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Understanding Albanian Hip Hop
***The following article— “Understanding Albanian Hip Hop” by Ashley Elizabeth Wood is not an official Albanian Voices article. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of their author and do not necessarily represent the views of Albanian Voices or any of its partner organizations.***
I thought I was informed. I thought I had a pretty decent grasp on world history (real and revised) for at least the past 200 years. I thought I was knowledgeable.
I studied international affairs and modern languages at a well-known university in the United States. I have 15 years of Spanish language and cultural education (my husband is Puerto Rican and I have my Master’s in Hispanic linguistics). I learned German and spent the better part of 4 years obsessing about the causes for WWII and the motivation behind the atrocities committed during that time period. I dabbled in Yoruba while studying Nigerian ethnomusicology and worked with esteemed professors on research pertaining to the Middle East, the headscarf debate and Sharia law being imposed in Germany and France. I have even been interviewed by the CIA due to my Russian language background and knowledge of foreign affairs. I have spent the majority of my professional career in close contact with some of the most gifted educators of language and culture in the fields of Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, German, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Farsi.
Yet, despite all of this, I didn’t know anything about Albania. And I bet you don’t either.
I first made some Albanian friends just less than one year ago. I, like so many of you, who are now asking yourself where Albania even is on the map, had two main questions cycling through my head in the first few minutes after meeting my friends. Thank God I didn’t utter either one.
“Is Albania near Russia? Were they part of the Soviet Union? Do they speak Russian? Why can’t I remember any of this from school?”
“ Wait, weren’t the Albanians the bad guys in the movie “Taken”?”
As if only those two things mattered.
My original interest in Albanian came via the language. I like a challenge. To my ears, it was absolutely beautiful. The spelling was daunting and the pronunciation varieties made it difficult to solidify my knowledge of the alphabet. After reading some linguistic texts on the subject, I came to understand that Albanian was one of the oldest Indo-European languages in existence and that it does not share a linguistic branch of the tree with any other language on Earth. The vocabulary is quite distinct and certain features of adjective-noun agreement are very unique in comparison to other languages currently being spoken around the word.
The Albanians I had met were my only true friends in the small town in the Dominican Republic where I was doing university research. They were waiting there, as many Albanians do, for documents that would allow them to travel to the U.S. or Canada; well, anywhere but back home to Albania. These Albanians weren’t making the journey for the first time either. They were climbing their way back to the top from the exile of deportation they had suffered two years prior. Luckily for me, since they had all lived in the U.S. at some point, they spoke English. After six months in the Dominican Republic, their English/Albanian code-switching habits had been “compromised” (to my delight) by Spanish loan words as well.
When I told them about my research during my Master’s degree on reggaeton (Puerto Rican hip hop), and expressed interest in learning about Albanian rap, I was met with surprise. My friends couldn’t believe that I would be interested. I can’t understand it; I don’t relate to it; I’m not even that into rap music in the United States. I just couldn’t explain it. Albanian hip hop had sparked something in me, just like Puerto Rican hip hop did almost ten years ago. And this time, just like last time, it wasn’t just about the music.
I believe it is important to understand just a little about Albania before we can even begin to attempt looking at Albanian hip hop as a musical genre.
I imagine a conversation with yourself taking place in your head like this:
“Albania. Where the hell is it again?”
“That’s not Armenia, right?”
“No, Armenia is the Kardashians, I think? Wait, are the Kardashians Albanian or Armenian?”
“No, Balkans, Dude. Albania is in the Balkans.”
“Balkans? Hmm, oh yeah, OK, like Yugoslavia and Croatia or something?”
“Is that north or east of Italy?”
“Wait, where the hell is Armenia then?”
You’re not the only one asking yourself this question. In fact, it’s the number one question I get asked when talking about Albania. Most people in the U.S. cannot tell you where it is when asked.
Here it is on the map. Albania currently sits to the northwest of Greece, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy and is bordered to the north and east by Montenegro, Kosovo and Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Albanians are ethnically Albanian. They are not Greek, Slavic, Arabic or Turkish. Albanian is the language they speak, although most are bilingual or multilingual due to large numbers of them emigrating to other countries. The 2011 Census declared the following religious affiliations inside of Albania: Islam (56.7%), Roman Catholic (10.03%), Albanian Orthodox (6.75%), Unaffiliated (5.49%), Atheist (2.5%), Bektashi (2.09%), Protestant/Evangelica (0.14%). In terms of GDP (in relation to purchasing power parity), Albania is currently the poorest country in Europe, followed closely by Bosnia and Herzegovina.
However, economic hardships and a diversity of religions do not define the struggles of the Albanian people. Conflict does. Yet, we learn to feel sympathy for Bosnians and Serbs here in the United States. Has anyone every told you about Albania in the context of Kosovo? Due to its political involvement with China to combat the Soviet pressure, Albania’s story got lost in liberation of communism rhetoric that permeated the United States culture in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
In the history books written by either the British or the Americans, the Albanian people are described as fierce, loyal, brave, cunning, resourceful, clever, determined, strong, resilient and unwavering. To be an Albanian means that you are a descendant of survivors. If you know an Albanian alive today, that person and his or her family has suffered more than half a millennium of instability, revolts, suppression and oppression by a number of nations. His or her ancestors survived the fall of the Byzantine Empire, and the rise of the Ottomans. They banned together and formed an Albanian national identity, with the help of Skanderbeg, and despite pressure from the Ottoman Empire to assimilate. Albania has seen a great deal of violence: two world wars, two Balkan wars, genocidal killings and an almost-would-be civil war.
If you are an Albanian alive today, enough of your family members escaped the harsh consequences of the Kanun of Lek and blood-feud-induced honor killings, to allow your birth. If you are an Albanian who speaks Albanian, you are continuing to perpetuate one of the oldest European languages on the planet: a language that has endured censorship by Turks, Serbs, Greeks, Yugoslavians and Italians. Your country has at one point or another been the proverbial hostage of Turkey, Italy, Serbia, Yugoslavia, Germany, China and the Soviet Union. Your family’s cultural heritage stayed intact, despite the intense and quickly oscillating periods of severe austerity, free trade, free-for-all-style pillaging, socialism and extreme isolation. If you are Albanian, enough of your family survived high infant mortality rates, even into the 20th century, as well as invasions by a dizzying amount of countries, economic sanctions, lack of education and even severe food shortages. If you grew up in Albania in the 1980’s and 1990’s as my friends did, you survived many tense political moments, such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of widespread pyramid schemes that left the country almost bankrupt in 1996, bringing it to the brink of a civil war. You are the descendant of men and women who have been forced to arm themselves inside their own country as a means of protection when their government and police could no longer guarantee the sovereignty of the nation. You have also probably suffered religious, cultural and emigrational discrimination at some point or another as well (Miranda Vickers).
The Albania we know today shows scars from a feudal, clan-like system of government, domination by other world powers, communism, fascism, socialism and democracy. Due the numerous redrawing of borders, the ethnic Albanian people have been left split among countries such as Kosovo, Montenegro, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Greece and Italy. Instability characterizes the very nature of Albanian politics and the surrounding states are always on the look-out for an insurgent movement poised to take back the territories that once belonged to the Albanian people (Miranda Vickers).
Most Albanian-passport holding citizens face difficulty emigrating from the country because they are unwelcome in countries like the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. The few countries that they can resettle in legally are non-options at this time. There either exists political or ethnic sentiments that are undesirable and even dangerous for the Albanians’ well-being, or the country is so economically strained that the opportunities there are not much better than at home in Albania.
As far as academic hip hop studies goes, there is a growing community of professors and scholars who study the roots, expressions and motivations behind the ideas expressed in rap music. As Emery Petchauer explains: “In hip-hop studies, however, hip-hop is more than rap music, and its relevance extends beyond the moral realm. Rather, rap music is one element in an interrelated array of expressive practices that are built for youth, by youth from previous cultural traditions — mostly Black and Hispanic. These other expressions include but are not limited to forms of dance such as breakin’; musical production, manipulation, and performance such as DJing; graffiti art; and language particular to hip-hop. This is an important caveat to the field of hip-hop studies.”
Hip hop reflects an experience that is mostly an African-American one in the United States. Hip hop in Spanish has also gotten a fair amount of attention as well, with books such as Reggaeton, published by Raquel Rivera. There are key differences between the origins of the African-American and Hispanic hip hop musical genres that I won’t go into here, but that are very relevant to understanding hip hop in its conception. Regardless of the origin, most experts agree that hip hop is defined as music of the people and for the people. It originated out of poverty by those left out by the politics and social services provided by the dominant and powerful.
Since American hip hop is born of poor, marginalized, forgotten youth, it seems that Albania would be rife with seeds of hip hop artists. However, that is not what we see. So here begins my project of studying the effects and motivations behind Albanian rap. It seems to me that Albanian rap began in the early 1990’s. That would put its development about 10 years behind that of the U.S. if it were to develop in the same way. But of course that’s not what happened. Possible reasons for the lack of similarity with American rap music? Albanian music under Enver Hoxha was severely censured, homogenized and used as propaganda. Up until relatively recently, freedom of speech did not exist in Albania. Although rap music wasn’t always played on the radio or television, there were no consequences to American citizens for listening to it in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
What I see in Albanian hip hop is a desire to assimilate with the United States and their style of music. Yet, their confident misunderstanding of English slang and customs leaves some of their videos looking like parodies to us. Albanian rappers aren’t the poor marginalized members of society. In fact, to be an Albanian rapper now means you need to have money or you won’t be taken seriously. The themes expressed in the songs are not usually about struggles and politics like so much of the early rap in the United States was. The only thing that does remain in the music that is reminiscent of early rap in the U.S. is the “beef” that so many rappers have with each other. Something similar to East Coast vs West Coast rap feuds between Tupac and Biggie. I wonder if any of these feuds would be related to ethnic tensions between different groups in Albania or because of family history between the people involved.
Due to my background, I do not relate to hip hop on a personal level. For my feminists out there, please know that I do not particularly enjoy the misogynistic overtones and the role of women in hip hop music in general, but I do not concern myself with those topics. I study hip hop because it is a reflection of culture. I will allow others to reserve the right to judge the quality of these artists or discuss their role in society.
I care about everyone having a voice, a chance, an opportunity. I am eternally frustrated by the privilege with which I enjoy being a white, heterosexual, middle-class, woman in the Unites States, which is situated near the top of a short list of world powerhouse governments. It is the duty of the privileged to shed light on the situations and view points of others so that awareness within the dominant group is raised and tolerance can begin to form. So begins my love-affair with Albania, immigration and music. I need all the help I can get, so please comment, email, question me, help me, send me links or translate this article into Albanian.
I leave you with three different Albanian rappers to familiarize yourself with. We will explore more about their stories as later this spring.
- Real name: Viktor Palokaj.
- Originally from Pristina, Kosovo.
- Considered the King of Albanian hip hop.
- According to unverifiable sources, he changed the message of Albanian rap from a positive message to an honest one.
- He moved to the USA because of a blood feud (also unverified).
- Now lives in New York.
- Real name: Arkimed Lushaj.
- Originally from Tropoje in Northeast Albania near Kosovo.
- Part of BABASTARS.
- Now lives in Tirana (unverified).
- Real name: Emiliano Buna.
- Originally from Shkoder, Albania.
- A descent of Northern Gheg tribes, speaks a dialect of Albanian called Gheg.
- Spent 7 years in Italy and 7 years in the US before being deported.
- Now lives in Tirana.
What are your thoughts on these and other rappers? How do their musical productions compare to those of American rappers today and in the past?