SpongeBOZZ's new album quickly shot up the German hip-hop charts, but his irreverence is telling, part of a growing trend to treat World War II as distant history.
Watching the music video for SpongeBOZZ's latest single "Yellow Bar Mitzvah," it is not immediately clear what is really going on.
The first 15 seconds are a hodgepodge of menacing images and deafening noise. The video opens with a shot of a Hannukah menorah flickering in a dimly-lit room. As the frame widens, grainy footage comes into view of Orthodox Jewish men dancing to a spirited rendition of Hava Nagila. The camera then pans to a scantly-clad woman pushing a wheelbarrow full of cocaine before quickly zooming in on an arm clad in a Nazi-era yellow Star of David patch.
"Yellow Bar Mitzvah" carries on like this for four minutes, a bizarre mix of drug paraphernalia, Judaism and Nazi references. The creator of this oversaturated potpourri is Dimitri Chpakov, a Russian-born Jewish rapper who previously performed under the pseudonym Sun Diego. Now, as SpongeBOZZ, Chpakov dances alongside the doe-eyed Spongebob Squarepants as he boasts about owning sports cars and shooting his enemies.
When SpongeBOZZ released his latest album "Started from the Bottom / KrabbenKoke Tape" last month, it quickly shot up the German hip-hop charts, reaching the number two spot. For a musician who has gained most of his fame on YouTube, SpongeBOZZ's success has so far been modest.
But the 28-year-old is a significant addition to Germany's small but lively hip-hop scene, and is the only Jewish rapper to have gained any sort of notoriety. While Chpakov's Jewish heritage was known before the release of "Yellow Bar Mitzvah," his latest record is bold in its recognition of his cultural background.
Post-War Germany has tended to tread carefully when dealing with its Jewish community. This may be why few critics have ventured to critique Chpakov's latest work, particularly his facetious take on Judaism. But the few who have commented, have lauded the artist. One critic writing for the Berlin-based daily Die Welt went so far as to call Chpakov "the best rapper in Germany" at the moment.
The general lack of conversation surrounding the themes of "Yellow Bar Mitzvah" is surprising. The song and music video should be fodder for cultural commentators as it so crudely confronts the Holocaust. At one point, Chpakov calls out other rappers for "posing" like drug dealers although "they've never been in the ghetto like his grandma Sofia."
As in the United States, where racial epithets and images are seemingly permissible if used by an artist of the target race, SpongeBOZZ's Jewish heritage has made it possible for him to flippantly refer to the Holocaust alongside sex and drugs without serious backlash. But SpongeBOZZ's irreverence is telling, part of a growing tendency to treat the events of World War II as impersonal, distant history.
With the passing of each generation, Germans have felt increasingly disconnected from their country's troubled past. In one study conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation in 2015, 58% of Germans over 18 said they would prefer to put the Holocaust behind them. There appears to be a risk that the murder by Nazi Germany of 12 million innocent people — including six million Jews, alongside Roma, Slavs, homosexuals and other minorities — is slowly exiting the German conscience.
German hip-hop is widely seen as a hotbed of xenophobia
This trend is made more apparent with the perceived rise in anti-Semitism across Europe over the past decade. A study published in June by the University of Oslo found that the perception of growing anti-Semitism has reached such heights that one in four German Jews has considered leaving the country. A recent scandal reported in Suddeutsche Zeitung, involving a Jewish student in Berlin who was bullied over several months, has underscored this disturbing new tendency.
Germany's music scene has not been immune to this uptick in anti-Semitism. In fact, German hip-hop is widely seen as a hotbed of xenophobia, particularly against Jews. When SpongeBOZZ's album rose on the German charts in June, he was only outranked by Bushido, Germany's best-selling rapper. The son of Iranian immigrants, Bushido, born Anis Mohamed Youssef Ferchichi, has been widely criticized over the course of his career for his rude and abusive lyrics. In addition to recurrent complaints of sexism and homophobia, the 38-year-old rapper was accused of anti-Semitism in 2013 by the Israeli Embassy in Berlin after he changed his Twitter profile picture to a map of the Middle East in which the colors of the Palestinian flag replaced the State of Israel.
In early February, organizers of the Hessentag cultural festival narrowly voted to remove Kollegah, another well-known rapper, from its lineup of musical guests after the Central Council of Jews in Germany accused the musician of propagating "anti-Semitism, homophobia, and violence against women." In response, Kollegah published an open letter to Facebook in which he accused the Central Council of being ignorant of his musical genre and pulling its allegations "out of the air." Kollegah also noted that the accusations came just months after his visit to the West Bank as a self-anointed goodwill ambassador. Last November the 32-year-old rapper released an account of his journey in the form of a full-length documentary on YouTube. In it, he jokingly suggested that he should purchase shooter video games for Palestinian children living in a refugee camp near Ramallah.
Following his exclusion from the Hessentag festival, Kollegah and PA Sports, another German rapper, released a joint diss track targeting Chpakov, as well as a German online personality, Julien Sewering. The song, which is titled "Son of a Bitch-Holocaust" despite having nothing to do with the Second World War, features Kollegah's usual bout of sexism, homophobia, and violence. Chpakov later mocked the track on Facebook, calling its creators "politically correct."
The government, local municipalities and school boards across Germany have set up numerous programs over the years to combat xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. "Yellow Bar Mitzvah" is Chpakov's way of doing the same. But his attempt to fight anti-Semitism in German hip-hop does not reaffirm the resilience of European Jews. Instead, it cheapens their experience.
As of mid-July, the music video for "Yellow Bar Mitzvah" has surpassed five million views and had a "like" rating of about 90% on YouTube. In the comments section, one user wrote "After the line ‘rappers were never in the ghetto like my grandma Sofia" I had goosebumps." Another responds "Such a great line!" No one else mentions the blatant allusions to the Third Reich in the video, as if the unmistakable Star of David patch stitched onto Chpakov's sleeve is just another prop like the Lamborghinis and bags of cocaine.