Anti-Semitic Controversy Could Provoke Rule Change at German Music Awards

German rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang

Winners at this year's Echos, Germany's top music awards, have returned their trophies to protest rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang for lyrics such as “I'm doing another Holocaust.”

Controversy and scandal are rocking the Echo Awards, Germany's top music industry honors, after a rap duo came under fire for lyrics comparing themselves to Holocaust survivors.

At the 2018 awards, held in Berlin on April 12, German gangsta rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang won the Echo for best rap album for their top-selling disc Jung, brutal, gutaussehend 3 (Young, Brutal, Good-looking 3). The album includes the song "0815," in which the rappers say their muscles are "more defined than Auschwitz prisoners" and add, "I'm doing another Holocaust, coming with a Molotov" cocktail.

The decision to give the pair a prize was criticized that night by Campino, the lead singer of Germany's legendary punk band Die Toten Hosen. Campino said he likes provocation as much as the next guy, but “for me personally, misogynistic, homophobic, right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic insults cross the line” of acceptability. The audience gave Campino a standing ovation.

Now other artists as well as politicians and business leaders are joining in to condemn the rappers — and the Echos for honoring them.

"Anti-Semitic provocations do not deserve a prize; they are repugnant,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in an interview with Der Speigel magazine. In comments to German tabloid Bild am Sonntag, the German-born CEO of Arbus Tom Enders said the award “hurts Germany's international reputation. Is anti-Semitism becoming acceptable in Germany?"

Maas noted how particularly offensive it was that the rappers were honored on April 12, or Yom Hashoah, the national day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. The protest also comes at a time when anti-Semitic incidents and violence are on the rise in Germany.

In an essay for the Die Welt daily, Jewish German comedian Oliver Polak said that the normalization of anti-Semitism in popular music was part of the reason "that young Jewish people are chased around and beaten up in schoolyards."

Several Echo winners have also spoken out, with some returning their awards in protest. Two-time Grammy winner Klaus Voormann, the so-called “fifth Beatle," returned his lifetime achievement Echo, as did the Notos Quartett, winners of this year's Echo for best classical music album, saying the Echo “is for us nothing more than a symbol of shame.”

This is not the first scandal for the Echos. In 2016, the awards, handed out by music industry association BMVI Music Group, honored German rock band Frei.Wild, a group accused of far-right and neo-Nazi leanings.

Part of the problem, critics say, is the nomination process. Unlike the Grammys or Britain's Mercury Prize, the Echos are primarily chosen on the basis of commercial, not artistic, merit; the best-selling albums and artists are automatically nominated. An expert jury picks the winners from those nominees. If the jury can't decide, an Echo Awards advisory council, made up of executives from the major music labels, gets the final vote. 

This setup makes the Echos numbingly predictable. The same top-selling artists turn up year after year. German pop star Helene Fischer won her 17th Echo Award last week. British songster Ed Sheeran swept the top categories, winning album of the year, international artist of the year and hit of the year for his track Shape of You.

But the voting procedure also means best-selling bands with objectionable views — whether right-wing groups like Frei.Wild or rappers with violent or apparently anti-Semitic lyrics such as Kollegah and Farid Bang — are automatically nominated as well.

The BMVI initially defended its procedures, but on Sunday, association CEO Floridan Drucke said Echo organizers would reconsider their nomination and selection process in the wake of the scandal. Drucke said the association rejected all forms of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia and the glorification of violence.

For their part, Kollegah and Farid Bang say they also reject anti-Semitism, and that their lyrics have been misinterpreted.