Protest Song in Germany
“Destroy What Destroys You!”

Hip-hop artists like the trio Ok Kid! from Cologne often become a new generation of protest singers.
Photo (detail): Stefan Braunbarth / Sony

Underground has become complicated. Because it assumes that there are norms that must be protested against. Nestled in the comfort of a consumer culture, however, this is difficult. Today it is hip-hop that best manages the balancing act of protesting credibility. But the way there was bumpy.

Pop music in Germany has had numerous British and American midwives. The hip-swinging southern truck-driver Elvis Aaron Presley, for example, arrived in Bremenhaven in 1958 with the troopship General Randall. Two years later the Liverpool Beatles painted the Hamburg Reeperbahn red. Out of the worship of these originals soon arose German bands and solo careers. In February 1963, for instance, the Rattles, around singer Achim Reichel, won a band competition at the Star Club in Hamburg and thereupon were regarded as the German Beatles. The “protest” in this still awkward and school English-singing subculture confined itself to “feminine” hair length and a wild life beyond the typical German virtues.

Beginnings of protest pop

Protest in pop, manifested in formulated texts, is supposed to have begun parallel to the invention of the hippie culture on the American West Coast and the psychedelic drug trips of the 1960s. Whether the song writers around Franz-Josef Degenhardt at the medieval fortress Waldeck in the Rhineland-Palatinate invented the “Against” in the German music scene may be disputed. At any rate, a broad social climate was first tangible in the big cities only in 1969, when the song Macht Kaputt, Was Euch Kaputt Macht (i.e. Destroy What Destroys You) by the Berlin anarchist poets Ton, Steine, Scherben (literally: Clay Stone Shards) began making waves.

From then on, a scene formed that realized musically conveyed protest in political and social terms. The rock and folk bards had to find their own language, for German at the time belonged to the world of pop songs and so was looked upon as at the very least uncool. The opposition became more substantial in events such as the “Essen Song Days” (founded in 1968) or in individual careers such as those of the expatriated East German civil rights activist Bettina Wegner and her powerfully eloquent compatriot Wolf Biermann.

After the Düsseldorf artist Joseph Beuys sang Sonne statt Reagan (with verses like “Man, wrinkle-face, the game is over. Take your missiles home!”) and the Cologne group Gänsehaut (i.e. Goosebumps) composed the environmental activist ballad Karl, der Käfer (i.e. Karl, the Beetle, 1983), sung protest became popular beyond the circles of left-over hippy revolutionaries. Stylistically, however, this scene remained confined to the spectrum of folk music; the “rockers”, apart from the part about shards, held their protest lyrics aloof from it. A word artist like Udo Lindenberg preferred to sing about rough motorcycle rockers and other sinister figures.
Ton Steine Scherben: Macht kaputt was euch kaputt macht, source: YouTube

Subculture and New German Wave

With the brief flare-up of punk and New German Wave, music texts in German then found a broader stylistic basis. Electronic musicians, guitar-tormentors and minimalists – all experimented with the mother tongue. Protest, Dada and exponents of the New Music all influenced one another, at first largely unmolested by the major labels of the record industry and the flair of the subculture. The denizens of this urban underground made a point of marking themselves off from what was perceived to be commercial German rock, including bands and artists such as BAP from Cologne, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Lage and Wolf Maahn.

It was the decidedly socially critical texts of the fun-punk band Die Ärzte (i.e. The Doctors) in the later 1980s that first surmounted the boundary between the protesting rock establishment and most young post-punks. After similar punk beginnings, Die Goldenen Zitronen (i.e. The Golden Lemons) also allowed themselves to be inspired by krautrock and budding hip-hop; songs such as Das bisschen Totschlag (i.e. That Little Bit of Manslaughter) (1994) denounced the right-wing extremism of the Wende years and German politics’s and law’s lax handling of brown violence. The second generation anarcho-punk of the 1990s brought with it hardly any new stylistic forms, instead agitating in wild guitar staccato against right-wing violence, arbitrary government authority and the German army drill, as did the Swabian band Wizo in Doof wie Sch… (i.e. Dumb as Shi …).

With the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the German-language adaptation of the originally New York suburb creation of rap, the generation of then twenty-year-olds were also seized by “lyrics and protest”. The hip-hop track Fremd im Eigenen Land (i.e. Strangers in Their Own Land) by the Heidelberg trio Advanced Chemistry (1992), for instance, set an early counterpoint to the casual fun rhymes of the far more successful Stuttgart quartet of the Fantastische Vier (i.e. Fantastic Four). Whether critical, satirical or banal, you were again allowed to compose lyrics in German and an entire generation of young musicians, ranging from the Hamburg School to the rural resistance in dialect à la Ringsgwandl or Kofelgschroa, dared something. Some raised their voices even in the direction of art, such as Peter Licht from Cologne, who composed his Lieder vom Ende des Kapitalismus (i.e. Songs about the End of Capitalism) in 2006.

Hip-hop as a voice

While the garish hedonists of the techno era with their party mood could hardly have been more conformist and consumerist, in hip-hop a new if incongruosuly articulated protest potential grew up in the grey suburbs. Thus today, in their Es ist die Systematik (i.e. It’s the Systematic), the capitalism-critical Anarchist Academy texts: “No one knows what hunger really is, and what it means to be a refugee”. Commercially more successful groups such as the Cologne cross-over crew Ok Kid! and the rapper Caspar, on the other hand, slave away at the general malaise of “Generation Y” and show up the fascists from next door in songs like Gute Menschen (i.e. Good People) (Ok Kid!, 2015). But this hardly leads to a real underground scene. There remain individual voices, like that of the Erfurt songwriter Sarah Lesch, whose song Testament won the “Protestsongcontest” in Vienna in February 2016, a song devoted to society in general and to the perceived inhumanity of school in particular.

So the boundaries between artistic resistance and market-smart cleverness have become fluid. At a time when the economic gap between rich superstars and permanently precarious artists yawns ever greater, the artistic juggling of market and opportunity, dependence and autonomy, has become a challenge. It belongs to the essence of pop music that private feelings are highlighted. The opposite path of declaring politics a private affair has been transformed from the empathy of the 1970s into the reservation of the present. For from honest, upright protest to the transparently embarrassing is often the difference of only a few lines, and many artists have here become cautious.