Racism and music: discrimination and hypocrisy in anti-manele attitudes

Illustration by Andreea Ilie

Part One

Widespread discontent was recently expressed on social media after Tommy Cash, an Estonian artist, played a manele track by Adrian Copilul Minune, as part of his set at the Electric Castle Festival this July. From the video of the event, as well as according to Guido Janssens, managing Partner at Emagic, one of the biggest concert organizers in Romania, the choice of song divided the crowd in three: some happily sang along, others started booing the song, due to the genre it belongs to, while others had a laugh and enjoyed the rest of the festival.

No surprise there: while manele is the Balkans’ most popular music genre, it also is its most ostracized. The reactions of thousands of Romanians on the matter reveal, once again, that for a significant proportion of the population, manele generally unite audiences in practice, at parties, weddings and celebrations, but divide them in their attitudes, held before and after these events.

Many Romanians know the lyrics of Adi Minune’s song, yet few are ready to soberly admit to it. This is a phenomenon that is almost 20 years in the making. Since 2000, Romania has witnessed a strong wave of racist opposition to manele, as anti-manele militants emerged from the ranks of public figures, writers and politicians, most notably George Pruteanu, who associated the genre with lack of culture, bad taste, called it mostly rhythmical noise than music and attributed it to ‘the stupid’. Petitions were made to ban manele from being played in public spaces.

The active opposition to this type of music and the stigma attached to it are directly linked to discriminating attitudes in Romanian society towards the minority Romani population. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, you’d find that most Romanians are willing to call it anything but that.

In this two-part article, I draw on my own opinion and experience, as well as on the research done by journalists, music experts, and anthropologists in order to discuss the mindset that fuels the anti-manele attitudes.

This is done in the hopes that fellow Romanians will consider investigating the matter from a different vantage point in the future- not one of moral and intellectual superiority built on racism and false claims, but one of knowledge, understanding and appreciation of local history, culture and music.

If we were to approach manele- as well as everything else in our recent history that has been a cause of conflict- with the intellectual curiosity that many foreigners, including Tommy Cash, exhibit when exploring Romanian music genres, and be open to diversity and inclusion, we would ease many of the tensions that have so long plagued our already segregated population.

My View

The outrage with which Cash’s choice of song was met, both during and after the international festival it was played at, and the moral high ground that so many were quick to claim by distancing themselves from this music genre altogether, was one that I personally took to heart. I grew up listening to manele throughout my childhood, adolescence and well into my early twenties; everyone in my generation and those who followed it did. The genre was widely popular, you could not escape it.

However, this did not come in opposition to the education that my parents worked hard to provide, one deemed proper by any social standard there is- in fact, it complemented it. I learned early on that music taste is formed through exposure to a wide range of genres, and that education in any field is done successfully only when approached openly, without prejudice or discrimination.

I learned that it is both immoral and illegal to discriminate against the music of any group of people on grounds that their culture is inferior to that of the majority of the population. I learned that refusing to publicly express one’s appreciation for music, irrespective of genre, out of fear of public shaming, is limiting one’s freedom of expression, and just one marker of a deeply-rooted and widespread oppression in itself. I learned that no one really has a taste for that, but some still seem to think that oppression is a problem of ‘the other’, never one that they could face themselves.

Recently, though, these very same people have come to declare their fear of an imminent ‘take-over’, allegedly done by minorities who now claim equal rights so they could then go on to impose their own culture and values over our ‘right’ ones. It may sound ludicrous on paper, but we somehow do not judge the actions that reflect this way of thinking as harshly as we do the written word.

These people I’m here referring to are, of course, part of the white majority of the population- and who would sanction them? The white populist government they elected? Doubtful. Minorities have always advocated for inclusion over oppression, for tolerance over conflict.  Contrary to the hysteria generated around the sad truths and urban myths spread about them, minorities simply don’t speak loud enough to be heard yet.

I learned all of this by studying and teaching the history of empires and nations larger than Romania, with racist issues rooted in their past- as are ours- that are proportional to their wealth, power and population. I learned it because scholars across the world engaged in centuries-long battles for freedom in all its forms, and in their work, they openly exposed all the nuances of racism and the ways it seeps into collective judgment. It was through this knowledge and exposure that entire nations could then set out to overcome issues that had been plaguing them for generations.

It is a no-brainer that freedom of expression is guaranteed in all its forms only when it is allowed to unfold and be enjoyed equally by everyone, across ethnic groups; if some don’t benefit from it, then no one benefits from it. It is only a no-brainer now because of the hard work and sacrifice of thousands to the cause of freedom, so we could now talk about this, so I can publish this essay free of censorship, so that you can disagree with me.

I believe the time has always been right to openly address these matters in Romania, too. It is only natural to do so, as hypocrisy plays no part in sustainable social and cultural advancement, which so many of us are dedicated to.

What the Tommy Cash ‘incident’- as the press called it- revealed is that the application of critical thinking is a rare occurrence when discussing manele: it is a topic where sides are immediately and passionately taken, with strong sentiment trumping reason. With manele, it’s never live and let live. You’d think that if people didn’t like the music, and happened to be exposed to it (following the choice of the artist or as part of the potential terms of their sponsorship) they’d simply voice their opinion-or not- and leave it at that. At most, an educated audience would commit to never listening to manele in their free time. Easy, right? Not for manele, though, where attitudes are so strong and carry so much historical weight, that they hardly leave any room for debate, but pave the way for argument.

We always find an openly discriminating audience in each of the settings where manele are played or discussed, who instantly question not just the music taste, but the very upbringing, morality and intelligence of the manele singers, songwriters as well as that of the rest of their audience.

They never seem to question themselves, though, as they, too, are there, singing and dancing to the music, only to afterwards claim that they’re not actually into it. You know when Donald Trump insisted he was the “least racist person you have ever met” , as he had “black friends”, but then carried on making racist remarks with every other Tweet? Yeah, this is very similar to that.

I find that people who take part in something, only to deny it later for personal gain, may think that eyebrows have been bestowed on the human face with the sole purpose to be raised, whenever the circumstances dictate it would be convenient for them to do so. In the case of manele, facial hairs only perk up long after their wearers have raised their glasses to these popular songs and danced to them anyway, regardless of the future opinions that they know they will have and share publicly.

In fact, most only start to become ‘better than’ on the drive to the office, the next morning. Doesn’t look good to be a ‘manelist’ in your corporate meeting, does it? You’d fear that others could perceive you as dishonest- but if that’s a job worth holding, you’d better hope and pray that receiving such harsh judgment is based on demonstrable facts and not for reasons of music taste. Or ethnicity. You know, before any accusations are made.

Hurts just to think of being in those shoes, eh?

All things considered, the attention given to this topic is testament to yet another, very important thing: manele has become, without a doubt, a popular music genre in its own right that has brought a significant contribution to the development of Romanian music in the past two decades. Otherwise, we wouldn’t care.

Adrian Copilul Minune is one of the leading manele artists and a prominent figure in the music business, with an impressive vocal range, which many find unmatched amongst his contemporary Romanian artists.

I was not only exposed to his music growing up, but I also studied him as part of my classical vocal training. My coach had taken an entire course on manele during her years at the Conservatory, and manele songs were also the most requested of her when singing at events across Romania and abroad.

Regardless of her own music taste and preferences, she had to objectively study manele at an academic level and later, these songs brought the most money because these songs brought party-goers the most joy. They appeal to an aspect of the Romanian character that may appear simple, but runs very deep.  It is certainly nothing to be ashamed of or be swept under the rug, dismissed, like we tend to do with the rest of the traits that define us, yet are still treated as taboo.

It goes without saying, then, that I reject the idea that we should continue to pretend that manele are not part of our personal and collective history, and I certainly find no shame to be attached to any of that. While it may not have been my and my family’s first choice of music, manele remain a whole genre which we cannot discredit simply because we personally don’t feel attracted to it. Personal preference here, I insist, does not give one the moral high ground.

Manele were songs to which I was exposed everywhere I went, from the buildings and neighbourhoods I lived in, to the farmers’ markets my family shopped at, to the cars and buses I rode. In the early 2000s, they were played everywhere and they were sure to fill the dance floor, whether it was at a small house party, at opulent weddings or at music festivals. Manele became so popular that soon, pop music artists, hoping to tap into the profits made by the manele industry, adopted a range of the genre’s elements.

That is, minus the stigma- bestselling, white solo music artists and boy and girl bands alike, who’ve been singing of the same promiscuity that manele singers were ostracized for since 1989, were somehow exempt of the criticism attracted by manele. White pop artists mostly enjoyed the fruits of large crowds spending big money on what sounded both familiar and exciting without being called on the social impact that their work is having.

The audience sang along and danced to borrowed beats they loved. Their kids knew all the lyrics to songs depicting sexual behaviours- some deviant- and their parents cheered them on. Somehow, though, everyone managed to feel superior to the manele crowds next door, as long as it wasn’t explicitly manele that they themselves were listening to.

This isn’t to say that audiences shouldn’t swing across the music scene as they please, in the same way that it doesn’t deny the fact that, growing up, I frequently attended opera shows and was a massive U2 and Metallica fan. What I oppose here is hypocrisy, because that I find to be morally wrong and ultimately, a threat to progress.

To deny the range of music I was introduced to in the environment I lived in for a significant portion of my life, is to deny part of my personal history. Most importantly, to deny the importance of manele in shaping the culture and music taste of Romanians after 1989 is to deny a significant part of Romania’s music history altogether.

Perhaps even more detrimental to the development of the local music scene was that since 2000, other genres, particularly rock and folk music, were marketed in opposition to manele and what they came to represent. Public opinion was shaped and divided in a collective, social PR strategy.

To many young people first tapping into the music scene, and looking to associate themselves with groups or movements they could belong to, rock and folk were introduced as much as music genres in their own right, as elements of a counter-culture. Listening to these were markers of intellectual superiority and would invariably place you well above the ‘others’ you share the party scene with. Enemy lines were drawn. Hatred was a prerequisite. Strong words were exchanged, aggressive attitudes were adopted. Fights wreaked havoc.

In an endeavour to explore this divide further, it is imperative, then, to move from personal views on to research. In the second part of this article, I’ll be looking at the history of manele in Romania, as objectively as it is allowed of social sciences, and will draw on the research and informed views of scholars who have analyzed the matter over the years.