My dissertation, Were the Balkans Made for Rap? was based on 20 months of fieldwork in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Artists in post-Yugoslav spaces (henceforth ex-YU) have different strategies for actively domesticating rap, DJ, and video compositions in a post-war, post-socialist context of new boundaries. The term “domestic” or “homemade” (domaće) shifts its meaning depending on how artists evaluate the politics of home and the present — from organic foods to urban musics, from Yugoslav history to EU rhetoric. The term carries affective and ideological weight given an ongoing contestation of identities that has accompanied a post-Cold War proliferation of borders, dominant values, and class distinctions.
On Page 99, I revisit insights of linguistic anthropologists and scholars of post-socialism in an effort to theorize what I call “brand acts.” One of the ways in which domestic hip hop artists assume ethical positions on post-socialist entertainments including music is through performances laden in references to brands.
Here’s an excerpt: “Drawing…on Briggs and Bauman (1992; see also Živković 2011), I am particularly interested in exploring the narrative techniques through which these artists lyrically craft social connections or, alternatively, distinctions through minimizing/maximizing intertextual gaps between narrations of their biographies, music distribution, and brands. Artists across the domestic scene(s) exhibit a range of convictions, motivations, and stances toward branding and historical shift. Pragmatism within the [music] industry often came up against different economies of value. The ethical tensions over how to navigate one’s relation to capital, commodities, and brands is one of many shared elements across homemade hip hop.”
Artists thus craft creative presentations of self through their play with brands. Material signs of present-day political economy often emerge in their performances alongside references to the records, automobiles, postcards, and other commodities from the Socialist Federal Republic (1945-1991).
Within the broader dissertation, I argue first that hip hop production reflects a “semiosis of shifting domestic selves.” Hip hop allows artists to conjure multiple voices and alter egos, often aligned with charismatic, commodified images and sounds of Otherness. The significations of rap lyrics, mixtapes, and beats implicate new states and transnational flows, but also a wide range of seemingly mundane matters of the kitchen table, bed, and bathroom. Self-distancing and parody prove useful in critiquing spectacular and everyday political transformations, including the rise of a new oligarchy. I also contend domestic hip hop artists’ creative products draw their local significance within a larger post-socialist entertainment landscape. Discourses about EU integration and even celebrities reveal artists’ “alternative” ethical positions. Finally, I claim that, given dramatic changes in political economy, the politics of mobility become key to understanding the hip hop scene(s). Many cultural commentators argue that Yugoslav-era travel and the extensive, but not yet overwhelming, circulation of Western technologies had advantages relative to the present. This enabled a certain relationship to Cold War modernity that, for many, contrasts with the era since the 1990s, a time artists often portray as both full of stagnation and intolerable flow.
Kohl, Owen. 2018. “Were the Balkans Made for Rap? – Semiosis in the Homemade Hip Hop Imaginary.” Ph.D. diss. University of Chicago.
Briggs, Charles L., and Richard Bauman. 1992. “Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2 (2):131–72.
Živković, Marko. 2011. Serbian Dreambook: National Imaginary in the Time of Milošević. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press
Owen Kohl explores the relationship between media-making and the reimagining of home after socialist Yugoslavia’s dismemberment. Before completing a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago, Kohl began preliminary field research on global manifestations of hip hop social practices in France, Senegal, Croatia, Russia, and Mongolia. Since 2013, he has taught at different universities in Chicago, designing courses that are fruitfully interwoven with his research methods, associated multimedia production, and his manuscript, Were the Balkans Made for Rap? Semiosis in the Homemade Hip Hop Imaginary. You can contact Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org.