronja 2001). The 1994 song later canonised as the beginning of turbo folk, Ivan Gavrilović's ‘200 na sat’ (200 km/h), adapted ‘No Limit’ by the Dutch group 2 Unlimited, sonically localising ‘Eurodance’ into Serbian pop-folk by adding a traditional accordion break to the already familiar techno phrase.11 These Serbian and Croatian movements were contemporaneous with many other global popular music cultures adapting hip-hop, rave and techno aesthetics, sounds and signifying practices into local settings, sometimes with outcomes that would be adapted elsewhere. These cultural translations, in the Yugoslav region as in globalised popular music around the world, were also translations of ‘race’ – but coexisted with other practices with direct colonial origins.
Blackface performance and the colonial imaginary
The most unambiguous examples of colonial racialised imaginaries in post-Yugoslav entertainment – even more so than Cro-dance's tribalism and primitivism – were occasional blackface performances on music television. Blackface, as a ‘grotesque stereotyping and appropriation’ by white entertainers impersonating black characters, had lasting effects on American and European imaginations of blackness and the body (Gubar 1997: xiv–xv; see also Lott 1993; Rogin 1998). In the Netherlands, indeed, its present-day persistence (in the traditional blackface carnival character, Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’)) is politically contentious, pitting Dutch people of colour and white anti-racists against white opponents contending the tradition is not racist (Wekker 2016).12 Its uncontested, though occasional, presence in post-Yugoslav musical entertainment suggests either the endurance or the postsocialist appropriation of a racialised colonial imagination already pervading the German-speaking cultural area by the fin-de-siècle (Wipplinger 2011). In at least one case, however, it seemed intended as commentary on the region's post-Yugoslav geopolitical position rather than purely as spectacle – yet could not transcend the practice's colonial stereotypes.
The Serbian pop/hip-hop group Tap 011 were already well known when they played black/African bakers, in blackface, in the video for their 1995 song ‘Pekara’ (‘Bakery’). This satirical fantasy of abundance, with the bakers handing a dancing queue of white Belgrade citizens large loaves of bread, appeared during widespread shortages and hyperinflation caused by UN sanctions against Milošević. In this context, their costume, the men's faux ‘African’ accents and the jealousy of the band's two women (Ivana Pavlović and Goca Tržan) when two white, blonde women dressed as blue-helmeted UN medics flirt with the men, could have implied the municipal and national ‘we’ were being treated ‘like Africans’, and/or played on a racialised Othering of Albanian bakery proprietors that had escalated since mid-1980s Serbian media had started provoking alarm over Serb–Albanian relations in Kosovo.13 ‘Pekara’ the song had already revealed other global connectivities behind post-Yugoslav popular music, as an adaptation of Ini Kamoze's ‘Here Comes the Hotstepper’. This Jamaican reggae hit, sampling several US soul and rap songs then appearing on the soundtrack of Robert Altman's Pret A Porter in 1994, exemplified how popular music circulates around and through the Black Atlantic (Alleyne 1998: 76). Tap 011's video, however, was trapped between expressing resentment at global structural inequalities (exacerbated by Milošević's actions) and the caricature used to communicate it.
Other songs about a post-Yugoslav state's international standing detached the device of the caricatured ‘African’ voice from bodies. The Bosnian rock band Zabranjeno Pušenje began their 2006 song ‘Hag’ (‘The Hague’14) with heavy drums and chanting, then imagined a Rwandan man talking to the narrator in Zagreb about the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. Even without visual impersonation, this was what Daphne Brooks (2010: 41) terms ‘sonic’ impersonation of blackness. Like ‘Pekara’, it clearly commented on post-Yugoslavs' (this time Bosnians') place in international affairs – yet for listeners to parse these visual and sonic strategies still required a certain imagination of the racialised structure of international affairs and post-Yugoslavs' deserved place there. Other examples of blackface beyond geopolitical commentary, however, suggest less ambiguously that the Yugoslav region does exist within formations of racialised caricature as entertainment that originated in European colonialism – a connection it is easier to make after recognising that the fin-de-siècle spectacle of colonial exhibitions and human zoos extended beyond Germany to late-nineteenth-century Austria-Hungary, that is, the north of the Yugoslav region.
German encounters with blackface minstrelsy and African-American entertainers in turn-of-the-century variety theatre already suggest in German history that racialised difference was a symbolic boundary in German identity construction before Germans met black Allied soldiers during and after the First World War (Wipplinger 2011: 458). The German-speaking linguistic–cultural area, extending into the Habsburg lands and Switzerland, placed Habsburg cities too on the fairs' itineraries. More historical research tracing translations of blackface, representations of Africa(ns) and other racialised modes of representation (such as operatic orientalism) from the Germanophone cultural area through Vienna and Budapest into ‘South Slav’ Habsburg lands, within the transnational history of European colonialism, is overdue – since determining how deeply embedded such fantasies were in Habsburg cultural politics (the intellectual milieu where Slovenian and Croatian nationalisms, and some forms of Yugoslavism, developed) would help demonstrate whether or not their post-Yugoslav echoes were novel to postsocialism.
Beyond the identification with an imagined African-American gangsta blackness through which one 1994–9 Montenegrin hip-hop duo named themselves ‘Monteniggers’ (referencing the ‘blackness’ of Montenegro's name across languages),15 a routinized and very recent form of blackface characterises the celebrity talent-show Tvoje lice zvuci poznato (Your Face Sounds Familiar), produced in Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia since 2013–14. The franchise, developed by Dutch producers Endemol and the Spanish broadcaster Antena 3, has been sold to forty territories in Europe, the Americas and Asia since its Spanish launch in 2011. The first Serbian series was the most watched musical entertainment programme in both Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2014 (Dokić Mrša and Miljević Jovanović 2015: 1115), when Croatian and Slovenian broadcasters also bought it. TLZP's format challenges established musicians to re-enact well-known concert/video performances by domestic and foreign stars, across boundaries of age or gender or – in many countries, including those of the Yugoslav region – race.
TLZP offers viewers the spectacle of cross-gender drag, cross-racial drag or both, with contestants' skin colour routinely altered across what, to a gaze socialised in the UK or USA, would be racialised boundaries. Not only are the ‘transformations’ (as tabloids and online portals call them) part of the spectacle, but the very design of the ‘international’ star impersonations seems to be part of the franchise – the same blackface Stevie Wonder impersonation, with the ‘blind’ performer led on stage, has appeared in Croatia, Slovenia and Greece, and in France for an impersonation of Ray Charles. The narrative of continuity in African-American creativity and style that Will.i.am's ‘Bang Bang’ video might tell (in a speakeasy setting where its African-American performers might evoke the Harlem Renaissance) comes closer to reinterpreting 1920s minstrelsy if performed, as on Serbian TLZP less than six months later, by a white man such as the Serbian rapper Sky Wikluh, even more once his performance starts involving sexualised advances towards a white woman.16
Gloria Wekker (2016: 35), reading ‘everyday racism’ (Essed 1991) in Dutch popular entertainment juxtaposed with Zwarte Piet as evidence of ‘white ignorance’ about the legacies of colonialism in the Netherlands, argues that understanding the ‘everyday, casual chains of signification’ through which such representations make sense to Dutch onlookers requires tracing the ‘shared racial and sexual fantasies’ that inform them. Dutch participation in colonialism and slavery differs from the experiences of south-east Europe, much of which was under Ottoman rule while the Netherlands and Britain prospered through colonial trade and enslaving Africans. The casualness of blackface as spectacle in TLZP suggests similar racial and sexual fantasies are nevertheless shared in the Yugoslav region – and that the dependence of ‘Europeanness’ on whiteness extends beyond former imperial metropoles.
If embodied and sonic caricatures of blackness and Africanity in post-Yugoslav popular entertainment are more confusing than Dutch or American equivalents, part of the confusion stems from the region's more marginal geopolitical position. Some, though not all, such impersonations aimed to comment on how many inhabitants of the region perceived that their collective place in global structural hierarchies had been reversed after the collapse of Yugoslav state socialism, the end of Yugoslavia's self-appointed distinctive and prestigious place in global affairs, the Yugoslav wars, and the consequent reversal of Yugoslavs' expectations about living standards and international mobility (see Jansen 2009). Others could not even claim that intention. Whether they could or not, they relied on stereotypes of blackness with origins in colonial spectacles of domination. These showed unambiguously that those racial formations were present in the Yugoslav region – yet were not even the only way that the region participated in the embodied cultural politics of race.
The embodied cultural politics of global raciality
Popular music, a domain of gendered and racialised labour as well as a cultural text (Silverman 2012; Hofman 2015; Lordi 2016), stands alongside transnational sport and film as a major vector for an embodied transnational cultural politics of race, where what producers and audiences perceive through transnational media is adapted or vernacularised through their own perceptions of race and identity. This is already recognised, latently, in south-east European feminist media studies of female embodiment in pop-folk performance, which often comment on the vernacularisation of style, movement and sound from Anglo-American musics but much more rarely discuss how many of these practices at point of origin are racialised as black. Does it matter, in interpreting these performances, that their representations of aspirational excess using the visual language of hip-hop/R&B are racialised in their home context? Gilroy, again, can situate these politics of style within global, not just regional, formations: here is both unease about how ‘the translocal glamour and attractiveness of African-American culture’ becomes a commodity in contemporary media, and a problem of identity regarding the twenty-first-century global black diaspora's cultural achievements: ‘Are they local or global forms? To whom, if anyone, do they belong?’ (Gilroy 2000: 178, 346). Indeed, the question of exchange between non-Roma and Roma performers, especially in women's performance that (grounded in south-east European orientalisms) eroticises and exoticises post-Ottoman belly-dance and associated dress, would already start raising this issue.
The complex of orientalisms behind south-east European pop-folk combine some produced at national or intra-Balkan levels (Buchanan (ed.) 2007) with others circulating around globalised circuits. These latter were reinvigorated when the ‘generalised, non-white, exotic “other”’ (Railton and Watson 2012: 109) became a trope in the aesthetics of transatlantic female celebrity, available across some racialised boundaries to certain women (conventionally attractive to a male heterosexual gaze) who could have many different racial and ethnic identities (Latina; biracial; any spatialised ethnic origin ‘from’ Spanish ‘to’ Iranian; light-skinned but black; dark-haired but white; or not even stated). Pop sometimes signifies their ‘erotic multiculturalism’ (Mcgee 2012) sonically with ‘oriental’ strings. Many women from the Balkans might occupy this ambiguous category, where contemporary transnational glamour practices resonate with the resources of real or ascribed Roma ethnicity in south-east European folk celebrity; the sexuality of the light-skinned black R&B diva, as well as ‘the athletic perfection’ of the black male body, is part of the spectacle of embodiment and race that Gilroy argues has been ‘recycled’ from its imperial, nationalist and fascist origins so contemporary commerce can sell goods around the world (Gilroy 2000: 348).
The suggestion that south-east Europe lies outside US racial categories altogether, meanwhile, is dramatised literally in a 2009 song and video by the Kosovo Albanian pop-folk singer Genta Ismajli, ‘Si panter i zi’ (‘Like a Black Panther’). Whereas its title indexes African-American liberation and white colonial fantasies of Africa at the same time, employing several layers of transnational racial symbolism already, its video places ‘Albanian’ alongside whiteness, blackness and Latinity as a thoroughly separate racialised category. Accompanying lyrics switching between Albanian and English, the video uses a common, transnational convention of pop/R&B video by blending sequences of the star dancing in different costumes and settings to express various aspects of sexuality and power.17 The Albanian lyrics imply that rhythm has captured her body, entering an irrational, ecstatic, addictive state where she ‘tremble[s] like a black panther’ (‘valvitem un si një panter i zi’) and rhyme ‘lives inside me’ (‘në mua jeton’).18 The English section attaches the video's four personas to different racialised identities: ‘Now do it like a black girl’ (her most revealing costume), ‘now do it like a white girl’ (her most subdued and businesslike); ‘now do it like Latinas’, with a castanet sound (in a red feathered dress, shaking hips); ‘now do it like an Albanian girl’ (with dress and movement evoking Albanian folk costume and dance). Three of these racialised personas belong to US categories; the fourth, here situated outside them, is an ‘Albanian’ ethnonational position, either racialised separately or outside ‘race’ altogether. Similar, though not identical, ambiguities end up ascribed to women with ethnic heritage from south-east Europe or the South Caucasus, such as Rita Ora or Kim Kardashian, working as celebrities in the Anglosphere.19
In Anglo-American music video, gendered and sexualised bodily performances clearly inhabit ‘a genealogy of … definitions of blackness and whiteness from the Victorian era to the present’, including the construction of a hypersexualised, animalistic black female sexuality and a controlled, unobtainable or fragile white female equivalent (Railton and Watson 2012: 95). To what extent, however, do the complex of bodily practices that racialise performers in American or British gazes (such as movement, cosmetic skin tones, hair style and texture, and racialised–classed–gendered dress) also signify race when employed in south-east Europe – and would controversies over ‘cultural appropriation’ (Rodriquez 2006) of sonic, visual and embodied practices, or white people's extracting value from racialised people's cultural practices while perpetuating structural racism (what bell hooks (1992: 21) termed ‘eating the Other’), also apply along this axis of exchange? In pursuing this further, feminist media studies would need to accommodate the longer history of (musical, visual and bodily) signifiers of Romani identity in pop-folk, attached to or detached from performers identifying themselves as Roma (Silverman 2012); the racialising elisions between Romani identity and blackness/African-Americanness already made in some white eastern European national identity narratives (see Todorova 2006); and the identifications and parallels Roma have drawn between their own experiences of marginalisation and anti-blackness in the USA (Imre 2006).
South-east European popular music has thus sometimes, as a site for gendered and ethnicised performances of style and identity, explicitly translated US racialised signifiers into its own sonic, visual and embodied representations. Sometimes it places its ‘own’ region (a ‘self’ that may slip between the ethnic nation, a more diffuse ‘post-Yugoslav’ space or ‘the Balkans’) outside those formations. Sometimes, especially in music claiming the ‘etno’ category in south-east European music-marketing (a mode of knowingly repackaging tradition to suit the ‘world music’ market's Westernising gaze), the ‘self’ performs modernity and Westernness by casting itself as consciously, strategically deploying ‘tradition’ (Čolović 2006) – a common tactic in several mid-2000s post-Yugoslav performances at the Eurovision Song Contest (Baker 2008), including two which subtly added Malian djembe to the performers' array of traditional Balkan instruments.20 Both approaches externalise race as a phenomenon belonging to other regions (above all the USA) but alien to one's own space. Yet such externalisation was not new to postsocialism; it stood in continuity with state socialist geopolitical identity narratives that cast racism as ‘a problem of Western capitalism’ (Law 2012: 2) and a reason for the socialist bloc to appear morally superior.
Anti-colonial and anti-racist solidarities
The racial politics of Yugoslav state socialism, which identified Communism as an anti-imperialist ideology and linked capitalism intrinsically with imperialism, had many similarities with the Soviet bloc's (Todorova 2006; Slobodian (ed.) 2015c). Yugoslav Communists, like their Warsaw Pact counterparts, expressed solidarity with African and Asian anti-colonial resistance and implied that racial tensions in the USA, about which east European publics heard, were produced by capitalism. After Stalin ejected Yugoslavia from the Cominform in 1948, however, Yugoslav Communists responded by imagining Yugoslavia standing between East and West, without either bloc's social problems (Mihelj 2012: 97). This new geopolitics made racism and capitalist exploitation the failings of the West; repression the failing of the Soviet East.
Yugoslav popular music in the 1980s – the greatest decade of international anti-apartheid struggle – retold this idealised geopolitical narrative. The singer-songwriter Ðorđe Balašević, whose 1980s music aimed at reconstructing an optimistic Yugoslav and socialist identity for his generation amid intensifying economic, constitutional and cultural crises, depicted it in his 1986 song ‘Virovitica’, named after a small Croatian town near the Hungarian border.21 Its touring musician narrator, comparing the superpowers, concludes that despite appreciating their place-myths (California; Rostov; (Soviet) Georgia) and culture (Donald Duck; Dostoyevsky) he is afraid both of the USSR's lack of liberties and the beggars, junkies and Black Panthers he might find in America (plus a certain unpleasant ‘Ronald’, perhaps Reagan and/or McDonald). The song makes these sources of fear and disorder in the US, but not in unpressured Virovitica, where ‘everyone lives peacefully, like hippies’ (‘i žive mirno svi, kao hipici’).
Also in 1986, the Sarajevo-born pop/rock musician Dino Merlin released ‘Cijela Juga jedna avlija’ (‘The whole of Yugoslavia [is] one courtyard’22), one of many Bosnian songs in the mid-to-late 1980s celebrating Yugoslavia's multi-ethnicity (and other foundations of Yugoslav socialism, like its Partisan heritage) during a heightening constitutional crisis with undertones of impending – yet still avoidable – ethnopolitical conflict (see Mišina 2013). Merlin's avlija, a fantasy many Yugoslavs still wanted to believe, contained ‘Serbs, Bosnians, blacks and Albanians / [who have] never been foreigners in my city’ (‘Srbi, Bosanci, crnci i Albanci / nikad u mom gradu nisu bili stranci’). Dalibor Mišina (2010: 282) reads this as attempting to rearticulate a ‘moral and ethical compass’ for Yugoslavia. He does not directly discuss the inclusion of blacks alongside Serbs, Bosnians and Albanians, but could: the Yugoslavism of Merlin's narrator did not just build multi-ethnic bridges across South Slav identity boundaries but also epitomised, if not multi-raciality, at least the race-blindness that had characterised Non-Aligned anti-colonialism (Subotić and Vučetić 2016), soon to be marginalised by the open racism as well as xenophobia of the homogenous ethnonational narratives of national identity that were about to become hegemonic across the Yugoslav space. The translation of hip-hop into the region's professional and grassroots music scenes, at the turn of the 1980s/1990s, occurred at this moment of fracture.
Hip-hop, ‘the most visible and widely disseminated conduit of U.S. black popular imagery globally’ (Perry 2008: 635–6) since the late 1980s, undergoes at least four translations in eastern Europe: first, when Roma musicians narrate racialised and socio-economic marginalisation, and claim pride, through identification with African-American experiences (Imre 2008); secondly, when ethnic-majority rappers in their countries' economic and urban peripheries enact the same identification through style (dress and breakdance), with state socialist urban landscapes standing in for the ‘ghetto’ (Bosanac 2004); thirdly, as a reservoir of musical, visual and embodied style, adaptable into the wider entertainment industry; and fourthly, when US hip-hop and film become a source of public ‘common sense’ about blackness and race for local viewers (Todorova 2006; Helbig 2014). All four translations happen in the post-Yugoslav region. In Croatia, the most critically acclaimed Cro-dance group (Electro Team) emerged in 1990–1 from Zagreb's hip-hop underground; rap in post-Yugoslav Bosnia is centred on Tuzla, home of the FMJAM collective of politically engaged, anti-ethnonationalist rappers such as Edo Maajka (Edin Osmić) and Frenki (Adnan Hamidović) (Mujanović 2017).23 Other rappers take anti-elite, oppositional patriotic stances, such as Shorty from Vinkovci in Croatia (Baker 2010: 118–20) or Beogradski Sindikat from Belgrade, while others yet take non-political stances and rap about urban youth life. Roma in the region, as in Hungary (see Imre 2006), have, meanwhile, explicitly identified their structural position with anti-black racism through hip-hop. They include the Serbian Roma rapper Muha Blackstazy (Muhamed Eljšani), who called his first recording in 2003 ‘Crni smo mi’ (‘We are Black’); Euro Black Nation, from the periphery of a town in Baranja, Croatia (Banić Grubišić 2011; Pavelić 2012); and Shutka Roma Rap from Šuto Orizari, a Roma settlement pushed to the edge of Skopje by Macedonian authorities (McGarry 2017: 147). These rappers typically perform at alternative cultural centres and human-rights festivals while continuing to work in their hometowns' low-paid and informal economies.
Similar translations of hip-hop as a visual, sonic and embodied language of both marginality and glamour have happened around the world. The complex of hip-hop music, fashion and dance in mid-1990s Japan, for instance, made one anthropologist ask: ‘as hip-hop goes global, what happens to the cultural politics of race inherent in American hip-hop?’ (Condry 2007: 638). This could equally be asked in south-east Europe. Ian Condry, drawing on Cornel West's ‘new cultural politics of difference’ (West 1990: 35 in Condry 2007: 639) to explain why some rappers questioned the homogeneity of Japanese ethnonational identity while corporate pressures encouraged others either to fetishise visible signifiers of blackness or de-emphasise hip-hop's black origins, called for ‘a transnational cultural politics of race’ without essentialising either one single African-American identity or one homogenous local/Japanese one. The constructed and contested nature of national, ethnic and racial identifications is equally important for understanding the politics of race in music from the Yugoslav region, where imagined solidarities between South Slavs and the people of the Third World based on shared histories of colonial exploitation underpinned state socialist geopolitics.
The history of black entertainers in the Yugoslav region did not begin under state socialism but acquired a new structural context within the global racial politics of the Cold War. The most transient, but often most spectacular, presence of black musicians came through foreign stars' tours: before US-sponsored visits by jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong in the 1950s–60s (Vučetić 2012: 170), there had been spectacles like Josephine Baker's 1929 tour, which Jovana Babović (2015) shows sparked contrasting reactions in Belgrade and Zagreb.24 Reviews in both cities used imaginaries of race, sexuality and modernity to construct collective identities through discourses about what Belgrade/Zagreb audiences desired: but Belgrade's cultural elite hailed Baker's daring and sensuality as evidence the capital must be a modern metropolis (since she wanted to perform there), while their Zagreb counterparts, who had belonged to Austro-Hungarian intellectual milieus until 1918, took against what they viewed as licentious, uncivilised displays. Both these responses depended on contemporaneous European imaginations of black female sexuality, but drew contrasting aesthetic judgements about what kinds of performance their cities should contain.
More sustained black participation in Yugoslav popular music arose through Non-Aligned Yugoslavia's hosting of African students in the 1950s–80s. One Congolese student, Edi Dekeng, formed a band called Crni panteri (‘The Black Panthers’) with classmates in 1964–5, then became frontman of the Belgrade rock band Elipse, which started covering soul music not beat; he also recorded, in 1967, a duet called ‘Bobi Smit’ (‘Bobby Smith’) with the Serbian actor Dušan Golumbowski, calling on US soldiers to understand they were being sent to kill civilians in Vietnam. A Kenyan student, Djungo Chokwe, took the name Steven Hannington – suggesting Yugoslav as well as Soviet constructions of blackness as ‘cool’ condensed Africanity into African-Americanness – and recorded two disco and Afrobeat albums for the Zagreb label Jugoton in the 1980s. These recordings, and others by Africans in post-Yugoslav Serbia, were re-collected in the early 2010s by the (white) Belgrade rapper Bege Fank, reconstructing a history which – like the African student exchanges (Veličković 2012) – is rarely remembered in contemporary Serbia (Radinović 2014).
Today's grassroots digital economy, meanwhile, enables black musicians in the post-Yugoslav region, and white musicians from the region working with them, to express transnational solidarities across boundaries of ‘postsocialist’/‘postcolonial’ space. The black British rapper and vlogger Smooth Deep (Nick Semwogerere), who co-founded a production company in Sarajevo, began filming rap videos with Bosnian producers in 2011: one sampled Halid Bešlić's classic newly composed folk song, ‘Sarajevo, grade moj’ (‘Sarajevo, My City’) (Hadžiahmetović 2011). The duo Crni Srbi (The Black Serbs), David Brkljač (a white Serb) and Jovan Crnović (an African-American who met Brkljač in his hometown, Novi Sad), began making YouTube comedy videos (in Serbian) about Serbian–US cultural encounters in 2013 after Brkljač moved to the USA, with Crnović playing a stereotypical ultra-patriotic Serb.25 In 2016 they branched out into music video. ‘Balkan Latino’, filmed in Chicago with Joshua Lazu, blended Serbian and Puerto Rican Spanish lyrics, rap and salsa to celebrate Latin American and Balkan friendship.26 ‘Rintam’ (‘I'm Doing Hard Work’) involved another post-Yugoslav black YouTube celebrity, Ron Holsey, whose videos of himself singing well-known newly composed folk songs in Serbian led to several tabloid interviews with headlines like, ‘Here's what a guy from Los Angeles who sings folk songs [narodnjaci] has to say about Serbia!’27
‘Rintam’'s video depicts all three men in tiring manual occupations (Holsey, first, in a bakery), complaining about working conditions, resenting their older white bosses, and anticipating a weekend of partying, rakija and release.28 Its caption, ‘The story of my life!!! I work like a black and my wages are low’, referenced the same Serbo-Croatian idiom the video seemed to dramatise: ‘working like a black’ (‘raditi kao crnac’), a phrase that embeds the history of Atlantic slavery in many European languages (Giovannetti 2006: 5). One Croatian linguist argues ‘crnac’, when evoking hard physical work, expresses ‘empathy for the oppressed and the exploited’, and identification with the treatment of black slaves, rather than representing a slur (unlike saying someone was working ‘like a Gypsy’ (‘kao Cigan’)) (Ćupković 2015: 223–4). While her reading does not capture the colonial fantasies still projected on to black bodies in the region, ‘Rintam’'s interracial, class-based friendship hints at a horizontal, translocal solidarity closer to socialist internationalism than postsocialist identification with whiteness and ‘Europe’.
Indeed, even though Serbian tabloids and internet portals create spectacle for white readers from the sight and sound of African-Americans performing Serbian language and song, Crni Srbi's own productions are further from the mass media's exoticism, nearer the expressions of brotherhood with African footballers, Black Power activists and West African miners in the ‘left populism’ of the Belgrade hip-hop collective Bombe Devedesetih (Bombs of the Nineties) (Papović and Pejović 2016: 118), who similarly communicate through social media not the mainstream media/recording industry: on the margins of commercial popular music but well within popular music as a mode of expression. The routes through which an African-American visits Novi Sad, a Serb from Novi Sad moves to Chicago and hip-hop's sound and style offers them a medium for commenting on youth precarity in contemporary Serbia are part of a Black Atlantic extending across Europe's interior, not just to its west coast. The imaginaries of race popular music reveals, therefore, are contradictory: if identifications with imperial Europe sustain racialised colonial imaginations even today, identifications with the subjects of colonial oppression have sustained genuinely felt anti-colonial solidarities, and both positions have their origins in the region's historical experience.
Evidence from popular music, sometimes (or especially) the most ephemeral, shows that the Yugoslav region just like other European countries – whether they were colonial powers or not – does possess a ‘deep reservoir’ (Wekker 2016: 2) of notions of modernity, morality, hierarchy and entitlement through which popular culture and everyday discourse mobilise meaning. Critical race scholarship emphasises it is through popular culture that racialised imaginaries and mythologies acquire what Mills (1997: 19) calls a ‘virtual reality’, reconfirmed every time they are encountered, to sustain the narratives and stereotypes behind public understandings of race. If the musicologists Ronald Radano and Tejumola Olaniyan (2016: 13) contend ‘[w]e can hear empire in the familiar orders of the here and now’, the empire one can hear in the region's music is global, not just Ottoman. Moreover, the racialised and sexualised imaginations of the body that Fanon, hooks and Gilroy have all shown to be part of colonial power remind us that empire is simultaneously heard and seen.
Situating the region's popular culture within global imaginaries of race means recognising what specific identifications with or against race worked through any national identity at a given moment, establishing what localised translations exist(ed), and how people position(ed) their individual and collective selves in relation to them. By the millennium, Gilroy (2000: 13) argued, ‘planetary traffic in the imagery of blackness’ through media, celebrity and advertising had started making ‘some degree of visible difference from an implicit white norm … highly prized as a sign of timeliness, vitality, inclusivity, and global reach’ but without disrupting everyday racisms. Gilroy found this both a troubling form of commodification – with ‘the fruits of alterity’ often more desirable than ‘the company of the people who harvested them’ – and also a potential source for ‘still-emergent means of living with and through difference’ in spaces where counter-hegemonic interconnectedness might resist a depoliticising corporate multiculturalism (Gilroy 2000: 249–50).
Yet if Gilroy talks primarily about countries which saw the racialised structure of their population change significantly in the twentieth century through postcolonial migration, or Germany which experienced comparable change through recruiting guest-workers, how far must or can theory also account for regions such as ex-Yugoslavia which did not? The ‘unequal power relations’ that, Katrin Sieg (2002: 259) writes, ‘cultural transactions are [both] framed by and reproduce’ are not suddenly cut off when they reach the Balkans – as south-east European cultural theorists using postcolonial thought were first to see. Sieg also shows, however, that these transactions do not simply occur on one (asymmetric) scale between global centre and homogenous global margin: they follow multiple routes, between different ‘margins’ (sometimes asymmetric to each other) as well as towards ‘centres’ and out.
The cultural production of global racial formations through the Yugoslav region depends, therefore, on how people have watched, listened, identified with and desired through popular culture, including but not limited to that understood as ‘black’ – although the ‘blackness’ of popular musics from the global African diaspora is, Stuart Hall (1993: 111–12) emphasises, not one essentialised experience but the sum of diverse historical experiences and intersecting social identities.29 The idea of ‘racialized listening practices’ (Stoever 2016: 33) – often simultaneously viewing practices – implies that music, voice and sound are heard through ears already attuned to contemporaneous racial imaginations, producing further understandings of race, blackness and whiteness based on what and how one hears. In the Yugoslav region and many other parts of Europe, the valences of ‘sonic blackness’ (Weheliye 2005: 5), of ‘sounding black’ or equally ‘sounding white’, were and are enmeshed with ‘sounding American’. These everyday judgements form part of a ‘popular geopolitics’ (Dittmer 2010), informed by but outlasting the Cold War, where ‘race’ and the inequality and disorder caused by racism are problems of the US (and Western European cities that might appear to have become like it), but separated from the nation's or region's ‘own’ identity. Yet these geopolitics are unusually flexible in permitting shifting identifications with Europe, modernity and whiteness on the one hand, and with global structural marginalisation on the other, in terms always inflected but not fully determined by ethnonational identity; moreover, each position has some grounding in the Yugoslav region's historical experience. Understanding the puzzle of race in the Yugoslav region begins with revisiting a more comfortable concept for studies of this area – the idea of ethnicity – in a region which is often seen through the lens of ethnopolitical conflict between settled nations but is in fact a far more complex historical contact zone.