Kosovo’s influence on British pop
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GARTH CARTWRIGHT on the story of two of Britain's brightest pop talents – both the daughters of Kosovar refugee families – and how entwined they remain with that region's delicate politics.
When London grime star Wiley unleashed a series of anti-Semitic tweets in late July he gained a national prominence far beyond his status as an entertainer. His messages prompted many people to join a 48-hour social media ban as a protest over hate speech being left visible on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram while attracting much coverage in broadsheets and tabloids, on radio and TV (and, of course, across social media). The rapper had created one of those on-line car crashes where many observe in horror – and a few in glee – as a celebrity reveals their toxic self.
Paradoxically, only days earlier another London-based musician had also set off a Twitter storm, yet received almost no media coverage here. That's because Dua Lipa, the hugely successful 24-year old pop singer, didn't tweet about issues of interest to British media.
Instead, Lipa tweeted in support of a 'Greater Albania' and across the Balkans this sparked an internet firestorm akin to those triggered by anti-Semitism or Brexit here.
Lipa's tweet contained the image of a map flanked by two men and contained a link to a change.org petition that would call on tech giant Apple to display Kosovo as an independent country on its Apple Maps app.
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This petition was created by a 20-year-old UK-based Albanian software developer a week prior to Lipa's tweet and, as of writing, close to 190,000 people have clicked to sign. While the petition is innocuous enough (its wording reading 'It is very worrying that Kosovo is not shown on Apple Maps. You can hardly see its borders and the worst thing is that it is shown as a part of Serbia. This needs to change ASAP because Kosovo has been an independent country since 2008'), Lipa's tweet didn't explicitly mention the petition or any personal concern over Apple Maps.
Instead, hers focused on a banner that showed a map of Balkan territories which Albanian nationalists claim have an Albanian majority. These include areas outside of the Albanian state – 'Greater Albania' merges Albania and all of contested Kosovo, bites off big chunks of North Macedonia and Montenegro and claims territory in Serbia and Greece.
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The banner saw the map flanked by pictures of two 'founding fathers' — one of whom was Kosovar — and the word 'autochthonous' painted beneath the map. Above the banner Lipa had written the dictionary definition: 'au·toch·thon·ous adjective (of an inhabitant of a place) indigenous rather than descended from migrants or colonists.'
Lipa's employing of autochthonous with a map of 'Greater Albania' implies that Albanians are the indigenous majority in those areas. Beyond being factually wrong – Albanians are a majority only in Albania and Kosovo – this is irredentism, a populist tool that plays on mythos/nostalgia to reclaim (usually on behalf of the corresponding purported nation), and seek to occupy territory that the movement's members consider to be a 'lost' (or 'unredeemed') territory.
'Greater Albania' – like the 'Greater Serbia' Slobodan Miloševic tried so brutally to create (which would have included Kosovo) – is a nationalist construct. And here was one of Britain's foremost pop performers endorsing such.
That the UK media paid scant attention is unsurprising – the Balkans are often viewed, from these shores, as hostile, primitive and riven with ethnic hatred since time out of mind – but in the region (and in certain EU states where closer attention is paid) Lipa's tweet caused an online pile-up, being both condemned and celebrated.
The most articulate Twitter takedown came from Florian Bieber, an Austrian academic and Balkans expert, who replied with a series of messages. These read (in order) 'stu·pid nat·ion·alism, when you believe that your nation has more rights for being in a place longer than others (and share such maps)', 'The map also suggests some territory to which Albanians are 'autochthonous' and thus have ownership, but others live on the same territory, Serbs, Montenegrins, Greeks, Bosniaks, Macedonians. They all can claim to be equally autochthonous', 'It also suggest that migrants should be excluded or less worthy. Hardly a message for anybody who, like herself, represents the ability for the child of migrants to succeed.'
Some 'Greater Albania' advocates responded to Bieber's tweets by claiming he didn't 'understand the truth' and that Dua is British purely due to ethnic cleansing – even as Balkan/showbiz hyperbole this is a touch too much.
As often is the case when dealing with nationalism in the Balkans facts get twisted, refuge is taken and victimhood is claimed by all. To untangle how a leading London pop star came to send such an explosive tweet it is necessary to begin with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, this sending Lipa's parents from Pristina to London in 1992. She was born here three years later. The family returned to Kosovo in 2006 when her father accepted a job there. Aged 15, Dua returned to London where she focused on breaking into the music industry as a singer.
She won modelling assignments and in 2013, while working as a waitress in a cocktail bar (just as the Human League once sang), she was signed by a management company. They put her on salary to develop her skills as a singer and performer and, in 2015, she signed to Warner Brothers Records.
Immediate success in several European territories followed and, in 2018, she won two Brit awards (British Female Solo Act, British Breakthrough Act). Releasing her sophomore album Future Nostalgia in March 2020, she topped the UK charts alongside huge success across Europe, the US, Brazil, Korea and Australasia.
Her music is slick, well crafted, inane and bears no comparison with the confrontational Tamal rapper/singer M.I.A. (also born in London before spending much of her childhood in Sri Lanka) or Adele and the late Amy Winehouse, both of whom were singers first and foremost. Dua has been moulded as a pop star akin to Kylie or Cheryl. Or Rita Ora.
Ora makes for the best comparison as she's also a London-based singer of Albanian heritage. Born in Pristina in 1990, Ora arrived in London with her parents in 1991: Yugoslavia was disintegrating and, as with Lipa's parents, many chose to leave before the inevitable conflict exploded.
Ora began singing as a teenager in the London pub her father ran and, by 2008, had management and, by 2010, a record deal. She was marketed as a British version of the Barbadian r&b superstar Rihanna and enjoyed a series of UK hit singles. Ora is a savvy operator, regularly appearing as judge or host on TV talent shows alongside endorsing everything from sneakers and scents to soft drinks and software (for today's pop stars, where fans stream your music, branding brings in the greatest income – Ora has only released two albums in 10 years as a performer). She was a multi-millionaire well before her 30th birthday.
Like Lipa, Ora is proud of her Kosovan heritage: she filmed the video for 2012's Shine Ya Light in Pristina (this features the singer and her fans using their hands to make the double eagle sign that symbolises the Albanian people) and, in 2015, was appointed an honorary ambassador of Kosovo.
More subtle than Lipa in her politics, earlier this month she made headlines as one of the most famous signatures of a strongly worded document – published shortly after Wiley's outburst – that aims to clarify an industry-wide position against prejudice and hate speech.
For all their patriotism, neither singer has yet released any material where they sing in Albanian or reference southern Balkan musical traditions, both trading in a generic, stadium pop.
London's two Kosovar pop princesses are not friends (while never displaying any enmity – at least in public).
That, out of the two million-plus east European and Balkan citizens who have settled in the UK over the past 30 years, it is two children of Kosovar parents who best symbolise migrant rags-to-riches achievement is fascinating to old Bloc watchers like me.
Both the Ora and Dupa families arrived here prior to Kosovo gaining its independence courtesy of Nato's 1999 bombing campaign. That action came amid collective western guilt and public outcry over what Serbia had wreaked in Bosnia earlier in the decade. When Milosevic's troops set about brutalising a predominantly Muslim Kosovar populace, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair sent the bombers in.
Celebrations in the west were quickly muted after the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), suddenly gifted control of their 'homeland', enthusiastically (and violently) ethnically cleansed long-settled civilian Serb and Roma communities.
Their activities were little commented on then but charges have been slowly forthcoming against both Serb and Kosovar commanders involved in that conflict and, in June this year, Kosovo's president Hashim Thaci was indicted for war crimes – allegedly carried out in the 1990s, when he was a senior KLA officer – while in flight to the USA to meet Donald Trump. Here and in Bosnia the Yugoslav conflict remains unfinished.
What happens to Thaci in The Hague will make little difference to his homeland. For Kosovo is, to put it bluntly, approaching failed state status: a political and business elite mired in corruption allegations have contributed to Kosovars making up the largest number of refugees seeking entry to EU nations from a non-conflict zone.
Speaking of conflict zones, the greatest number of Isis recruits from any European nation were Kosovar. Kosovo is hugely reliant on US support – Pristina has its Bill Clinton statue (and Ul Toni Bler, a street named in honour of the former PM) – and is a potential candidate for future EU membership (the euro is its official currency). Membership is unlikely anytime soon, Emmanuel Macron has made clear his distrust of the southern Balkan states (the prevalence of Albanian criminals in the EU seemingly having shaped his position).
Upon visiting Kosovo I found much of the infrastructure disintegrating, decaying concrete buildings and black marble tombs honouring KLA 'martyrs' being constants.
That Lipa and Ora feel such intense pride in this brackish backwater is admirable. To find Lipa – whose public persona, at least, is of a fun-loving progressive (she endorsed Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 and Bernie Sanders in his White House bid) – tweeting in support of ethnic nationalism is especially depressing considering she has publicly supported BLM and gay marriage.
Following the controversy over her 'Greater Albania' tweet, she posted a statement saying she had not intended to 'incite any hate' and said her message had been 'wilfully misinterpreted by some groups and individuals who promote ethnic separatism, something I completely reject.
'Whenever I post about Kosovo, my feed goes crazy, even if it's about something as joyful as food and music, and I am met with a fierce resistance to the idea of an authentic Kosovan culture. We all deserve to be proud of our ethnicity and where we're from. I simply want my country to be represented on a map and to be able to speak with pride and joy about my Albanian roots and my mother country. I encourage everyone to embrace their heritage and to listen and learn from each other.'
These are inclusive words. Yet her 'Greater Albania' tweet remains on her feed.
As a reflection on how even the brightest stars amongst Albania's youthful diaspora view the ever unsettled Balkans, it bodes dark tidings.
'This is how Serb/Croat nationalism started in the 1980s and look where that ended up,' says Nick Nasev, a London-based translator and expert on the region.
'Considering how much all of the countries where Albanians live are in perpetual ruin, the dangerous concept ever gaining ground with the many unemployed youths in Kosovo and Macedonia (mimicking he situation in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s) is the only way that all of their problems will be solved is when a 100% ethnic Albanian 'autochthonous' Albania is finally achieved, free of all those 'recently arrived' Slavs and Roma. Only full-on conflict can achieve this, which I fear will happen, and, when it does happen, it's going to be very ugly.'
Pop music often hints at developments in culture long before the media overseers have any idea of what's going on. For now, Dua Lipa and Rita Ora are the yin and yang of London-based Albanian pop consciousness.
Watch this space (or, more pertinently, their Twitter feeds).
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