Challenging what it means to be German: Meet the hip hop party running for election

Croak

Challenging what it means to be German: Meet the hip hop party running for election

On the patio of a busy café in central Berlin, Hillebrand is explaining how the seed of founding a political party was planted in him and eventually led to him establishing Die Urbane.

“I wanted my art to be more political rather than just entertaining. I asked myself what I could do as an artist and a citizen,” the 35-year-old dancer and choreographer says.

At the beginning of the year, after much thought over which party he would support in the federal election, Hillebrand started to grow dissatisfied. But not voting on September 24th wasn’t an option. A few months and endless hours of canvassing later, on May 1st Die Urbane officially became Germany’s youngest political party.

Hillebrand had managed to gather 2,177 signatures from eligible voters - at least 2,000 signatures are necessary in order to be admitted to run in the Bundestag (German parliament) election under federal law.

Merging hip hop with politics

Now, only two weeks until the big vote, Die Urbane is on the ballot for the election, at least in the Berlin area. Up to 40 other small political parties and individual candidates hope to enter the Bundestag on that day too.

Some of them only show up on ballots in a particular state, others appear nationwide. All of them have a very slim chance of making it into the Bundestag, but together they create a diverse political landscape, offering voters an alternative from established parties like the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD).

For Hillebrand, no other political parties represent the “urban movement in culture and society” in Germany. He was able to set up Die Urbane partly because a strong network of people from various backgrounds and industries “all linked to hip hop” supported him.

He acknowledges though that merging hip hop with politics might seem unusual to some.

“But if you think of hip hop as an emerging culture of people in 1970s New York, of people from multicultural backgrounds who were marginalized from society and somehow got together and revolutionized the art scene - this became a role model for democratic processes in general,” he says.

This model forms the basis of Die Urbane, he adds.

“We’re about giving a voice to the voiceless and anti-discrimination.”

Hip hop and connecting with voters

For voters who cannot relate with hip hop just yet, Hillebrand explains that it forms the basis of their party because “it has an aesthetic, it is self-expression and it has things that speak to people like dancing, language and music.”

A glance at Die Urbane’s website makes it clear that these aspects are crucial to what the party is all about. There’s a photo of Hillebrand striking a dance pose on the homepage. Aesthetics associated with hip hop culture such as graffiti are used in banners, promotional videos and on t-shirts.

Lots of English language words and phrases taken from the culture are also incorporated on the site. “Holla at us” is written in bold in the section listing all the ways someone can get in touch with them via social media.

The heading on the website where you can donate money to the party for things like events and placards is titled “C.R.E.A.M” - the name of a song by American hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan which stands for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.”

Several American conscious rappers such as KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy have all been influential figures for Hillebrand in setting up his party. But German rappers have been significant too.

Advanced Chemistry is one group in particular which paved the way for political German hip hop in the early 90s by tackling issues considered controversial at the time. Their song “Fremd den eigenen Land” - translated as “Stranger in one’s own country” - to this day resonates with Hillebrand because it challenges notions of what it means to be German.

“I wish we had more German rappers who took this kind of social responsibility,” Hillebrand says.

A question of nationality

Born in Hong Kong to a German mother and French-Madagascan father and raised in Berlin, Hillebrand admits he doesn’t necessarily identify as being German. He wouldn’t want to choose any one nationality, either.

“National identity is just something to separate people and divide; I identify more with my city or my neighbourhood,” he says.

This sentiment is reflected in a video posted on Die Urbane’s Facebook page. The video, which has so far garnered over 3,600 views, shows people of various ethnicities describing modern-day Germany’s shortcomings from their perspective.

“It’s always been the case in our society that being heard depends on whether you’re German or not,” laments one woman.

“And whether you’re German or not is determined unfortunately by the colour of your skin, your religion and where you’re from,” adds one of the men in the video.

“For me it's normal to be surrounded by Palestinians and Israelis, Syrians, Indians, etc. We have something that binds us,” says Hillebrand.

According to him, Die Urbane stands out from parties like Die Linke (The Left Party) and the Green Party precisely because of its immediate perspective on multicultural coexistence.

Migration, voting rights and dual citizenship

Seeing multiculturalism as having potential in society rather than considering it a threat is one of the top three goals in Die Urbane’s manifesto; the party also takes a strong stance on migration.

Migration mustn’t be treated as if it’s a problem, Hillebrand argues.

This is one of the reasons why Die Urbane has been fighting for a law which entitles non-German citizens who have lived in Germany for at least two years to be able to vote.

Currently the law states only German citizens over the age of 18 may vote in federal elections. In local elections in Germany, however, EU citizens are entitled vote.

Hillebrand says the realization that a large number of people do not have voting rights in the national election dawned on him while he was collecting signatures before the party’s launch.

“The people who are here are the society. If they are always just guests, they're never going to get in contact and we need them to make this democracy run,” he says.

Another major theme on Die Urbane’s platform is dual citizenship, where people who choose to live in Germany long-term should be able to retain or apply for German citizenship without having to give up another one.

Making people choose “isn’t realistic anymore” and “rips the identity of people apart,” Hillebrand says.

Except in certain circumstances, Germany does not allow dual citizenship for non-EU nationals. Canadians for instance may not hold both a Canadian and a German passport.

It’s different though for the Turkish community in Germany, the largest immigrant group in the country.

In 2014, Germany changed a law to allow German-born teenagers with roots in Turkey to keep both German citizenship and that of their parents.

But in the current election campaign, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party want this reform undone and are calling for a legal requirement for children born in Germany to foreign parents to decide on one nationality by age 24.

Many young people of Turkish origin don’t want to give up their citizenship because “they don't want to be a guest in their own country when they go home each year,” Hillebrand argues.

Down-to-earth and in touch

Seeking to reach voters who have turned their backs on traditional parties as well as motivate youth to become politically active, Die Urbane places a strong emphasis not only on culture and education, but also on being down-to-earth and in touch with everyday people.

The party’s slogan is “Wir sind du,” which translates to “We are you.” The slogan has two meanings, Hillebrand explains. In addition to the letters D and U which stand for Die Urbane, the slogan also communicates the party’s mission to keep interaction with voters on a personal, face-to-face level.

This is exactly what Hillebrand says his party’s direct candidate Frithjof Zerger is doing.

Zerger, the politician representing Die Urbane for Berlin’s Friedrichshain / Kreuzberg / Prenzlauer Berg East constituency, used to live in southeast Asia and Morocco. He’s also lived in Berlin for over a decade and in addition to hip hop, he’s a fan of classical, jazz and electronic music.

Just last weekend Zerger and Hillebrand rode the subway together in Berlin talking to people about what moves them and what Germany’s future looks like.

Election campaigning over the past few months has been a “thrilling experience” for Hillebrand. But he’s quick to point out that Die Urbane wasn’t created as a short-term project; he’s in it for the long haul.

When asked what he hopes to achieve on September 24th, Hillebrand is optimistic.

No matter what happens, his goal of initiating debates, raising public awareness and “testing whether it’s really a rigged system” will have been realized.

Die Urbane’s accomplishments can only result in a “win-win situation,” he says.

“Whatever vote we get won't be wasted because each vote will make us work harder in the future.”

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