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“Dieses Lied ist eine Hymne für mein Volk das es so noch nicht gibt”: Minoritarian Strategies in Afro-German Popular Music

Alexander G. Weheliye





My paper discusses the recent proliferation of Afro-German R&B, Brother’s Keepers, Sister’s Keepers, Joy Denelane, Bintia, Mic, J-Luv, Glashaus, and, above all, Xavier Naidoo, which, as opposed to hip-hop does not construe German blackness in terms of identitarian narratives often found in hip-hop. With this in mind, I will develop my points through an engagement with recent examples of Afro-German R&B, Xavier Naidoo and Glashaus, in particular.

Xavier Naidoo is one of the most successful German recording artists of recent years. His first album, Nicht von dieser Welt (1998), remains one of the all-time bestselling German language albums. Naidoo’s arrival on the German music scene was remarkable not only because of his stratospheric rise to fame as a hyphenated German but also, and perhaps more importantly, due to his overly melismatic singing style and devout lyrics; Naidoo takes the homonymic resonances between Xavier and savior very seriously. His lyrics are replete with reference and deference to the almighty, oftentimes vis-à-vis the coming apocalypse. Still, Naidoo is far from a throwback to soul music’s idyllic past, as his formulation of a German language R&B would have not have been possible without the explicit articulation of a combative form of blackness in US hip-hop and the subsequent popularity of German hip-hop artists. Moreover, while the Christian invocations in the lyrics refer back the to US R&B’s roots, there’s no precedent for Naidoo’s sonoric piousness in modern Germany; Gospel and the Germanic imagination are uneasy bedfellows.

Glashaus consists of the two producers of the sonic architecture, Pelham Power Productions (3P), of Naidoo’s first album as well as chanteuse Cassandra Steen. Although comparable in some respects with Naidoo, especially in the overtly biblical librettos and the German language melismatic singing, Glashaus’ sound largely lacks the pathos and pomp so central to the aesthetic of Nicht von dieser Welt, replacing it with a minimalist aural tapestry, which better suits Steen’s restrained intonation. What unites these two projects, besides the same team of sonic architects, is the creation of a uniquely (Afro-) German form of R&B, a genre hitherto absent from this musical landscape, that while certainly in a dialogic relationship with the US, remains an anomaly; its historical and cultural peculiarity resist domestication and, in some sense, description.

Drawing on concepts from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, I will argue that the forms of Afro-German R&B performed by Naidoo and Glashaus espouse minoritarian instantiations of being black and German, since neither Naidoo nor Steen, with a few exceptions in Naidoo’s case, address their Afro-German identity in their lyrics. While Naidoo’s and Steen’s sonic murmurs could be heard as either a fairly successful mimicry of African American musical practices or the eruption of a transcendental black soul, I want to suggest a different interpretation, one that apprehends the emergence of Naidoo and Steen and the genre of Afro-German R&B as a becoming minoritarian and molecular of German culture in its unstable and constantly shifting symbiosis with US black culture. Hearing how both vocalists literally stretch, contort, and reinvent the German language and singing sui generis by unleashing new intensities from within them resists narratives of appropriation and Afro-diasporic sameness. They amplify, instead, the production of new spheres both in terms of popular music and Afro-German subjectivity, which, at least for the moment, offer different pathways to being black and German than hip-hop.

Contemporary manifestations of Afro-German R&B project such becomings via their ties to African American cultural practices and their reformulation of German structures. Rather than staging (German) blackness through content, these new musical formations minoritize both blackness and Germaneness via the conduits of affect and expression. Where Afro-German hip-hop had to cast its project in the language of identity due to the absence of Afro-Germans in the German public sphere, both as individuals and as a semi-coherent group, these newer R&B vociferations gesture towards a different logic in which race is surely present but not central, at least not in a strictly identitarian sense.

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