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The motivation bomb

Thomas Groß writes a portrait of Muhabbet, Germany's new pop icon.

Muhabbet is looking forward to his appointment with Horst Köhler, and he's taking it all in stride. He still doesn't know just what he'll say to the German president, they brief you after all, and everything's pretty much clear: May 15, Family Day in Germany, a representative thing with representative people, hopefully the weather will be good on Berlin's Unter den Linden boulevard where the capital will be out in its Sunday best. A lot of people will shake their heads in disbelief "when Köhler's standing there and Muhabbet shows up." Because things like that simply haven't been normal up to now, and because it'll turn a lot of media impressions on their head.

Muhabbet. All photos courtesy

Normal until now has been just the opposite, the image of problematic Turkish youths instilling fear into the hearts of locals, hanging around in gangs, dealing drugs in the school yard and pushing up crime statistics. Whether in the news or most recently in the movies, what you see is gang wars, forced marriage and honour killings. Murat Ersen – alias Muhabbet – doesn't say that doesn't exist. Nor does he say that as someone of foreign origin, Turkish in his case, all his experiences with Germans are good ones. But he does say "a little discrimination isn't going to kill me." And he points out that not everyone corresponds to each and every cliché.

He himself is the best example. He's well-spoken and polite as he sits back on the couch at his record company to talk about himself, his new album "R'nBesk" and his growing role as a figurehead. No tattoos, no cool talk, practically no accent – if at all from the Rhineland, because Muhabbet comes from Bocklemünd district in Cologne. Bocklemünd, he says, "is a neighbourhood like Berlin's Rütli School" (more here), a problem district way out on the edge of town, "pre-fab housing blocks that shot up in the 60s, meant for the socially underprivileged." The conductor's announcement still rings in his ear: the train ends here. "Then we'd all say to each other: and our dreams do too." The difference today is all the more striking. When talking with the unfriendly baker's wife he "puts on a clean German." Simply order your bread and say have a nice weekend when you leave. She can't believe her ears.

Muhabbat's come a long way with this strategy of astonishing people, not just to the federal government's "Schau-hin" action ("Watch what your kids are watching!" - more here), but also to Bravo magazine, where he promotes the "Schau nicht weg" (don't look away) campaign. A further project, "Off to school, little girl!" is planned in cooperation with UNICEF, to promote education in the Turkish hinterland. And then there are the autograph sessions at Saturn music store on top of that. But what really propelled Muhabbet to stardom was interest on the Internet. His smash hit "Sie liegt in meinen Armen" (she's lying in my arms) has been downloaded more than a million times, and in the forums fans are still discussing how it all happened and what makes the song so good. His record company rightly calls him a "socio-cultural phenomenon." Muhabbet promises integration without the loss of identity. At 21 he embodies both local and foreign culture.

R'nBesk, the music behind the phenomenon, is the sound of a third generation of immigrant youth, young people who've long spoken German as a matter of course and who view their parents' values with a certain distance. Without the German language as the connecting vehicle, it would never be possible for young Turks and Moroccans, Croats, Rumanians and Kurds to gather at Muhabbet's concerts. But they come in droves, because what binds them is Muhabbet's free use of popular Oriental music, Balkan folklore and Turkish arabesque. The music reaches back over space and time in wistful recollection of distant lands, with ringing melismas and freely meandering verses. My heart is heavy, I miss you so much, I want to see you now, come to me – there's not much more text to R'nBesk than that. But the basic motifs are endlessly rewoven, while synthetic beats thunder underneath.

The music is modelled on American R'n'B, that blend of music and style that's been bringing Gospel and Blues to the mainstream since the 80s. R'n'B is also a sort of compromise between history and the present, minorities and the majority, "it's the new blues of the blacks, if you will." Muhabbet sees other parallels too. What is still awaiting Germany has been happening in the USA for ages. America really is a country of immigration; immigrants and their children are an integral part of society because they're also an enrichment. It's only understandable that they then express their needs, with all the conflicts that entails. And R'n'B, for its part, opens up chances for participation. As opposed to HipHop, the second marginal world-language, the focus isn't on the individual or the law of the jungle, but on what you can do to reach your goal. Nothing is sexier than success, is the message, and if you believe enough in yourself, you can make it to the top.

"I'm not only out for a good time, I want to make things happen in Germany," says Muhabbet. He's said it often, but now that "R'nBesk" is finally out he likes to say it again. "I'm telling you, no matter where you're from, no matter what colour your skin, everyone's got the same rights and everyone's got the same privileges here in Germany." Of course you've got to come half way, show you're a bit willing to fit in, and respect the laws. Show a bit of interest, pay attention to people around you. If you know a bit about computers, all the better. And don't just stagnate at home like so many people in front of Turkish TV. That's why Muhabbet takes a stand and gets involved, including going to Family Day, to energize people and pass on what he's learned: "In terms of entertainment, I'm setting off a real motivation bomb." That some call him a "showpiece Turk" doesn't bother him at all: he knows all too well where he's from and where he is now.

Muhabbet, the self-made-man. In the end his successful integration also means he shares the secondary values of the German majority: diligence, stamina, cleanliness, drive, the talent to forge his own happiness. His heart is Turkish, but his discipline is German, he says. He discovered this side of him at 15, while flipping through a dictionary with his brother. Suddenly he saw his future name. In Turkish "Muhabbet" means "excited small talk," but he prefers the Arabic meaning: "rich and famous." And a little while ago he found out the word also has a meaning in Urdu: love. "Love's the thing," says Muhabbet, not a bad omen for the future. With love, you'll find the way. Everything else leads back – not to Turkey, but to Bocklemünd in Cologne.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on May 4, 2006.

Thomas Groß is a freelance author living in Berlin.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european