Criminal turned YouTuber Max Cameo is one of several German vloggers using their knowledge of the streets to create compelling portraits of Europe's toughest neighborhoods.
Crazy Aka's eyes wander over a 25-story apartment building in Kölnberg, a tower-block ghetto on the outskirts of Cologne. "Someone once threw a dead junkie's body from the 11th floor here," the German rapper says. "In broad daylight, just to save themselves hassle from the police."
As if to prove his point, a garbage bag falls from the sky and bursts open on the rubbish-strewn concrete below.
The whole scene can be watched online in the latest "hood video" by Max Cameo, a YouTuber who posts documentaries from Europe's no-go areas. In one post he walks through the concrete jungle of Berlin's Marzahn district with a violent criminal. In another he wanders the outskirts of Paris with gang members. There's also en episode from Naples, where Cameo made a foray into the Camorra stronghold of Scampia.
Clad in tracksuit bottoms, he acts as a tour guide in the world of bouncers, brothels and dealers. And these expeditions — to the dangerous edges of society — are causing a quite a stir on YouTube.
Clad in tracksuit bottoms, he acts as a tour guide in the world of bouncers, brothels and dealers.
With his face tattoos, heavy chains and gold tooth, Max Cameo doesn't exactly look out of place in the criminal underworld. In his younger years he dealt drugs, ran an escort service and had links to biker gangs. The people showing him around their neighborhoods in his videos are mostly old friends.
Ali Alykol, better known as Crazy Aka, is one of them. The rapper served five years in prison for attempted murder. He also created quite a stir by shooting a music video with a group of Hells Angels. As the news magazine Bild reported, the video was broken up by the police.
In Cameo's YouTube video from Kölnberg, Crazy Aka stands in front of his block of flats and explains about the rat infestation. "You really have to be careful around here. Sometimes they attack you," he says.
The high-rises of Kölnberg are a German ghetto, with people from 60 countries living there. Many are drug addicts, petty criminals and refugees subletting their apartments, with four people to a room. "It's a parallel world," Crazy Aka explains. "The police keep their heads down when they come here."
Later he introduces viewers to his testosterone-pumped friends and offers an insight into the geography of poverty: Here's where people used to put on dog fights, over there is the launderette. "When you come in here, you know straightaway that you don't live in a good area," says one of the rapper's friends.
Dealers, bikers and pimps
There's a reason people who usually lurk in the shadows are happy to appear in front of Max Cameo's camera: the YouTuber is one of them. The heavily tattoed Cameo has the body of a bouncer, speaks in street slang and understands the complex choreography of handshakes and hugs. He calls his interviewees "brother."
Speaking on the phone from his tattoo parlor in the German town of Altena, Cameo explains his approach: "I go in as a friend, without preconceptions. That's why people open up with me. On the street it's all about respect, not about skin color or social standing."
Cameo's "hood videos' are definitely hitting a nerve. Since he posted his first one last December, some of his videos have racked up over a million views. That makes him the most successful among a particular subset of new YouTubers: gangsters — some reformed, others less so — who offer the general public an insight into their world.
One of these, a Niger-born German who wants to remain anonymous, goes by the moniker Blackpqnther. He launched his channel in February, with videos of criminals relaxing on a sofa, telling their "real life stories." Two convicted thieves describe robbing a furniture store, while a drug courier explains how he smuggled suitcases full of cocaine into Germany from Brazil. Most of the stories end with the perpetrators being arrested.
"I know what it's like when friends or relatives go to jail," says Blackpqnther, who grew up in an institution for asylum seekers. "While I was at school preparing for my exams, friends of mine were in jail." He says some viewers will recognize themselves in the videos. But he also gets messages from teachers and students. "For them it's something new."
Another of these gangster YouTubers is Maximilian Pollux, who has been convicted of multiple crimes and in May, sat down in front of his bookcase for the first time and spoke into the camera. The musclebound skinhead offers an insider's view of high-security prisons, his stories accompanied by the swagger of a gangster rapper.
Pollux dealt heroin and cocaine. He sold weapons too, and then fled abroad, but was tracked down by a team of 21 investigators and sentenced to 10 years in prison. You can tell he's had a lot of practice telling his story. For years now he's been going into schools and leading anti-violence workshops with his charity SichtWaisen.
"I've had the same experiences as the young people I'm speaking to," the 37-year-old explains. "I understand their dreams and why a life of crime can be tempting. But I also know where it leads."
I want to reach people who are stuck in these areas but don't want to have anything to do with violence and extremism any more.
And there's Philip Schlaffers, a former motorcycle gang leader who was one of the first Germans to start posting videos in this vein. As head of the right-wing biker group Schwarze Schar, he was involved with drugs and prostitution, and spent three years in jail. After his release, the 42-year-old set up the YouTube channel "Ex-Rechte Rotlicht Rocker," where he talks about fights with the Russian mafia, daily life in prison and friends who became murderers.
"I want to reach people who are stuck in these areas but don't want to have anything to do with violence and extremism any more," says Schlaffer, who runs deradicalization programs with his organization Extremislos. "I draw these people in with a confrontational title and hard-hitting themes."
An insider's view
This approach, with people from the underground standing in front of the camera and telling their own stories, is something new and different. There's no documentary-maker nodding sagely. There's no sensationalizing, no idealizing the "thug-life" image that many gangster rappers perpetuate in their music videos. Cameo, blackpqnther, Pollux and Schlaffer are simply well spoken representatives, insiders who can reflect on and scrutinize a life of criminality.
Their efforts to explain themselves and their stories are so earnest that their videos sometimes feel like rehabilitation projects in prisons: gangsters creating culture. But the YouTubers achieve what every good documentary should: they help people understand what they haven't themselves experienced.
"I want to give people at the edges of society their dignity back," says Max Cameo.
Others, though, are critical of Cameo and say that his videos do, in some respect, glorify criminality. Schlaffer, the former biker says, says that the stories some of the people Cameo features "don't ring true."
"They pose with sports cars, sit down with active criminals, and still talk like criminals," he says. "And it's because they know that they get more views if they convey this hard-man image."
I want to give people at the edges of society their dignity back.
Cameo, whose videos have shown him arriving in a Lamborghini to pick up a friend on day release from prison, is annoyed by these accusations. "Why should I turn my back on a loyal friend, simply because he's involved in criminal activity?" he asks. "It would just be pandering to the moral demands of a society where people wear Nike sneakers made by half-starved children in Bangladesh. That's accepted, and yet we're seen as scum."
What is clear, at the end of the day, is that all these YouTubers are profiting from society's morbid fascination with criminality. Even if Schlaffer and Pollux try to distance themselves from it, they too must be aware that many viewers flock to their videos because they are fascinated by the world of jailbirds, dealers and prostitutes.
Either way, Max Cameo is a polarizing character, in part because of his sudden rise to success, but also because he's impossible to pigeonhole. In his rap videos, the YouTube star still plays up to his gangster image. But he also posts videos of himself in a field of cows, expounding on "the healing power of nature," or giving tips about breathing techniques. To reconcile these apparent contradictions, he quotes Siddhartha: "The golden path is the middle path." A gangster with a spiritual side?
The man behind the pseudonym is Max Hahne. He grew up in a well-educated family, with a social worker father and an art teacher mother. It's not clear exactly how much of his life story is true. In some circles, there are whispers that he greatly exaggerates his criminal past. But exaggeration is one of the tools of the trade for a social media gangster, just like the rented Ferrari parked outside an Airbnb mansion.
Whether they take Maximilian Pollux's educational approach or position themselves as an empathetic ghetto guide like Max Cameo, these YouTubers have one thing in common: they offer an insider's view of a part of society that traditional media have only engaged with at arm's length.
With these videos, people on the outskirts of society are claiming space for their subculture in the center ground. And in doing so, they throw up some real surprises. Viewers see tough guys posing important questions about the world. There is a kind of poetry in the way these outsiders speak. There's the realization too that even amongst criminals, there are good guys and bad guys.
Cameo's guests are mostly a generation older and they view the street hustle with a certain world-weariness. "When children have no perspective, they can choose the wrong people as an example to follow," says Crazy Aka towards the end of the Kölnberg video.
Two schoolboys are sitting near him. "It's important that you always have a dream," he tells them. The rapper then stops and thinks for moment. "But of course that's difficult when you live in this kind of neighborhood," he adds.