Wednesday, May 13, 2009
TRANSITIONS ONLINE: The Arts: A Roma Vision for Eurovision
12 May 2009
A Romani band stands up for the Czech Republic at Europe's biggest musical spectacle.
When the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest opens tonight in Moscow, one of the first acts to take the stage will be Prague's Gipsy.cz.
Led by rapper and songwriter Radoslav "Gipsy" Banga and violinist Vojta Lavicka, the band has ridden a mix of hip-hop, traditional Romani music, and old-school showmanship to national stardom and success on the European world-music charts.
A much-beloved, much-derided competition featuring performers from across Europe and its near abroad, Eurovision has not been kind to the Czech Republic since the country first entered the contest in 2007. After two miserable showings, national broadcaster Czech Television this year dispensed with the traditional national contest and public vote for a representative, instead choosing Gipsy.cz as the country's entrant.
If the selection process was unusual, the choice itself was remarkable. The Czech Republic has been repeatedly criticized by Amnesty International and other human-rights watchdogs for discrimination against the Romani minority in housing, education, and law enforcement. In poll after poll a wide majority of Czechs list Roma as their most-disliked ethnic group and say they would not want Romani neighbors. Recent months have seen far-right groups raising their public profile with frequent rallies and marches, as well as a seeming uptick in racist violence, culminating in a Molotov-cocktail attack in the village of Vitkov last month that destroyed a Romani family's home and left a 2-year-old girl severely burned.
It's one thing to be the Czech Republic's highest-profile Roma; it's another to stand up as its representative in a spectacle that, for all its kitsch, is watched by hundreds of millions and is for many a focal point of national pride. On the eve of the first telecast, Gipsy spoke to TOL's Andy Markowitz by phone from Moscow about representing both his country and his community on Europe's biggest musical stage.
Transitions Online: How does playing and representing your country change your approach or attitude to a performance? Does it at all?
Gipsy: To me, to represent Czech Republic is a big [source of] proudness. On the other side I have to say we have some problems with extremism in my country. That's maybe making it much more controversial and much more important that Gipsy is representing the Czech Republic. That means that somewhere, deep inside, it's changing. That some people are trying to say, "Look, we are not all racist." So it's controversial, but I like it. I'm proud that I can hold the Czech flag and represent my country, of course. Same as I'm proud to represent gypsies. And the best way is to represent Czech gypsies, you know?
TOL: When you're performing there, are you going to feel like you're taking the stage as the representative of Czech Roma, or even European Roma, as well as carrying the flag of the Czech Republic?
Gipsy: A little bit, of course. I think it's the first time that gypsies have entered Eurovision. If they did, they probably didn't say they were gypsies. I think that for gypsies this is very important, to be involved in such a big action. It's been hundreds and hundreds of years where gypsies have not been too active in public. I think that for us – for me and Vojta Lavicka, especially, the violinist – this is a step to go forward to the world, and to just say, "See? It's 2009. The world has changed. It's multicultural." The game of black and white, I hate it already. Just quit it. So this is the best way to say it, to really prove something's really changing.
TOL: It's an interesting time for this to be happening for you because of what's going on back in the Czech Republic. There's been a lot more attention paid recently to racism and extremism, there have been the far-right parties
becoming more open, there was this horrible incident in Vitkov a few weeks ago. There were even some protests about you being selected [to represent the country at Eurovision]. In what way are these issues on your mind when you're preparing for this performance and for the contest?
Gipsy: There are a lot of thoughts in my mind. On one side, I feel so sick about extremism rising up like that. When you see 1,000 Nazis walking the street, you probably smile, because that's normal, that's what people already told me [is happening]. But when you see behind 1,000 Nazis another 1,000 normal people, that's what's making me feel really sick. Say your "no" now. Say your "no" loudly. Because if you will be silent, that means you agree. ... I think the government should really take that sign as, look, normal people walking with Nazis, that's not good. That's wrong. We should do something with this.
It's making me really scared, because now I'm on Eurovision, I'm holding a Czech flag, you know? I'm holding a Czech flag, and I'm questioning myself, like, who do I represent? I've got so many Czech friends, Czech Television is so brilliant to us, so kind to Gipsy.cz. And on the other side you got these racists. So it's of course a weird situation. But my ID is Czech. I speak the Czech language. I was born in Czech. Yes, I'm gypsy. But Prague is my home.
TOL: What was your response when you learned that Czech TV had made this decision, to simply declare that Gipsy.cz would be the representative at Eurovision? Why do you think they did that?
Gipsy: First is that Czech Television knew that in the two [national] contests before this [year's] Eurovision, Gipsy.cz was really successful. We always rated very high. So they knew we had some chance. The second was, we always had very good relations with Czech TV. I think that they've been always trying to support us, so that's really brilliant. And the main thing is, when we saw that the way [was] to let the nation choose ... it was really, not only not successful, it was a fiasco. [The previous, publicly selected Czech entrants, hard rock band Kabat in 2007 and dance diva Tereza Kerndlova in 2008, finished last and next-to-last, respectively.] It is possible in the rules, legal, that they just take the right to make their own choice. And because they have good experiences with Gipsy.cz, they decided to choose us. That's all, you know? People, they want to see much more drama, but it's not a big drama.
TOL: Romani music and the combination of Romani music with Western musical styles has become so much more popular. Do you think they were thinking that now, with that trend, this is a winning combination for an international contest?
Gipsy: Well, the song Aven Romale [that Gipsy.cz will perform at Eurovision] is a quite tasty combination. I don't know if it's gonna work. It's a risk on one card, because it's so different, it's so energetic, and it's so funny. And it also has some inner big message. There are lots of Roma people all around Europe. If they vote for us, they would maybe change [the result]. ...
If we go to the final [to be held 16 May after two semifinals], I think that for the Czech Republic, that's really enough. If we win it, that would be incredible, and God knows I wish it inside of my heart, and I believe we can do it. You know why? Because that would make these Nazis shut the fuck up. They had some demonstration about, we're against Gipsy.cz on Eurovision. And to win, that would make them really shut the fuck up. And I would have such a good feeling that I made them shut up.
TOL: Do you think your being there represents any kind of breakthrough in the Czech Republic for attitudes about Roma, or for greater integration?
Gipsy: I think it is important, a very important step. It is like Barack Obama. That was a very, very important step for the United States. It was something such as was impossible for a lot of Americans. It's so incredible that there is a black president. It is changing some people's minds. It reminds them, look, something is changing here. It's not 1955. There is a black man that is president. You should think about a new world, a multicultural world. A world where we judge a person, not race. If Gipsy.cz would win Eurovision, that would be such a beautiful moment. Because a lot of Czech people would see a gypsy holding the Czech flag – that's like a fairy tale. Like, a psychological thrill. And also for gypsies, they would have some kind of example: Yeah, he was there, Eurovision! The gypsies, they won it! That would maybe make them motivated, active. I don't know, a couple, maybe 10, 20, maybe 2,000 gypsies feeling proud, starting to do something. And if we can win it, let's win it, and see [what] it's gonna do.
Posted by Morgan at 1:38 PM