Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In Quiet Switzerland, Outspoken Rapper Takes on the Far Right

In Quiet Switzerland, Outspoken Rapper Takes on the Far Right

ZURICH — A version of the culture wars, albeit a Swiss version, has been unfolding here beyond the boxes of geraniums and shops hawking $10,000 watches.

Switzerland’s leading rapper, Stress, has come out with a new album, “Kings, Pawns and Bishops.” After provoking a minor scandal a few years ago with a song whose title had an expletive before the name of Christoph Blocher, the leader of the ultranationalist Swiss People’s Party, the country’s most popular party, Stress dishes out some more of the same this time.

In person a cordial 30-year-old immigrant from Estonia (born Andres Andrekson), Stress was raised by his mother in Lausanne and is married to a former Miss Switzerland. After college, he worked at Procter & Gamble on the Swiss Mr. Clean account. His last album went double platinum here, which for a nation of 7.6 million, culturally split among German, French and Italian speakers, meant sales topped 85,000.

Mr. Blocher, a chemicals tycoon, himself descended from Swabian immigrants from Germany (not that he makes a point of it), was until the end of 2007 the country’s justice minister. Now 68, he rose to political power as leader of the Swiss People’s Party: demonizing immigrants (in a country whose population is 20 percent foreigners, mostly Western Europeans), bashing the European Union, trumpeting privatization, lowering taxes and advocating traditional values.

The program resonated with big money and rural voters. The Swiss People’s Party won 29 percent in the last election, the highest percentage of any party, and about as high as any far-right party in Western Europe has won.

Culture has played its role. Mr. Blocher used his own collection of works by 19th-century painters like Albert Anker and Ferdinand Hodler in shows he organized to illustrate what he has said represent wholesome Swiss ideals: women in the home, farmers milking cows, a nation historically separated from outsiders by more than just mountains.

It was after Mr. Blocher’s party helped to defeat a 2004 referendum that would have made it easier for the children and grandchildren of immigrants to obtain Swiss passports that Stress wrote his song about Mr. Blocher. “There is no cursing in it,” he was keen to point out over lunch the other day. Members of Mr. Blocher’s party naturally accused the rapper of provoking a fuss to sell records, which it did. “But the song really was about telling young people, after the referendum failed, that we shouldn’t think we can’t make a difference,” Stress said. “The referendum failed because young people didn’t vote for it.”

Stress wasn’t the only Swiss artist to attack Mr. Blocher and the Swiss People’s Party. The artist Thomas Hirschhorn designed a multimedia exhibition at the Swiss Cultural Center in Paris. “Blocher is not a dictator,” Mr. Hirschhorn allowed at the time. “But he legitimizes Swiss xenophobia, isolationism, nationalism.” Infuriated conservatives slashed $1.1 million from the $38.9 million annual budget for the government-financed foundation that runs the center. A committee to promote folk music and more traditional Swiss arts, the kinds Mr. Blocher likes, was devised.

The response belonged to a broader cultural agenda by the People’s Party. “We call it the Americanization of Swiss politics,” explained Pascal Sciarini, who runs the political science department at the University of Geneva. “Crime has remained the same in recent years, but Blocher and his allies cultivate a sense of insecurity by running a permanent political campaign, particularly against immigrants, and this resonates with Swiss people who fear change and find comfort in traditional 19th-century values.”

Jérôme Meizoz, a political researcher at the University of Lausanne, elaborated. “Culture is not the major part of the People’s Party platform. But it’s been useful in spreading the view that the left controls the arts and the universities, so that there needs to be a counter model, more American, with private foundations, not public subsidies, except, of course, for exhibitions featuring nationalistic painters like the ones Blocher collects and concerts of yodeling or Glockenspiel.”

Stress laughed at that remark, when it was later recounted. “Blocher’s Switzerland is people in the mountains making cheese,” he said. “But you also have a Switzerland where people struggle to make ends meet. His party doesn’t represent the Switzerland where I grew up, which is made up of people who came to build the country, literally to build its buildings and streets. The Swiss People’s Party campaigns by using Osama bin Laden in posters about the threat of immigration. For me this is just unfair.”

He added: “Swiss people are not used to speaking their minds. The left wing parties haven’t wanted to lower themselves by reacting to Blocher’s tactics. So I just felt there had to be some reaction.”

Yuval and Shantala Dishon, a husband-and-wife duo, run a street theater company called Zanco in Geneva. Zanco staged its own protest, after a different referendum making it especially tough to gain asylum here passed with 68 percent of the vote in 2006. The company put on a show that toured the city’s public schools and neighborhoods. It told the story of a village that closed its doors to a foreigner and ended up never even learning who he was.

“Being politically outspoken is not usual for the cultural community here, we’re a quiet country, but some things need to be said,” Mr. Dishon said. “For more than 400 years, this city has been at least 30 percent foreigners. We live on a street called Swiss Village. Back in 1896 there was a fair here and bits of Swiss architecture from different cantons were combined to make houses on our street that supposedly represented Swiss culture. It’s the same thing Blocher’s party is doing by saying that Swiss flag tossing and the Alpenhorn represent the real Switzerland.”

Shantala Dishon pointed out a People’s Party poster in which native-born Swiss were white sheep, kicking a black sheep off the country’s flag. (The United Nations condemned it as racist.) The party also showed Swiss leftists as red rats, eating public money.

“Blocher’s party claimed the black sheep did not represent black people, but then it also put out an advertisement with black hands trying to grab a Swiss passport,” she noted. “It was in code, but in a code everyone could understand.”

Mr. Sciarini, the political scientist, went a bit further. “The party plays with the red line of racism without crossing it,” he said, “which means that no leader of the party is publicly racist but there’s still a strong message conveyed.”

Mr. Blocher declined a request to talk. Shunning the Swiss governing principle of collegiality and consensus as justice minister, he was kicked off the federal council by fellow parliamentarians, replaced by another member of his own party. Even so, his tough-on-crime, immigrants-out, traditional-values platform is still popular, notwithstanding that the Swiss economy and the overall low level of crime here, unlike in other parts of Europe, remain relatively stable. “It’s all a question of perception and political marketing,” is how Mr. Sciarini put it.

On one track, “The Fear of the Other,” from his new album, Stress asks, “Why do we let politicians manipulate our fears?” He began a song on his previous album, “Renaissance,” in German, pretending to telephone Mr. Blocher’s party headquarters, asking to speak with the former minister, “my friend.” Then he switches to French:

My Switzerland sees its future in multiculturalism.

My Switzerland doesn’t see mosques and minarets as a threat.

My Switzerland is open, pro-European

And she doesn’t make a fuss about granting citizenship to foreigners.

For Switzerland, that’s down and dirty political rap.

“No more talk — action,” Stress declared on the same song with Gries and Bligg, two German-speaking Swiss hip-hop stars, who went on to implore young people to vote. Stress included them to make sure his message crossed the country’s biggest language barrier.

This being Switzerland, the rappers added, “even if it means we have to be controversial.”

Sunday, May 24, 2009