Defy Them: How Underground Music in Kosovo is Challenging the Mainstream

At first glance, the music scene in Kosovo might not appear very diverse, dominated mostly by pop, rap and folklore. However, a new recording studio is making the underground music scene flourish recently, bringing about  change in the mainstream music industry.

When you search for Defy Them on Google Maps, an image of a poster that was previously displayed outside emerges. The poster reads: please don’t enter with symptoms of Covid-19, racism, misogyny, homophobia. 

Unfortunately, this poster has been torn down recently, and the person responsible remains unidentified.

“We’re planning to put up an even larger one,” Ilir Dalipi, one of the founders of Defy Them, informs me as he gives me a tour of the new alternative recording studio. “That will show that we’re here to stay,” he adds.

Founded in 2018 as an independent and community based rock label in the Bregu i Diellit neighborhood, Defy Them functions as a new recording studio, a music school, a communal space, and more.

“Rock and metal music will always remain at the core of Defy Them. However, music culture isn’t isolated, it’s intertwined with numerous other elements. Our space is a fusion of passions,”  states Kombetar Uskana, another co-founder of Defy Them.

“While it may seem all about enjoyment on the surface—parties, music, and drinks— fundamentally, it’s centered on education,” Dalipi tells Prishtina Insight.

(from the left) The three founders of Defy Them:
Ilir Dalipi, Kombetar Uskana and Ilir Berisha. July, 2023. Photo: Isabelle Fennema/Prishtina Insight

“Our approach to education revolves around setting an example and providing a role model. We aim to promote a peaceful and open-minded atmosphere, hoping this ethos resonates with our students and visitors. We don’t exclude anyone, yet we do actively lend support to marginalized groups,” Uskana adds.

“A rock scene has always existed in Kosovo, although recently it hasn’t been very prominent. The absence of spaces where bands can rehearse, connect, and perform has hindered its visibility. Defy Them addresses this issue by offering artists a platform to unite,” he further explains.

Galdon Reçica tells Prishtina Insight about all the accomplishments of Kosovar rock and metal bands under Defy Them, which have been displayed in a vitrine at the entrance of the studios. Photo: Isabelle Fennema/Prishtina Insight

Rocking the Scene

The rock and metal scene in the post-war period in Kosovo has not been able to live up to its image of the golden age of the 80’ and 90’, when it was one of the main genres of music in the country. After the war the few rock bands struggled to organize themselves into a structured community. It has always though, in comparison to other artistic communities, been one step ahead when it comes to open mindedness and social-political problem reflection. 

The hopes of the alternative music scene are to eventually make a difference in mainstream society. This is happening slowly but surely.  A largely contributing reason that the development of the rock and metal music scene has been held back so far is because of the dire economic state of Kosovo after the war, because in a poor country making expensive music is very difficult. 

“When we commenced, there was no affordable rehearsal space in Prishtina. As a result, we rented and practiced in a garage,” Kombetar recalls. “Before long, the attendance grew to over a hundred people,” Ilir adds.

“During that period, we approached some of the major rock bands in Prishtina and asked, ‘How many people typically attend your gigs?’ Proudly, they would respond with about a hundred attendees! To us, this was astonishingly low. In comparison to earlier times when the rock music scene thrived, the norm was around 2 thousand guests. This disparity prompted us to take action for the community,” Dalipi explains.

“I want to acknowledge the garage owners in Dardania where we initiated our journey,” says Galdon Reçica, the guitarist in the band Frisson, a radio technician at Dukagjini RTV, and an audio engineer at Defy Them. “They could have easily rented out those garages, but instead, they tolerated our bands and all the chaos.”

Simultaneously, there was a car wash nearby, and the humidity would seep into the garages, creating unfavorable conditions for band rehearsals.

“It’s disheartening that bands had no choice but to practice in dim garages with limited oxygen and almost no space. But we had no other options because the police would be called on us elsewhere, illustrating the stigma that surrounded, and still surrounds, rock music,” he added.

Dardan Blakaj with Nata, the kitten that Defy Them recently adopted. She really contributes to the community feeling of Defy-Them. Photo: Isabelle Fennema/Prishtina Insight

The Birth of a Recording Studio

Defy Them operates on three key pillars. First, there’s Defy Them Records, their recording label. Second, there’s the Defy Them School of Rock, a music institution where a diverse group of four to five teachers instruct various genres of music. Finally, there’s a communal space used for hosting cultural events, movie screenings, concerts, book presentations, and more. 

While their primary focus is on enthusiasts of rock, metal, and heavy metal music due to the limited options in those genres, Defy Them is broadening its scope to appeal to a wider audience.

Moreover, Defy Them places special emphasis on supporting young musicians. This is achieved through event organization, rehearsal space provision, and their music school. 

Although students are required to pay a fee, it’s symbolic and quite modest, as stated by Arbër Selmani, PR manager at Defy Them. The school encourages students to experiment, explore their talents, and collaborate through jam sessions. These interactions might lead to the formation of bands driven by shared chemistry.

In just the past year, since transitioning from garages to their current location—an old bunker evoking memories of the Kosovo war—Defy Them has seen the emergence of 20 new official bands and numerous unofficial ones. This accomplishment is remarkable for the alternative music scene in Kosovo.

“Rock and metal are genres that revolve around raising your voice,” Arbër tells Prishtina Insight. “I genuinely believe that each concert here resembles a protest—an expression of the urge to be heard and a call for a cause. That’s why Defy Them resonates so strongly with our mission and purpose.”

“We’re here to challenge norms, to transcend genres. To reshape the prevailing mindset. A significant aspect of rock music is its role as an activism platform and defender of human rights. When you sing rock or metal, you channel an anger about a subject that demands attention. This is why I’m excited that young people today are so drawn to this genre. It signifies their refusal to simply accept societal structures; instead, they are more inclined to revolutionize in their own way,” Arbër adds.

Galdon Reçica(left) and Andi Sadiku(right) engaged in some friendly competition after stating that it was the others excellence in music that pushed them to be better musicians themselves and that the friendly competition, which is actually mutual admiration, is a huge motivation for them. Photo: Isabelle Fennema/Prishtina Insight

Challenging Gender Norms

Defy Them remains committed to dismantling taboos and inequalities. In Kosovo’s music industry, male dominance is still pervasive, particularly in the pop music sector. While there are female artists, the majority of managers, producers, and other key roles are occupied by males.

However, Defy Them bucks this trend. “Even though the founders are three men they are all feminists and it’s one of the few places where I don’t feel belittled or threatened as a female artist and manager,” shares Lira Blakaj. Lira is a PhD student in Anthropology at Oxford University, serving as the organizational manager at Defy Them. She has also recently released her debut single as an artist.

I inquired with everyone I spoke to about their thoughts on the torn-down poster mentioned at the beginning. Various suspicions have arisen regarding who might be responsible and why. The most plausible explanation is that the poster was removed by someone who has yet to embrace Defy Them as a platform for alternative culture.

“I’d like to think that the poster was taken down because it’s no longer necessary to state those things,” Andi Sadiku, a seasoned guitar player for Zwada and Sandcastle Mom, as well as a bass player for Telikput, optimistically suggests.

“I hope that if someone reaches the conclusion that they don’t resonate with what we do, it’s after they’ve engaged with our offerings and experienced them firsthand. At that point, it’s fine to let it be,” Andi concludes.

Isabelle Fennema is a journalist intern at Prishtina Insight. Having lived in Kosovo until the age of 12 she returned this summer to get experience in journalism. She studies humanities in Brussels, Belgium. 

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