Gipsy Rising

Romany rapper Radoslav "Gipsy" Banga's fusion of hip-hop, traditional music and pop is having unprecedented mainstream success

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

One Wednesday night back in March, the Retro Music Hall, a club in Prague 2, unveiled a new breed of hip-hop gathering previously unknown to the Czech Republic. It did not have the typical trappings of a trendy nightlife hangout. The smoke was not thick enough. For some time, the bartenders stood with folded arms. There were children running up and down the stairs to kill time. While one table hosted an older couple, another was occupied by a family of six.

Along with the absence of urban wear such as hoodies, sweat bands, and baggy jeans, the night showed hip-hop in a new light: a family affair.

The main attraction: Romany rapper Radoslav "Gipsy" Banga, 23.

"I'm a new fan myself," Elisia Cerva, 29, said shyly, sitting with her husband at the table furthest from the crowd. She explained that her curiosity was piqued when she saw one of Gipsy's performances on television.

She was not alone. The top floor of Retro was filled with spectators that pulled up chairs or stood at the rails to watch Gipsy and the undulating crowd on the dance floor below. Most cited the same curiosity that led them there that night, when white Czech faces far outnumbered those of Romany fans.

"Gipsy talks to and about everyone," James Vanek, 12, said, specifically pointing to the table behind them with two elderly women. "He sings for the Czech people."

Vanek, who was joined by his two brothers, John, 15, and Michael, 21, was emphasizing Gipsy's multi-generational and multi-ethnic appeal. Hip-hop does not dominate the commercial airwaves in the Czech Republic as it does in Western countries, but manages the great feat of dragging an underground scene into the spotlight with a Roma at its helm.

Gipsy has achieved a unique position as a Roma who has garnered mass popularity against the background of discrimination. Roma, who account for some two percent of the 10.2 million people living in the Czech Republic, have an unemployment rate that reaches rates of up to 90 percent and frequently live in impoverished conditions.

"The lyrics alone remind us of our discrimination against Gypsies and that they have rights, too," Pisan Friedl, 40, said sitting at a table on the top floor of Retro.

Gipsy, on his last album, Ya Favourite CD Rom, opens with a tale of Romanies stealing a car, confronting the stereotype that all Roma steal. But Gipsy explains that the criticism is not as simple as it might seem.

"A lot of Gypsies hate me for this, but I'm not playing for one side," he said in an e-mail interview. "We all have made mistakes. I'm critical of the whole world because it is going through some deep troubles. We behave like stupid animals in the jungle."

Instead of adopting the aggressive style of old-school hip-hop to address the social issues in his music, Gipsy's approach is infused with irony and his performances with on-stage antics. He strutted and danced across the stage at Retro with the frenetic mechanical movements of a wind-up toy. He requested a man's hat, did a brief jig, and gratefully returned it. He adorned a slightly overweight teen with flowers, and she could not stop covering her mouth in disbelief.

"My music is both serious and fun in one piece," Gipsy said. "I believe that the point must be radical and also funny. That way, people can't judge you. They smile, but feel that there is something deeper."

For his latest album released last fall, Romano Hip Hop, he recruited new Romany musicians to form, adding violinist Vojta Lavička and brothers Petr Surmaj on the accordion and Jan Surmaj on the double bass/up-right bass to shape a sound that mixes hip-hop, Romany traditional music and pop. won an Anděl award, the Czech equivalent to the Grammy, for Discovery of the Year. The album was also successful abroad, filling the 13th spot on the World Music Charts of Europe. even vied in March for a chance to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest, which helped past winners like ABBA and Celine Dion to reach a global audience. Just competing in the contest as a Roma catapults Gipsy into the mainstream and presents a new Roma image of success far removed from the negative one so commonly whispered about -- that is, Roma as abusers of the social welfare system.

Back at Retro, Gipsy walked onto the stage without preamble, wearing a simple striped, collared shirt and jeans. He caught the audience off guard and the applause was delayed, but it quickly escalated. The oldest Vanek brother yelled to say one more thing.

"Compared to 50 Cent, Gipsy is better because he speaks about what people care about and not about guns, money, and expensive cars," Michael Vanek said right before he joined his brothers on the dance floor.

Official Gipsy Website

Josh Barajas is in his second year at New York University, studying communications. He is from Hurst, Texas.

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