This article provides a socio-anthropological portrayal of the hip-hop narrational mosaics in Greece through the intertemporal exploration of two hip-hop scenes: the rap scene and the hip-hop dance scene. It explores the gray and contested zones of a local hip-hop culture—which reflect on global hip-hop imageries, norms, and antinomies–through permutations and manifestations of difference, hybridization and subcultural capital, and their subversive intersections with race, class, gender, and affective states in contemporary Greece in landscapes of crisis. Drawing on content analysis of rap lyrics and ethnographic fieldwork on rap and hip-hop dance performativities, resonating contemporary Greek society’s precarities, traumas, and ethics, this article explains why hip-hop and street cultures are so popular today in Greece. Furthermore, it highlights their global dynamics and their present and future potential as an empowering and emancipatory space for young generations.
The Historical Framework of Hip-Hop Practice in Greece
Similar to other places in our postcolonial world, the growing popularity of hip-hop scenes in Greek society is related to its embrace of American lifestyles; youth’s engagement in rap, street arts, sports, and graffiti; the proliferation of movies, hip-hop music, and music videos; and the promotion of hip-hop and street dances through talent TV shows (So You Think You Can Dance, Greece You Have Talent). Around the world, hip-hop stems from its practitioners’ ability to develop interstitial spaces of cultural creation outside of institutional forms (Durand 2002). In Greece, like in the Francophone world, the cultural appropriation of hip-hop developed as “a mesh-like network where each point constitutes history of meeting” (Durand 2002: 102). Hip- hop culture “transcends the singularity of meeting by using a common language” (Durand 2002: 102) that builds on transnational discourses and flows of media and people based on the cultural-imaginary construction of a “hip-hop nation.” As I demonstrate in this article, this cultural imaginary stands in resistance to hegemonic power structures and suppressive identity politics, providing fertile ground for sociopolitical transformation in Greece beyond the sphere of hip-hop.
The rap scene was associated predominantly with Greek hip-hop culture. Most of the first rappers of the 1990s were middle-class males of Greek descent, though working-class identifications were present from the beginning. Race affiliations within Greek hip-hop were scarce before the 2000s in contrast to other European countries such as Germany or Sweden, where migration was a constitutive part of the hip-hop industry (Kautny 2013; Söderman and Sernhede 2013). By this time in Greece, distinctions between mainstream and underground hip-hop were evident in public culture through clear-cut polarities of TV commercial rappers and crews (Nivo, Going Through)—representing hip-hop aimed for mass consumption and the pop music industry (Elafros 2013)—and underground scenes tailored to specific crowds depending on locality or genre of rap.1 Active Member and Vavilona were emblematic crews that developed in traditionally working-class suburbs such as Perama and Vironas. However, in Greek hip-hop’s formative years, between 1990 and 2003 (Elafros 2013a: 60), the question of commerciality did not intensively inform the distinction between the mainstream and the underground.
By the beginning of the 2000s, a more politically conscious rap scene emerged out of the 1990s radical rhyming (e.g., Active Member, Terror X Crew) and other contexts. For one, the Greek music industry faced a drop in record sales, which furthered the distinction between mainstream/commercial and underground/non/anti-commercial rap, forcing rappers to take a deliberate stance toward their commercial orientations (Efthymiou and Stavrakakis 2018). A new wave of hip-hop artists started to use DIY production strategies by taking advantage of the advent of YouTube and other online tools to facilitate the promotion of their tracks (Efthymiou and Stavrakakis 2018: 207). These rappers, commonly known as “underground,” usually perform in alternative outdoor music festivals, occupied and self-organized spaces, and often are intimate with anti-establishment and antifascist groups.
The influx of immigrants into the country during the 1990s and 2000s also stimulated the development of antiracist rhetoric in Greek hip-hop. Some second-generation immigrant youth found fertile ground for expression through rap using the Greek language (e.g., MC Yinka, Niger of Moria Νέγρος του Μοριά) or their Indigenous language (Styliou 2019).2 The interactions between Greek and non-Greek rappers were infrequent in the past but today they are evolving, especially in outdoor rap festivals and open mic events in squats and other settings.
The last decade’s financial turbulence and austerity in Europe and Greece, with its peak between 2008 and 2012, known locally as “the crisis,” reinforced hip-hop affiliations in the country together with a growing return to the moving and protesting body, public space, and the streets as sites of recreation, political resistance, and alternative discourses around pleasure, kinship, gender, and national and political identities. As a response to a “gap of narrative” (Tzartzani 2014), conditions of crisis and the parallel explosion of extreme conservatisms in Greece rendered gender, ethnic, and identity politics vivid territories of exploration in the realm of social dance and performance art (Koutsougera 2019a). Until recently, young people and artists, among them hip-hop practitioners, were usually the pioneers of these explorations with unsettling public dance and art performances in various social settings.3 Rappers and hip-hop dancers searched for community and bodily expression in crews and dance schools, and embraced street culture as a reaction to dispossession.4 Subcultural appropriations and resistance narratives epitomized in the lyrical and aesthetic content of hip-hop materials proliferated in the underground rap scene. This fact can be further attributed to the inspirational realities of austerity and debt crisis, the rise of Far Right and neo-Nazi collectivities, political and structural violence, and the development of anarchist and anti-fascist movements that emerged in response. Subsequently, hip-hop in Greece now constitutes a popular and commodified culture widely embraced by mainstream youth, while it is also an underground practice by non-mainstream, working-class, Far Left, and anarchist groups.
This article raises questions about the productive ability of hip-hop to generate politically subversive subjects who may convey negative emotional states of aggression, competition, nihilism, irony, despair, and withdrawal and at the same time employ agonistic performances of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identity. Agonism is theorized by Athena Athanasiou (2017) as constant strategic open-ended challenging instead of momentary frontal collision, which “complicates and troubles the presumed linear passage from potentiality to actuality, or from passivity to volition and sets vulnerability and contingency at the heart of political performativity” (Athanasiou and Efthymiou 2019: 107).5 Reflecting on this theoretical matrix, this article asks: What are the manifestations and political implications of agonistic hip-hop performativities and what kind of society mirrors such performativities and affiliations? What is the substance of “revolution” and “resistance” in these non-linear and occasionally non-frontal frameworks? What is the interrelationship of race, ethnicity, class, and gendered performativity with hip-hop agonism in frameworks of enduring crisis and contemporary strategic alt-Right politics? These questions are critical. Contemporary politically conscious hip-hop influences a wide range of even “mainstream” youth in Greece, blurring the boundaries between mainstream and underground, political and nonpolitical, and signifying the relationship between these poles as complex, fragile, and elusive.
I began my ethnographic work on the field of hip-hop in Greece in 2009 with an ethnographic film entitled Born to Break (2011), which captured the breakdance communities of Athens through aspects of gender, class, ethnicity, and breakers’ identity. My second film, The Girls Are Here (2015), explored gendered aspects in the hip-hop and street dance scenes of Athens through a friendship between two female hip-hop/street dancers. My intercultural audiovisual hip-hop fieldwork on the gendered dimensions of rap and hip-hop/street dance cultures is ongoing.
Identifying Contemporary Affects and Performativities in Underground and Commercial Greek-Speaking Rap
Subcultural appropriations, self-producing practices, anti-fascist narratives, and anti-cοp sentiments in Greek hip-hop have been on the rise since the 2000s (Koutsougera 2018a; 2018b; Efthymiou and Stavrakakis 2018). Against the backdrop of the Greek crisis, underground and anti-commercial rap further became associated with riot, anti-establishment, and anarchist activities. This was exacerbated by the murder of fifteen-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos in 2008 by a police officer in Exarcheia—an Athens neighborhood with a reputation as a leftist and anarchist stronghold—and the assassination of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas (Killah P) in 2013 by members of the neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn. These murders sparked a prosperous field in the Greek underground rap arena flavored with awakening and wrathful affects.6 The development of nihilistic rhyming continues today, designating the “street” and “street code” (Anderson 1999; Kubrin 2006; Koutsougera 2019b) as ultimate vignettes of freedom and resistance against injustice.
Certainly, there are many individual rappers and crews who classify as “underground” on the basis of subjective criteria concerning the authenticity of their subculturality and their relationship to mainstream music and industry. The main antipode of underground rap is decisively mainstream/commercial hip-hop, which diachronically identifies with rap imitating Greek R&B and pop music (Elafros 2013a, 2013b). Commercial rap is related to “shallow” lyrical content (Efthymiou and Stavrakakis 2018: 207) and resonates with the genre of Greek trap and the amalgamation of Greek rap with “popular” (laikó) (Koutsougera 2012) music performed by commercial trappers (e.g., Tus, Sin Boy, Mad Clip, Trannos) in clubs.7 This kind of music is considered overweening and commercial and it is criticized as a celebration of narcissism, materialism, and sexism.8 An underage youth mainstream audience has embraced commercial trap in Greece in the past three years, partly due to their need for carefree entertainment potentiated by harsh crisis conditions.
The protagonists of the underground rap scene range from lower-middle-class and working-class youth, to second-generation immigrants, to a rising number of female practitioners. While many have working-class backgrounds, some underground rappers come from middle-class families and even upper-class areas. The majority of underground rappers are informally (and occasionally formally) well-educated and use their knowledge to critique social and political injustices. These underground artists are not a unified mass. They form cliques and hold different positions toward sexism, commercialism, rivalry, governance, and anarchism. Their variations also relate to class, gender, and other cultural factors. These artists differentiate in their aesthetic practices; modalities of language and rhythmic style; the levels of allegory and melodic quality in their lyrics; in flow, layering, and rupture used in their tracks; in their performance patterns, vocal styles, and soundscapes (Androutsopoulos and Scholz 2003). The bonds between pareas (groups of friends) of rap artists—or “cliques”—are fragile because of political, personal, and financial antagonisms (Rose 1994).
The lyrical content of many underground rap tracks is underscored by an “existential anxiety” (Johnson 2013) and skepticism produced by structural and police violence, racism, and everyday social injustice escalated by crisis conditions. Among other affects, these conditions generate an excused rage and body tension describing a fiery persona.9 Spira’s rap track “Set Fire” (2012), for example, urges the common person to “set fire to every state mechanism, fascist, and cop.” Backbeats of such tracks are enriched with sirens and electric guitars, repeated scratching, woodwinds, and percussions. Their minimal and industrial rhythmic patterns are poignant and create soundscapes of liminality, mirroring the affects elaborated in the lyrics.
Female and male underground rappers employ rhymes and oratorical schemata around street wisdom, the journey, and the search for street spirit. The notion of the street is constructed not so much as a heterotopic space, but rather as an organic refuge of selfhood. The street is identified with a traumatic journey and search for personal and collective transindividual justice, and with an agonistic “badassity”—an idiom highly implicated with the translocal history and experience of hip-hop used as subcultural capital (Thornton 1995). More than a “street cool” lifestyle, the analytical category of the “street” takes on highly political, spiritual, and psychoanalytical potentialities in Greek crisis contexts (Koutsougera 2019). The following lyrics by the underground rap crew Intifada featuring TNT (2011) resonate with a revolutionary ethos that emanates from a historical revolutionary past haunting the individual:
Especially during the peak of the Greek crisis, lyrics concerning aggression toward governance and critiques of urban society proliferated (e.g., Intifada, “Mohito and Revolution,” 2011). This lyrical vengefulness is portrayed in YouTube music videos of the tracks in scenes of battles between anarchists and the police, or Athens in flames, through which the crews perform the poetics of a deprived working class or classless subject who resists power regimes. As the intense years of the Greek crisis subsided, nihilistic rhymes won ground alongside emotions of intense despair, indicating a meta-traumatic psychological state. Tracks such as “A Star from Cement” (Eversor and Lex 2016), “Symptoms” (Sara 2017), and “What Remains?” (To Sfalma and Jolly Roger 2013) reveal the agonizing sociopolitical climate and psychological distress. For example, in his song “Hip Krok” (2014), N-arrow raps in melancholic style to unmask these factors in Greece:
In these two last phrases, N-arrow ironically questions race and the commonalities between white Greek rappers and “authentic” U.S. Black rappers. These contentious discussions around reappropriation and authenticity are prominent within and beyond hip-hop circles. One response to this aporetic rhyming is through the analytical category of “racial imagination” (Radano and Bohlman 2001).11 In these terms, white Greek rappers seem to appropriate metaphysically—or figuratively (as a metonymy)—the Black ghetto hip-hop culture to negotiate their authenticities according to sociopolitical, topological, and historical factors. They even correlate “their” hip-hop with subcultural Greek musical references.12 The references to bouzouki culture or traditional Greek feature films persist with distorted and sometimes melancholic tones. However, the break with a traditional Zorbas icon (Tragaki 2019) in Greek rap is evident.13 All the above conceptual frameworks are found within significant variations among underground rappers’ diachronic productions that may experiment with ethnic and art music (e.g., Social Waste), punk, and culturally hybrid qualities (e.g., Krav Boca). The last two years the influence of the British series Top Boy has inspired the cultivation of a local drill rap scene, mainly developed in Thessaloniki with crews such as Wang, Immune, Ethismos, 3. Ricta, and so on, placing lyrical emphasis on anti-repression, dark urban atmosphere, and proud working-class identifications.
In conditions of “crisis ordinariness” and “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011) where the mediated ethics of the “good life” dispirit subjects from resisting, underground rap can be seen as an unveiling of the optimistic illusion—a public protest. Resignation and nihilism in rap lyrics, on the one hand, cannot be interpreted as passivity, but as an engagement with the “labor of the negative which is a constitutive aspect of performativity and performative politics” (Avramopoulou 2014: 196). Underground rap lyrics, anti-capitalist hip-hop, and, as I will show, street/hip-hop dance performativities celebrate unachievement and negate the dispositive of the perfect that Angela McRobbie (2015) recognizes as the new neoliberal anti-feminist ethic—one that constitutes a terrain of competition and self-beratement. Rageful lyrics, on the other hand, do not uncritically presuppose a subversive subject or state of being, especially when rap and hip-hop have become so easily “in fashion” for so many young people globally. Even in Greek underground rap (not just commercial rap), machismo and persona hedonism are prevalent and become an obstacle for structural transformation, everyday praxis, imaginative affirmation, and “radical relationality” (Braidotti 2019) to flourish.14 Nevertheless, while rap lyrics embrace a revolutionary rhetoric, they also address an impossibility of subversion. Like in the case of Black hip-hop performance (Eubanks 2017: 6), which can be read as trapped between Black optimism and Afro-pessimism, Greek “negational” rhyming goes beyond the conventional binary of resistance/reproduction and may embrace their simultaneity. In other words, underground rap performance is rendered an agonistic practice beyond “active versus passive” (Athanasiou 2017: 311)—an orientation in a (corpo)real, and not merely fantastic, heterotopic, or allegorical “street” world, a “social hermeneutics,” or a constant “breaking it down” (Eubanks 2017: 20). Greek rhyming can be seen as critical engagement with dispossession and an enduring battle against oppression amid gendered, class, and ethnic imbalances that beset both Greek society and hip-hop’s internal norms.
From Rap to Dance: The Landscape of Hip-Hop and Street Dance Cultures in Greece
Breakdance was the first hip-hop dance style introduced informally during the 1980s in Greece’s discotheques. In those years, it was hardly related to hip-hop.15 Its journey as a hip-hop dance form began in the mid-1990s across the two major cities of Greece, Athens and Thessaloniki, and it was performed primarily in underground spaces by migrant and native youth populations, disconnected from the other elements of hip-hop. Throughout the 2000s, breakdance evolved with other hip-hop and street dance styles toward more popular and vernacular appropriations. Therefore, they form a rather distinct culture from the other elements of hip-hop.
Some of the first breakers of the country were males (b-boys), second-generation immigrants or repatriated Greek immigrants from working-class suburban areas (see figs. 1–2).16 During the 1990s, Greece witnessed a heavy influx of immigrants from Albania and the former socialist countries, while in the 2000s a significant number of refugees from the Middle East and Africa entered the country. Nowadays, young breakdancers or street dance crews who participate in local, national, and international hip-hop and street dance competitions are of non-Greek descent. A majority of these dancers originate from Albania, and a small number of male breakers are creoles (dark- or light-brown-skinned males) who enjoy great recognition within the community. Through dancing they seek to explore their ethnic and racial identity, offset racism, find recognized value in Greek culture, and make a living.17 Native and non-native Greek breakdance and hip-hop champions travel abroad and partake in commercial activities to earn money, exchange dance knowledge, gain fame, and start up dance schools. The mingling between Greek and non-Greek hip-hop dancers depends on individuals’ and crews’ openness to “otherness.” Nonetheless, this ethnic mingling is more occasional and harmonious in comparison to the rap scene.
For dancers in Greece, street and hip-hop dances are a means of socializing and building a multicultural identity through an imaginary of hip-hop ethos and street spirit that bonds all subjects under the foundational principles of “peace, love, unity, and having fun.” These axioms work as cultural and symbolic capital and foster personal rebellion, hip-hop aesthetics, sociality, and pleasure. The role of imagination here is vital to the cultural appropriation of hip-hop and street dance cultures, which is elaborated in choreographies, freestyle performances, emotions, and everyday sociability. Mary Fogarty (2012) describes the imagined affinities of breakdancers around the world as embedded in the feeling of a global breakdance community facilitated by mediated texts, travels, and artifacts. Street dance “does not lose its essential quality in the face of technology but anticipates it as a techne—a way of knowing—in itself, as code that travels” (McCarren 2013: 174).
Like underground rappers in Greece, many hip-hop dancers experience a disruptive home life or face working-class conditions. Their participation in dance crews replaces in some sense the loss of family cohesion or socioeconomic stability and respectability. As Maritza Bode Bakker and Monique Nuijten (2018) note, breakers in Greece, similar to those in Ecuador, desire a utopian society that values the streets and people from the streets. Thus, hip-hop dance communities provide practitioners with a sense of belonging, a form of alternative or “fictive kinship” (Kirtsoglou 2004). They also provide spaces for negotiating cultural identity and diversity, personal and political anger, as well as existential anxiety perpetuated by conditions of crisis in Greece. For example, in 2013 Funky Habits hip-hop crew created an empowering choreography resembling Pavlos Fyssas’s assassination and based on his music. The crisis is one example of a broader set of sociopolitical issues that crews would draw on for choreographic inspiration.
In comparison to rap, commerciality in hip-hop and street dance styles in Greece is a complicated topic (Schloss 2009). Hip-hop dance culture is characterized by elasticity rather than uncompromising tactics and exclusions. Most street and hip-hop dancers in Greece participate energetically in commercial activities irrespective of their orientation toward the mainstream or underground.18 They form competitive dance crews that can become antagonistic, and they earn money and prizes in international competitions or “battles.”19 Furthermore, the condition of crisis raised crews’ interest in money. An undeniably large number of dancers now use hip-hop and street dance as a means for a successful career that combines economic profit, personal satisfaction, and fame. Hence, the Greek hip-hop and street dance scene hinges on commerciality and subculturality. What is more, with some exceptions, the majority of hip-hop/street dancers are not as politically active as underground rappers in Greece, and they place more emphasis on the artistic, recreational, and professional aspects of hip-hop and street culture.20 Recently, though, hip-hop/street dance communities have reinforced their commitment to political rap events and street festivals.
There are also many local and national all-styles dance competitions in Greece. In all-styles battles, dancers fuse street, hip-hop, and urban dance styles to hip-hop, funk, house, and disco rhythms.21 These competitions proliferated at the time of peak debt crisis in Greece as a result of the popularization and commercialization of hip-hop dance styles during the 2000s, and sparked debates around the authenticity of all-styles’ institutional role vis-à-vis original hip-hop and breaking competitions. Many hip-hop dancers claim that all-styles battles and competitions expanded because of profit-based strategic choices. Nevertheless, these competitions offer female and queer dancers the chance to participate and explore their street and hip-hop identities.
Contested Territories and Gendered Dimensions in Hip-Hop Scenes of Greece
Despite growing female participation, hip-hop is largely regarded as a genre in which artists degrade or sexually objectify women (Marks 2008). Many hip-hop scholars and feminists have stressed (Guevara 1996; Durham 2007; Johnson 2014) the masculinity of breakdance in particular, as well as the anatomical and moral claims used against women who are breaking. Traditional gender distinctions and paradigms of the past persist in contemporary Greece. They are largely evident in celebratory practices and tactics (Koutsougera 2012; 2020; 2018a; 2019b; 2020) that reproduce structural sexism and gender bipolarities in the field of hip-hop.
In Greece and around the world, street and hip-hop dance is mainly appropriated by working-class and lower-middle-class males and, therefore, may be considered to be a male- dominated culture. “Breaking” continues to be one of the most popular hip-hop dance forms in Greece and is still appropriated mainly by boys.22 Young women who practice breakdance typically come from working-class, lower-middle-class, or middle-class backgrounds as well as from immigrant families (see figs. 3–4).
Of the few women who enter the breakdance scene in the first place, many of them quickly move on to other styles. Girls combine these styles in all-styles competitions or in separate competitions for each style. In most cases, male breakers dominate in power and recognition, and can be judgmental over the authenticity of dancers and street competence.23 In all-styles competitions in the Greek street dance arena, crews are more gender-mixed. Women and genderqueer people have the opportunity to participate more actively in comparison to breakdance or popping events where strategic sexism and androcentricity prevail.
Imani Kai Johnson (2014: 16) argues that “b-girls [breakdance girls] are situated between two competing notions of heterosexual femininity: the pornification of women in hip-hop and the ‘normal day life’ expectations of polite, ladylike behavior.” Furthermore, “badass femininity” is mobilized in an “aestheticizing of violence” (Johnson 2014: 15). It is one version of a multiplicity of femininities constructed among b-girls, which re-signifies qualities typically associated with masculinity—eschewing notions of appropriateness and passivity demanded in favor of aggressive or outright crass expressions of a woman’s strength. Although “badass femininity” as described by Johnson is less common in breakdance and hip-hop dance femininities of Greece, my extensive audiovisual fieldwork in Athens and Thessaloniki has located (Koutsougera 2018a; 2018b; 2019b) influential cisgender female dancers with defiant femininities who experiment with different hip-hop, street, and urban dance styles from an early age. They perform fluid and combative femininities, raising anti-sexist voices in male-dominated hip-hop spaces. Their unities as manifestations of transindividuality (Read 2015), multiplicity, and “agonistic intercorporeality” (Butler and Athanasiou 2013: 176) reflect on their movements’ exchange, sharing, and embodiment.
Through contested choreographies, which fuse original hip-hop and urban dance styles, these female populations queer the dominant norms of the sexist male breakdance scene and perform their identity as drag or parody, and at the same time expose the illusionary status of gendered normativity inside hip-hop. In the eyes of men, these dancers are “freaks” or “crazies” and represent danger for the hip-hop community. This “female dangerousness” as the border and manifestation of gender power relations is a common topic of exploration in cultural and anthropological work on Greece (Campbell 1974; Du Boulay 1974; Herzfeld 1986; Cowan 1990; Koutsougera 2012, 2013; Papagaroufali 1992; Gefou-Madianou 1992; Spyridaki 1999). Women’s dangerousness is historically related to the evil and to Eve (Campbell 1974; Du Boulay 1974), while the practices of “dangerous” women in Greek culture are seen as problematic and competitive (Cowan 1990; Kirtsoglou 2004; Koutsougera 2012, 2013). Women’s aggressiveness and guile are also related to Turkishness and a Romaic side of Greek identity (Herzfeld 1986). Furthermore, women’s dangerousness is elaborated negatively in contemporary Greek rap as degrading women’s characteristics (Efthymiou and Stavrakakis 2018: 212). Female “dangerousness” in hip-hop and street dance cultures constitutes a patchwork of Greek femininity narratives and imaginative diasporic Black and Latinx iconic figures.
In their effort to strike a balance between normative discourses inside hip-hop and feminist approaches to their bodies and hip-hop authenticities, “dangerous” girls create open-ended, agonistic spaces (Athanasiou 2017: 41).24 Additionally, these girls construct “elastic femininities,” or “identities which contain open feminist claims together with traditional feminine features” (Trajtenberg 2016: 171). For example, two female dancers included in my fieldwork (Koutsougera 2018a; 2018b; 2019b) verbally position themselves as females, orient their practices as feminine, and construct their identities through the notion of femininity in juxtaposition to masculinity. Even so, somatically they experience their femininities in more gender-neutral, childlike, fluid, and ambivalent ways. Their elastic femininities are relational in the sense that both feminist and traditional features are foregrounded in relation to specific contexts. For instance, these female dancers employ traditional gender dichotomies or gender equalities in specific circumstances for their own profit, usually for the empowerment of their identities as “right” women.
These discrepancies reveal how the majority of women in street and hip-hop scenes of Greece struggle more through institutional cisgenderness and imperfect feminist claims against gendered normativities and less through explicit confrontations in evidently queer frameworks. This does not happen only in Greece. Female Greek hip-hoppers, just like female graffiti writers in other countries, often employ a “feminist masculinity” (Pabón-Colón 2018: 38) in their performances that can be equally empowering as incongruous—simply doing something that “feels” revolutionary rather than seeking identification. They may not identify as feminists but their “behavior embodies a hip hop feminist sensibility” (Jennings 2020: 53), which is a significant step for future emancipation.25 Meanwhile, cisgender girls incorporate translocal media narratives of street/hip-hop cultures as they experiment with global discourses on the limits, possibilities, and modalities of queerness in hip-hop, at times destabilizing queerness from its normative delineation.
Lastly, cisgender street and hip-hop dancers are surrounded by queer individuals who either expose or do not expose their queer identities.26 Cisgender and queer collectivities are mobilized conjointly, keeping an ambivalent stance toward hip-hop. For instance, the Greek ballroom scene, which evolved through hip-hop communities, absorbed a wide range of queer and trans populations and cisgender women who equally participate in the margins of hip-hop culture, as they confront heteropatriarchy, misogyny, and femmephobia. House of Kareola, a prominent ballroom house in Athens, participates in queer demonstrations and queer activist acts (such as the protest against the murder of the trans activist Zak Kostopoulos/Zackie Oh).27 Individuals from the ballroom scene participate selectively in mainstream realms while some ballroom dancers use Greek laiká in their choreographies. Thus, the mainstream sphere is affected by the underground and vice versa. These examples index disidentification processes (Muñoz 1999) for queer people and women taking place both within and against a dominant heteronormative ideology inside and outside hip-hop.
In Greece’s rap scene, especially underground, women and queer populations similarly experiment with and contest gender normativities. Particularly after the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas in Greece, public discourse around sexist issues in hip-hop and rap (equally in commercial and noncommercial productions) intensified both in public culture and within hip-hop communities.28 Since the beginning of hip-hop in Greece, most lyrics reproduce a particular, localized identification to measure masculinity on the basis of U.S. models such as street credibility, drug use, misogyny, and violence. They also reify traditional performances of manhood in Greece, which favor honor/shame gender distinctions, resisting authority, aggression, and loss of control sparked by excess passion (Efthymiou and Stavrakakis 2018: 209). In response, underground female rappers increasingly produce anti-sexist and anti-homophobic rhyming, although their discourses and public performances differentiate significantly. Greek society is still partly intolerant and unfamiliar with eccentric female performances in public spaces, much less with queer and nonbinary performativities. From a stylistic and lyrical point of view, female rap performativity has been elaborated through a binary from the 2000s until 2018. Broadly speaking, female/feminist rap figures oscillate between two poles: one embodying a wild “badass” femininity, and another, a more mild and poetic femininity (which possibly deconstructs patriarchal oppressions through a celebration of femininity). Female rappers adopted classic punk/rock/hip-hop looks (e.g., wearing tight jeans and glam-rock makeup) and used battle rap, old school techniques, and distinctively women’s outfits. Recently, female rappers have played out their femininity by proudly displaying traditionally sexualized parts of the female body (e.g., the breast; see Sara) and experimenting with more poetic and melodic music styles (see Semeli).29
New female rap figures (e.g., Penny, Aeon x Topo, Saw, Rap Skandalo) have disrupted the aforementioned binary by introducing multilayered, rhizomatic, and hybrid figurations, such as “badass,” pop hip-hop, and fem-rap femininities. Fem-rap crews support queer rap artists (e.g., Vdeligma, Dolly Vara, Chraja) and vice versa. They use an anti-sexist, anti-cop, and anti-nationalist discourse. The development of Greek queer rap is exemplary as queer rappers fuse laikó music patterns with rap and expose their marginalized sexualized bodies vis-à-vis heterosexual popular culture.30 Both queer and female rap lyrics contest heteropatriarchy, populist nationalism, and violence against women and LGBTQ+ people. Feminist rap artists also collaborate to confront Greek rappers accused of violence against women. In contrast to previous decades, female rappers in their tracks often address the intersection of sexism with other sociopolitical issues. For example, Sara, who is of Greek Egyptian descent, raps with Iro-ini in her track “I Stand as a Woman” in both Greek and Arabic:
Moreover, there are rappers like the collective Rap Skandalo, who direct ironic lyrics toward new drill machismo and criticize phallocentrism in new school rap, providing a new genre of comic queer rap. Female drill rappers like Penny, Saw, and others explore female grief and impasse in their lyrics—themes traditionally occupied by male rappers.
The issue of sexism became a pivotal political issue inside Greek hip-hop settings in recent years. Female rappers increasingly accuse male rappers not only of promoting rape culture or practicing sexism in their lyrics but also of extensive hypocrisy in their feminist statements, which disassociate from their everyday practices and treatment of women. These realities cultivate a feminist pedagogical climate in the underground rap scene that exhorts male rappers to rectify their performances and practices toward women.31 Refuting misogyny, some male rappers excuse their use of sexist language as either unconscious or as an attack on social norms/unjust power regimes.
Nevertheless, a new mentality is taking shape in Greece, signifying a new era of rap publics that could protect women and queer people from attacks inside and outside the spheres of hip-hop and street cultures. For instance, young people intensified their expression through rap during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown in regard to issues of sexuality, gender emancipation, and resistance to governmental repression. Coinciding with many dreadful incidents of femicide and rape in Greece and the mainstreaming of the feminist movement through the Greek #METOO, the pandemic fostered experiments with femininity and mobilized female interest in rap as young women found time to form collectives in the streets to resist suppression. The magnitude of these transformations is worthwhile considering that street and hip-hop cultures are massively appropriated by youth in Greece.
Hip-Hop Performativities of Enduring Crises: Concluding Remarks on Hip-Hop Futurities
Through the exploration of two paradigmatic hip-hop scenes in Greece—the rap scene and hip-hop dance scene—this article has elaborated on issues of difference, hybridization, and subversion inside hip-hop. It has explored a multiplicity of hip-hop performativities, language, narrations of selfhood and collectiveness, lyrical embodiments of “crisis,” gendered performativities, and their relations to hybridizations of styles. These explorations bring to the fore intersections of hip-hop authenticities with race, class, and gender identities and involve rising contested territories that destabilize and problematize preexisting ones at both local and global levels.
Alongside issues of dispossession and crisis, contemporary realities such as increasing neoliberal policies, massive migration, commercialization, unemployment, racism, femicides, and alt-Right politics affect hip-hop communities in Greece and energize subversive voices of minority groups, mainly those coming from young migrants, non-Greek and non-white youngsters, women, and genderqueer people rendering the interaction between the mainstream and the underground even more intriguing. The new normality of COVID-19 forebodes an even more complicated nexus for hip-hop, street, and public performativities and futurities.
The alternative male, female, and queer bodies in the realm of Greek hip-hop project more than what they seem at first sight. They signify and mobilize a wide spectrum of intersectional performativities in wider Greek cultural contexts as well as new hip-hop authenticities and authentications in the making. Among other things, the transformations in hip-hop and street cultures provide a prosperous field as they mirror the reality of the rising skeptical and on-guard subjectivities of contemporary youth in Greece. The famous concert of the politically attuned, assertive rapper Lex in Panionios camp in the summer of 2022, which gathered more than twenty-five thousand young people and created an uproar in the Greek media, is emblematic of the subversive role of contemporary politically conscious rap. It has the power to bridge class, gender, and cultural differences and produce collective hip-hop identities that traverse traditional bipolar distinctions such as the mainstream and the underground, the commercial and the noncommercial, male hip-hop and female hip-hop. Lex’s melancholic rhyming about futility in crisis and everyday class-based dispossession echoes the collective mentality of a majoritarian Greek youth that adopts both popular and subcultural sensibilities and raises highly political and engaging endeavorments.
In this context the term underground is rendered an ambivalent and subjective term that does not always function as an identity marker or indigenous element. Rather, it is applied as an umbrella term to differentiate this kind of rap and hip-hop from mainstream, apolitical, and strictly commercial rap. Most politically conscious Greek rappers, however, while differentiating themselves from the mainstream, claim that the term underground rap does not correspond to any reality since its boundaries are very fluid. Roughly speaking, underground in Greek hip-hop relates to a countercultural racial history, an anti-authoritative and rebellious identity.
The main difference between Greek and non-Greek underground rappers is that the former develop more rageful lyrics with assertive and anti-establishment connotations while the latter stress the importance of their ethnic identity, put more emphasis on musicality, and use milder expressions that uncover migrants’ city life and coping with Greek reality. In these ways, hip-hop functions as an “imaginary sanctuary” (Kautny 2013: 411). In contemporary commercial rap in Greece both Greek and non-Greek rappers’ lyrics focus on fame, gangsta life, and conspicuous consumption.
For an anthropological exploration of street art and graffiti during times of Greek crisis see Karathanasis 2014.
The media promoted street and hip-hop dances as trendy youthful activity even before the crisis.
I draw “performativity” from Judith Butler’s (1990) use of “performativity” as repetitive stylistic performance in a framework of heteronormativity to explore hip-hop subjectivities. In a similar vein to the construction of gender, identity in hip-hop is established through ritually stylized bodily procedures that open potentialities of gendered subversion and reinvention among hegemonic-heteronormative hip-hop discourses and landscapes of recognition.
The killing was considered a major blow to the local scene (Efthymiou and Stavrakakis 2018: 208) as it brought to light local conflicting rap discourses and positionalities. It signified a mobilization of new political subjectivities in rap and redefined the role of political rap in Greece.
Trap is rap music that uses more electronic and robotic echoes and differentiates from old-school rap techniques. Some new school trappers, who are Greek in their majority, perform with laikó singers in big mainstream clubs (e.g., Sink with Sampanis). The Greek trappers gain huge amounts of money from YouTube and Spotify and openly admit that they appreciate fame, women, and money. Laiká are modern Greek popular songs that mainly use the instrument of bouzouki and stem from the Rebetiko music subculture. The term laikó takes on indigenous meanings that combine working-class and folk elements, urban and provincial atmospheres (Koutsougera 2013, 2012, 2020).
For a genealogy of affect in mainstream rap in Greece see Elafros 2013, 2014.
Some of these rappers gather in squats and participate in anti-establishment mobilizations and clashes with the police.
With the term dog-styler I translate the Greek word Skylades which refers to the crowds and practitioners of laikó music, who are characterized by low taste and kitsch aesthetic practices (see Koutsougera 2012, 2013, 2020). In this way, N-arrow criticizes Greek trappers who imitate “popular” singers.
For Black rappers in Greece, the issue of race is a lived corporeality and a subcultural capital carried in the skin.
For instance, they stress the commonalities of Greek rhyming with the genre of rebetiko in Skarentzos documentary or Taki Tsan interviews. See Dokimanter Gia To Ellhniko HipHop “Rithmoi kai Rimes,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q34yQmWCxN8; Τάκι Τσάν για Ρɛμπέτικο και το rap σήμɛρα, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsOFxJ_X9IQ&t=1432s.
A stereotypical image of the “careless Greek, reveling and unconditionally immersing oneself in pleasure and passion, drinking and dancing, despite and against life’s hardships and misfortunes” (Tragaki 2019: 3).
According to Braidotti (2019), “affirmative ethics” reworks negativity beyond good/bad dualisms and creates ways of acting otherwise.
Breakdance was born in the Bronx, New York, in the 1970s and constitutes one of the four elements of hip-hop culture (MCing, DJing, graffiti, breakdance). Indigenously it is referred to as “breaking” or “b-boying” (Rose 2004, 2008; Fogarty 2010; Johnson 2014; Bragin 2014).
Ethnicity in Greece has been historically as much a factor of othering migrant groups as race. By the 1990s, the country had reached a constructed ethnic homogeneity that responded negatively to migrants arriving from Albania and other Eastern European countries. Structural racism continued against second-generation immigrants and was further cultivated by antagonistic immigration policies (Kasimati 2003).
The exploration of their ethnic or racial identity is realized either through participation in ethnically homogeneous crews, or ethnically heterogeneous crews (see Koutsougera 2012).
In comparison to rappers, dancers do not frequently distinguish between mainstream and underground. One reason for that could be that a large majority consists of hip-hop dancers who come from migrant families. They develop different mentalities from native dancers and depend more on hip-hop for their economic survival.
Individual profit (symbolic and economic capital) reproduces antagonisms between street dancers. The value of the “street” is consumed mostly aesthetically—an experience that varies across class, gender, and ethnic-based factors.
The most evident political activity of street dance crews is to raise money for charities and philanthropic purposes through their shows. On the other hand, underground rap live events aim at supporting imprisoned and politically persecuted people, immigrants, and other underprivileged groups.
Some of these styles such as waacking, voguing, new-style/lyrical hip-hop, house dance, and dancehall have highly contested relationships with hip-hop in authenticity discourse. They are also considered more feminine compared to the “original” hip-hop dance, which is breakdance.
Popping, a funk style recognized as an “original” hip-hop dance, is another example of male-dominated dance culture.
A small number of dancers are non-native Greek females mainly originating from Albania and the Balkans, albeit the vast majority of female hip-hop and street dancers are Greek. The more conservative gendered structure in immigrant, non-European families is likely the reason for less participation of girls who are expected to focus on school or work.
Athanasiou’s (2017) work on female mourning in the politics of the transnational feminist and antimilitaristic movement expands on Chantal Mouffe’s (Marxist) perspective on agonism against deliberative liberal paradigms of democracy as a negotiation between interests and consensual resolution of conflicts. Female mourning emerges as an open-ended agonistic contestation at the very level of the established matrix of intelligibility.
On the contrary, McRobbie (2019) asserts that modern women who may identify as feminists do so through punitive and neoliberal terms of self-management, self-rage, self-beratement, and through fantasies of “having it all.”
This paper aligns with Greek ethnographies that highlight the centrality of defiant women’s subjectivities in Greece and their queering effects within heteronormative contexts (Cowan 1990; Papagaroufali 1992; Koutsougera 2012, 2013, 2018, 2019b).
The 2018 killing of the young LGBTQI activist Zak Kostopoulos (Zackie Oh), who was brutally beaten to death in broad daylight on a busy pedestrian street in Athens, mobilized agonistic discourses on behalf of the LGBTQI movements including the local ballroom (voguing) scene.
This was evident in social media; popular TV youth programs like VICE; informal everyday discussions; and hip-hop congregation spaces, such as occupied spaces and hip-hop youth clubs.
The seeds for a sensual and anti-patriarchal female rap performativity were there from the very start with previous female rap pioneers (Sadahzinia, Dogmother, Erinies).
For instance, the song “Buy the Cop Goodbuy, SAY GOODBUY TO THE COP,” performed by the queer artists Dolly Vara and Chraja, popped up as a response to increased police violence and surveillance and due to the acquittal of the policemen who were accused of the murder of the drag activist Zak Kostopoulos (Zackie Oh). In the music video Chraja, provocatively dressed, raps against sexual intercourse with a cop and dances vogue femme.