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From Graffiti to Hip-Hop

How a Country with a History of Protest Still Uses the Spoken and Written Word as a Form of Rebellion

Hip-hop culture started before the Velvet Revolution. The changes of the 80s and 90s spawned fans of hip-hop and rap. Many hip-hop artists today started as graffiti artists in the 80s  – tagging the city in revolt, going against the grain and regime in search of liberation. American and Czech hip-hop have much more in common than meets the eye – basic human rights, freedom of speech, and artistic expression.  

The first true expression of hip-hop in the region was graffiti. Breakdancing became famous when Petr Jezek performed before and after 1989 in front of two different presidents. DJ-ing was on the rise, although its popularity grew slowly due to a lack of technology and funds. Graffiti, however, was much more accessible and easier to do. It was a way to unleash truth under the cover of night. Once upon a time Prague even ranked as one of the top cities for graffiti art. 

Freestyle rap from across the sea found a home on the Czech scene as a version of tagging – self-expression sparked by a need to fight back against the powers that be. Hip-hop communities popped up and the blending of graffiti, sound, and body movement was in full effect. While graffiti has since died down due to punishments for “vandals,” hip-hop musicians have maintained their role in the culture.  

For those wanting to learn more about hip-hop culture, have a listen to two prominent women. An expert in the field, MaryC (Marie Čtveráčková), host of the RadioWave show Kruton, highlights local and international hip-hop performers. On Radio Spin, the show Cypher garners attention thanks to the famous Czech hip-hop-culture scholar Anna Oravocová. She’s even written a book, Hip-Hop in Europe, which discusses the tension between mainstream and underground expressions of hip-hop. 

Photo Provided by Helwana

On the current scene, a powerful feminine influence is developing. Hellwana, winner of the Czeching Song Export Competition in 2017, has blown up on the scene. While she started in product design, she has, “found [her] own way to rap via some of my friends’ influence.”

Being a female hip-hop artist doesn’t mean she boxes herself in. “I don’t just listen to rap, I love music in all genres.” And she stays true to herself, too, saying, “I’m the same girl I used to be.” One thing she’s sure of? “I want to refresh the scene with another woman’s opinion. The Czech scene needs more girls. That’s why I also decided to make an EP in Czech. But it doesn’t mean that I won’t be making music in other languages, too. I like to break the walls and it’s always better when the pond is not filled with only one type of fish.” 

When asked about the heavy hitters on the scene, she replied, “Indy&Wich, PSH, Yzomandias, Nik Tendo, Viktor Sheen, and Stein27 are the trendsetters. I like the punchlines of Maniak, the energy of Pain DOTS, and the voice and dance moves of Annet X.” Hellwana has noticed various influences on the Czech scene. “French, American, and UK sounds, and that means rap is definitely evolving here.”

Her opinion about the future of hip-hop in the Czech Republic? “It’s definitely fresh and new for the Czech Republic. Everything takes a bit more time here.”

Jakub Hošták, another hip-hop artist on the scene, believes the following artists are top-ranked: Metrix Steel, Kraus MC, Pokoj25, Fosco Alma, Marpo, and Svarta. 

Non-native Czech speakers might feel marginalized by Czech hip-hop. Considering most, if not all, hip-hop in the Czech Republic is in Czech, some foreign listeners might struggle to identify themselves in the lyrics. Unable to understand, non-native Czech hip-hop enthusiasts can only evaluate based on samples, beats, and song development rather than lyrical content. Nonetheless, experts in the field have assured listeners that most Czech hip-hop differs greatly in lyrical content from its foreign counterparts  – predominantly white and middle class, the lyrics include minimal references to drugs and almost zero talk of guns, money, or girls. While some have the simple life, fun, and friends as common themes, others protest and rebel against fascism and neo-nazis. 

Language barrier aside, Czech hip-hop is highly respected. An 80s group called Manžele (Husbands) toured illegally, breaking down walls built by the regime. They drew attention to the original intention of hip-hop – a form of self-expression in oppressive circumstances. 

Some groups who have been marginalized in Europe have carried the hip-hop banner. Roma rappers speak to the unjust nature of the environment in which they live, survive, and flourish. Still a minority on the scene, they are slowly gaining popularity. Gypsy.cz, Angel Mafia, and United Gypsy Crew have surfaced to prove themselves within the hip-hop game. 

Contrary to other hip-hop scenes, Czechs are not in the business to get rich. With very little capital to be made in the Czech Republic, many claim they are in the game because it is their calling – the drive comes from the heart. Passionate about the style and form, Czech hip-hop artists are moved by something that goes beyond the bling-bling and cha-ching.

Hip-hop captured the attention of film director Pavel Abrahám, who recently followed the rappers Hugo Toxx, Orion, and James Cole in his documentary The Česká RAPublika. Painting portraits of the rappers, Abrahám highlighted the correlation between the Velvet Revolution, graffiti, and protest as key factors in Czech hip-hop evolution. The roots of hip-hop might not be very old, but they run deep to the soul of the Czech people. 

As the world of hip-hop grows, so does the number of followers. Hip-hop fans recognise the value embedded in beats and rhymes as today’s version of graffiti on the wall. Much like the protestors of yesteryear, hip-hop artists will not be silenced – their voices rise up like fists and flames, reminders that the spoken and written word are a version of poetic justice. Hip-hop ignites people’s will to move both their minds and their bodies and, if nothing else, gives us the freedom to march to the beat of a different drum track.

 

This article was written for Edition 7 of Oko! Magazine to read the full online version of the magazine for free click HERE.