Germany’s Music Industry Association (BVMI) decided yesterday to discontinue the ECHO Awards, Germany’s equivalent of the Grammys, and the country’s foremost music prize for decades. The decision stemmed from backlash over this year’s best hip-hop album award, which was presented to a rap-duo Farid Bang and Kollegah whose lyrics include, among other things, a vow to “make another Holocaust, show up with a Molotov.”
In a statement on their website, the BVMI admitted that “The Echo brand is so badly damaged that a complete new beginning is necessary,” explaining that they “do not want this music prize to be perceived as a platform for anti-Semitism, contempt for women, homophobia or the blurring of violence.”
The board expressed contrition and a hope to prevent the same “mistake” from happening again: “The events surrounding this year’s ECHO, for which the Board apologized, cannot be reversed, but will ensure that such a mistake does not happen again in the future.”
The award ceremony, which took place on April 12— Holocaust Remembrance Day—instantly caused an uproar in the music community. At the event, Campino, the singer for the German punk band Die Toten Hosen condemned the duo’s lyrics on stage saying, “It crosses the line of acceptability when lyrics include misogynistic, homophobic, right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic insults.” The message received a standing ovation.
Later, when the rap duo took the stage, they mocked Campino. Kollegah said he had drawn a picture of Campino with a halo and would be auctioning it for a good cause.
Heiko Maas, Germany’s minister of foreign affairs, quickly condemned the award on Twitter: “Anti-Semitic provocations do not deserve awards, they are simply disgusting.” He added, “That such a prize was handed out on Holocaust Remembrance Day is shameful.”
Germany’s recording industry association initially defended its choice in the name of artistic freedom. Though it had criticized the lyrics, the BVMI explained that nominations are based on popularity and rankings on music charts, not artistic quality.
The defense shifted the light from offensive lyrics to an even more troubling issue: the millions of young fans who rally behind those lyrics, generations removed from the horrors of the Holocaust.
Kollegah has 1.4 million followers on Instagram, and they skew young. “Young, Brutal, Good-Looking 3,” the album that won Kollegah and Farid Bang the Echo, was streamed 23 million times on Spotify in the first week of its release. The album includes a song in which the two brag that their bodies are “more defined than Auzshwitz prisoners.” In his song “Apokalypse,” with over 2 million views on YouTube, Kollegah intimates that demon-like Jews spearhead the evil that exists in the world.
This year, Angela Merkel’s government appointed its first-ever anti-Semitism coordinator, in response to reports that incidents are increasing, especially among German youth.
What’s more, recent studies show the Holocaust is receding from memory, especially in younger generations. According to a study by Forsa, a Berlin-based private-sector research institute, 41 percent of German junior high and high school students say they do not know that Auschwitz was a German death camp.
Kollegah and Farid Bang’s record company BMG initially stood by the controversial album, saying it would not dictate the content of its artists’ music, but announced the company would be donating 100,000 euros to a campaign to fight anti-semitism in Germany, particularly among schoolchildren.
By last Thursday, continued backlash caused them to change their stance. BMG’s chairman Hartwig Masuch told the German newspaper FAZ that the company was putting its cooperation with Farid Bang and Kollegah, “on hold… in order to further discuss the issue.” They will not be releasing the duo’s next album.
“We deeply apologize to the people whose feelings were hurt by the rap duo’s lyrics,” said Masuch, who said this episode is a “wake up call” for the industry.
Since the ceremony, prominent musicians have returned their prizes in protest. Klaus Voormann, who designed the cover for The Beatle’s Revolver, returned the lifetime achievement Echo he was awarded at this year’s ceremony. He told Deutsche Welle that “What had felt like a gift to me on the occasion of my 80th birthday has revealed itself to be a big disappointment.”
Iraeli-born Conductor Daniel Barenboim, the music director of the Berlin State Opera, returned his award, explaining in a statement that “decency and humanity” must outweigh “commercial interests.”
Barenboim and Voorman were joined by Italian conductor Fabio Luisi, the principle conductor of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, pianist Igor Levit and German rock giant Marius Müller-Westernhagen, who returned the seven awards he won between 1992 and 2017.
Yesterday, two weeks after the incident that sparked the uproar, the BVMI board announced it would be scrapping the awards entirely.
Earlier in the month Farid Bang, born Farid El Abdellaoui to parents of North African origin, apologized in a letter to 93-year-old Holocaust survivor and musician Esther Bejarano for any offense caused by their lyrics.
Kollegah, 33, a Muslim convert whose real name is Felix Blum, defended the lyrics, arguing that they had been “misinterpreted.” The duo have said that they have anti-Israeli views, but that they are not anti-Semitic. They have offered Jewish people free lifetime tickets to any of their concerts.
On the one hand, the popularity of the hateful lyrics that engendered this drama is a troubling sign of a growing issue in Germany, and globally. The duo’s confusing stance on anti-Semitism, and the offensiveness of their lyrics is a red flag for exactly the type of discussions that Tiger Within raises.
On the other hand, the rallying cry of dozens of prominent musicians, business leaders, and politicians in Germany and around the world to denounce those lyrics and condemn their prejudice shows that in this instance, human dignity prevailed.
It sends a message to the pair’s millions of young listeners that this type of hate is not acceptable. It is a reassuring echo of the final message of Tiger Within—that like Samuel, those who challenge bigotry can help to combat ignorance and change the future perceptions of our youngest generations.