BimBimma wrote his first rap as a 14-year-old in 1998, one which documented the suffering around him as Kosovo was on the brink of war. Twenty years later, he still uses hip hop as a form of critique, and still isn’t happy with what he sees.
The first rap that Burim Kursani, or BimBimma to give him his stage name, ever wrote was titled ‘Shume vrasje’ or ‘Mo’ murders’ as he translates it himself. He was 14 years old and watching Kosovo descend into war. It was 1998.
“We as kids, instead of playing in the parks with balloons and sandcastles, and unicorns and shit – we wrote about how our people are being chased, kidnapped, abducted, massacred, beaten…” he tells Prishtina Insight.
Kursani had fallen in love with hip hop in the years prior, especially finding inspiration in Nas, the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, rappers with a social conscience and “lyrics that mean something in reality,” as he describes it.
Once the war was over, Kursani was determined to continue providing a voice for Kosovo Albanians in the same way that hip hop had shone a light on issues in black American communities throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Within a few years, alongside his bandmates in NR, he had helped make an album that provided a model for Albanian hip hop in this form, 2003’s ‘Egjeli.’
The record’s title translates as ‘Angel of Death,’ and its aim was to kill established ideas about what it meant to rap in Albanian.
“Before Egjeli, rappers that rapped in Albanian used the language found in newspapers and books, the Tosk dialect, which is not the dialect we speak,” Kursani tells Prishtina Insight. “We came out using explicit language – no one before us used explicit language – and giving straight up messages; asking where we stand as people, what the issues are. We did that in 13 tracks and ever since, Albanian rap is being made how NR made it on Egjeli.”
A crucial part of this newly formed vision of Albanian hip hop was political critique. In Kursani’s opening verse of the album’s closing track ‘Raptishizem,’ he criticizes the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (which administered the country in the post-war years), and laments the demolition of the Xhevdet Doda high school in Prishtina, destroyed to make way for the Mother Teresa cathedral.
It is still an issue that rankles with Kursani, who feels that the site held heritage for the city, especially for him personally. His grandfather was imprisoned in a jail that existed on that land, before it was then converted into a primary school where his grandmother taught. The elementary school became the prestigious Xhevdet Doda high school in the early ‘70s, one which Burim later attended, having to pass an entrance exam to do so.
A decade and a half later, BimBimma is still an outspoken political critic. While he has continued to criticize international influence on Kosovo’s politics, he feels the biggest problems have come from within. “If we were united, no one could come here and tell us what to do,” he says. “Because we would be like: ‘Fuck off! This is our place. These are our rules. You don’t decide for our rules. If you want a war to pop up, we’re ready. Let’s do it again!’”
His most vitriolic words are aimed at the political class that emerged from the remnants of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, and have dominated politics in post-war Kosovo. “They’re just assholes man,” he says bluntly. “They’re just individualists. They’re just materialists. They don’t care about our people.”
The element that seems to most aggravate the rapper is the exploitation of the memory of the KLA for personal gain. “These dudes are just a cliche. It’s just an image they created,” he says. “Those that really fought the war: they either don’t speak, they don’t want to be mentioned or they’re dead.”
Kursani responded to what he perceived as a string of broken promises from this political class by penning a number of tracks in the early years of the 2010s that directly call on the population to jettison the former ‘war heroes.’
In the 2012 video for ‘Çu!!!,’ people are seen leaving their houses to take to the streets as grainy footage of the then prime minister and current president Hashim Thaci plays on the television, while in the lyrics BimBimma describes Kosovars as ‘blind’ and ‘a sleeping bear’, urging them to rise up.
It is an urgency that Kursani feels still applies to the societal situation in 2019, with the battle now being to fight against state capture, and using public employment to buy votes. “The leaders go to people who are starving and give them jobs,” he says. “They give the dad of a house with seven children a job that pays, let’s say, 700 euros a month. Before that he had seven euros a day, not even that, now he has 700 a month!”
He believes that this situation leads to dependency and a pressure to vote for those in power. “They don’t want to have to strive to survive again because of one vote,” he says, adding that Kosovars have yet to really use the power of the ballot box. “That is the power people have, and that is the power people have to use, because those guys are there – we put them in their positions – so they have make our life better. It’s a paradox. How can you as a voter be scared of politicians? The politician has to be scared of you!”
Another song released around the same time, ‘Zani i Skamjes,’ or ‘The Voice of Poverty,’ calls out Kosovo politicians for living in luxury while many of the country’s children live in poverty, working on the streets instead of attending school.
In the track, the rapper positions himself as the titular ‘voice of poverty.’ It’s a difficult position for anyone to occupy, but BimBimma argues that his experiences in the ‘90s make him qualified to do so.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Kursani family had done well from the Yugoslav system. Burim’s father Vllaznim served in the Yugoslav National Army, securing an education and property for his family from his service. But when in 1989 Vllaznim was asked to prepare for war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the family went “from having everything to immediately nothing,” as Burim describes it.
Unwilling to participate in the war, Vllaznim left Yugoslavia to live in Turkey. Every other day a six-year-old Burim answered the door to armed soldiers making enquiries regarding his father’s whereabouts. Vllaznim had told him what to do: “You don’t even blink. You’re not allowed to be scared. You tell them: ‘my dad went to the Czech Republic,’ and slam the door.”
The family survived off money sent back from Vllaznim in Turkey, who was supervising construction sites, as well as other remittances sent back from family members in Austria. “We had to struggle to be fed,” Kursani says. “We would have starved if we didn’t have people in the diaspora sending us money. Since I’ve lived that, I know how it feels, and I don’t want anyone to be in the same shoes.”
In Zani i Skamjes, alongside politicians, Kursani also criticises “snobs who don’t appreciate life” while others watch family members die young due to their economic circumstances. This financial inequality between people that has crept into Kosovo’s post war society has only increased since the song was released, and is a subject still close to the rapper’s heart.
“With capitalism, some people gained a lot of money, other people have nothing and that is when shit starts,” he says. “There is no connection [between Kosovars] because we’re divided into classes: those rich and those poor, no middle class.”
The result of this divide is a society which, according to BimBimma, has become superficial and materialistic, and most crucially, one where love has been lost. “They put all these material things in front of human emotions and the human spirit,” he says. “If you surround yourself with plastic you will forget what love means – love for everything, love for self, love for friends, family, love for the Creator, love for your country… and then you’re just lost.”
This reprehension for materialism may seem at odds with many of the stereotypes surrounding contemporary hip hop, both in the Albanian language and beyond. In the 2017 song ‘Pare,’ or ‘Money’, Kursani takes on two such tropes of the modern rap world, cars and money, pointing out that in Kosovo, the car most commonly driven is a Volkswagen Golf 2 rather than a Bugatti.
BimBimma himself owns a Volkswagen that’s been kept in his garage for four years. “I’m not a car person,” he tells Prishtina Insight. “I’m not materialistic at all. I need to make money in order to survive in this brutal capitalism but I don’t want to sell my soul, I don’t want to be a commercial.”
He describes much of contemporary Albanian rap as a bad copy of what’s happening in American hip hop – Albanian imitations of simple three world choruses that come across more like a jingle for a commercial selling a lifestyle.
“Hip hop when it was born had lyrics that actually changed things,” he says. “It got people to open up their eyes to what’s going on so that they protest for their rights. Now it has become a lifestyle, people rap about how they live, the luxury they have.”
Alongside the need to communicate a message, for BimBimma the key thing missing from Albanian hip hop today is honesty. “You need to be living that life,” he says. “If you have Ferraris and Lambos and one kilo chains of gold – don’t take them off when the video is done because you’ve rented them. You have to be living that for that to be real.”
Examinations of other societal issues have also appeared in BimBimma’s more recent tracks. 2018’s ‘1ka1’ (‘One by one’) took aim at a number of subjects related to contemporary Kosovar society, including that age old cliche of foreign correspondence about Kosovo, the full cafe, as well as the obsession with social media; describing bars and Facebook as being at the center of life in Kosovo.
But the rapper feels this is something imposed rather than anything intrinsic to life in Kosovo. “Since there is more than 60 per cent unemployment, what do you expect people to do?” he asks. “No sports centers. No leisure activities. Our city doesn’t have a fucking indoor pool where you can send your kid to learn to swim. With €2 in your pocket what else can you do?”
If the cafe can provide a short respite for people in these circumstances, then social media can create a whole other reality. “I understand why people got into that virtual life because they lost hope of doing something in real life,” Kursani says. “What they put on Instagram is not real life. I’m so against all this faking your life, faking happiness because these people don’t seem happy when you meet them.”
More controversially, the song also takes aim at women’s use of plastic surgery to conform to beauty standards, stating that these “females make [him] sick” and that he “wouldn’t lay a finger on them.”
The rapper is unapologetic about the sentiment. “You can set any beauty standards that you like but you are created by the Creator as you are,” he says. “All of those girls have the same nose, the same lips, the same cheeks… it’s as if they go and say ‘I want this.’ It’s disgusting man.”
However, he claims that his criticism comes from a place of compassion. “For these issues, sometimes I’m very arrogant, very aggressive, very stressed out because I know my people’s capacities,” he says. “I know everything they can do for one another and they don’t do jack shit.”
The video for 1ka1 also features footage from protests organized by political movement Vetevendosje, which began running in elections in 2010. While BimBimma has been a critic of all other political parties in Kosovo, and claims to have turned down 25,000 euros to do promotional songs and videos for both PDK and LDK, he has performed at protests organised by Vetevendosje.
Kursani concedes that his appearances at the protests offers tacit support for Vetevendosje, but insists that he will attend any protest that he feels speaks for the people regardless of who organized it, and will hold any politician in power to account.
“I am waiting to see when and if Vetevendosje comes to govern Kosovo,” he says. “If they lied just to get into a position then they are gonna be the ones that I’m gonna crucify in my lyrics, more than what I did now to all these people,” he says.
This role of documenting what is happening in Kosovo, providing a voice for the dispossessed and criticizing those in power is a big part of what has pushed Kursani to spend over twenty years rapping. “I see hip hop as journalism. You do your journalism, I’ll do mine,” he says. “As long as there are problems to talk about, I won’t be stopping.”
Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla/Prishtina Insight.