Meet the Ticks!: Diversity, Solidarity, and Collective Action in Leftist German Hip-Hop
The following is a response to Bernardo Proletariat’s December 2014 call to start a conversation on building cooperation among hip-hop artists and anarchist political organizations (“The Emanci-funktion of the Working Class”).
By Terence Kumpf (for World Hip Hop Market)
Hip-hop in Germany today is varied, vibrant, and robust. Organized along genre lines such as hipster, entertainment, pop, battle rap, horrorcore, and porno (yes, pornorap), the recent Deutschrap Periodensystem (“Periodic Table of German Hip-Hop”) highlights key past, present, and emerging artists—even while neglecting, in this author’s view, crucial figures like Microphone Mafia and Chaoze One. Nevertheless the table does provide a quick overview of the flavors and formulas hip-hop musicians in Germany draw upon to shape their styles, sounds, and images.
Also underrepresented on the chart are a number of artists strongly aligned with the longstanding antifascist movement (Antifa), the German arm of the European-wide organization that exposes and confronts nationalism, racism, classism, and sexism. Under the heading Linksrap (left rap), the compilers of the German periodic table allocate just one space to Sookee, the preeminent queer-feminist rapper (and self-fashioned “quing of berlin”) who advocates for queer/trans acceptance and, more recently, promotes up-and-coming female artists to open up space for women in an otherwise deeply male-dominated scene (Female Focus 2015). Other musicians left out include Johnny Mauser and vocalist Marie Curry (of Hamburg-based Neonschwarz), rappers Refpolk and Kobito (of Berlin’s Schlagzeiln), Spezial-K (one half of Nuremburg’s Kurzer Prozess), DJs KaiKani and Spion Y, and producer LeijiONE. Question: why are producers and DJs almost always left off these lists?
These artists, and many more, collaborate as TickTickBoom (TTB), a deeply left-oriented collective whose members proudly self-identify as Zecke and produce a style of conscious hip-hop they call Zeckenrap. Their calling card, “Wissen wer die Zecken sind” (loosely translated, “Meet the Ticks”), introduces the group and its main concerns. (Historical note: Zecke, meaning “tick,” was an epithet against critics of the Nazi regime in the Third Reich. Members of Germany’s extreme right still use the term today to disparage the antifascist left.) TickTickBoom’s aim is political action through cultural practice: organizing, demonstrating, raising awareness, partying, dancing, and representing. Looking for an example for how hip-hop and deep-left politics and/or anarchism can work together? Look no further—TickTickBoom is a great start. But how far left does an artist, or a group of artists, have to go before becoming anarchist? Is hip-hop, and especially rap music, so deeply rooted in heteronormativity and profit as to be incompatible with anarchism, or can those urges be tempered—subverted, even—to overcome the debilitating effects of consumerism, sexism, and classism?
According to the group’s website, TickTickBoom is comprised of more than twenty singers, DJ*anes,* producers, organizers, graphic designers, and rappers. From studio releases (2014’s HERZ|SCHLAG) and music videos (“BOOM,” “SBKLTR,” and “Zusammenhänge”) to concerts (Zeckenrap Gala), workshops (beatmaking, deejaying, emceeing, spraying, and event organization), pre-show panel discussions, and pamphleteering (Deutschrap den Deutschen?, an effort to expose underground extreme rightwing rap groups), TTB works collectively to build and maintain a movement of people committed to a number of social justice issues. Working alongside Refugees Welcome and Kein Mensch Ist Illegal, two organizations that seek to prevent hate crime against foreigners and migrants, TTB’s cultural-political agenda solidifies, and their engagement with the aforementioned becomes particularly cogent in relation to Dresden, Germany’s widely publicized Pegida movement, a populist organization built on nativist rhetoric thought to enable transgressions against foreigners.
To borrow Bernardo’s phrase, TickTickBoom’s members are hardly studio revolutionaries. But are they anarchists? Many of these artists, both individually and collectively, practice the “Name Your Price” philosophy common among independent artists today. (HERZ|SCHLAG is available as a free download with a suggested price of 18€ for its double vinyl format.) Regarding merchandise, TTB’s label, Springstoff, observes ethical business practices by partnering with EarthPositive and the Fair Wear Foundation to produce and sell t-shirts manufactured from climate-neutral cotton in worker-first textile mills. These choices are significant, especially in light of self-professed “revolutionary” artists whose merch is still produced in sweatshops in Honduras, Guatemala, or other low-wage countries. TTB and Springstoff profess and practice a brand of left-wing market anarchism that neither completely spurns capitalist principles nor becomes corrupted by them. They enact the change they long to see. Does that make them anarchists?
Anarchism, to my understanding, is about liberation, flat (or zero) hierarchies, and an utter lack of authoritarian domination. Uncovering TickTickBoom’s internal decision-making processes might yield further insight, and it would be quite fascinating to learn how an artistic collective operates according to far left political principles. But as TTB’s members have taken to referring to themselves as ticks (Zecke), this author doesn’t feel comfortable calling them—or anyone else, for that matter—anarchists. The term itself is laden with all sorts of historical baggage. But surely anarchism is about people, and recent revolutionary movements in Egypt and Turkey have demonstrated how decentralized platforms like Twitter can assist revolutionary political organization and action. Meanwhile hip-hop artists’ careers thrive on today’s social networking platforms. Are the more positive contours of anarchism compatible with hip-hop? TickTickBoom seems to suggest yes.
Hip-hop itself is comprised of a well known set of cultural practices rooted in reinvention; anarchism is an open political philosophy noted for its many varieties. The ways through which hip-hop and anarchism might synergistically interact are manifold, limited only by the imaginations of those involved. Sookee, one member of TickTickBoom, practices a bold form of feminist hip-hop. She typically codes herself visually in purple and black, the colors of anarcha-feminism. Is she an anarchist? Better ask her. But when it comes to anarchism (dare we call it the A-word?), most people seem uncomfortable with it, due in large part to the way it has been misused to denigrate radicals and pariahs committed to violence. Today, as in the past, anarchism lurks in the shadows. Why? In the words of Emma Goldman, one of its chief proponents, anarchism is a social philosophy aimed at the emancipation—economic, social, political, and spiritual—of the human race. Who isn’t down with that? Perhaps the bigger question is how far hip-hop, too often mired in a number of regressive behaviors, is actually committed to liberation. If that question can be answered, then perhaps anarchism and hip-hop can meaningfully work together. They just might achieve goals neither is able to envision, or reach, on its own.
Terence Kumpf is a Ph.D. candidate at the RuhrCenter of American Studies in Dortmund, Germany. His research project deals with hip-hop in Germany and the United States in a comparative perspective. He can be reached via email here. Shout out to Sole and DJ Pain 1 whose track “I Think I’m Emma Goldman” explicitly links anarchism with hip-hop.
* DJ*anes (not a typo) is a fine example of how the group uses language to draw attention to the fact that women are underrepresented in deejay culture.