It already feels like fall in Berlin when Pop Kultur opened its doors for a few nights in late August. The goal of the Berliner Festival is to represent a diverse demographic and to make accessibility a priority. By covering the cobblestone grounds of the Kulturbrauerei with wheelchair friendly ramps, creating an awareness team, as well as inviting artists from various backgrounds, the festival stands out in the German festival landscape. The program highlighted post-migrant perspectives, included a segment connecting Africa and its diaspora, and several residencies encouraging international artistic exchange (Accra-Berlin, Tel Aviv-Berlin, Detroit-Berlin). Eight years in the running, the festival is known for achieving a diverse line up and its unique curation exceeding concerts by including commissioned performances by artists like K.ZIA and Anika, lectures, and discussions beyond the regular music festival experience. The program displays a  political and critical approach that otherwise often lacks in the music industry.

The Pop-Kultur festival highlights common and dominant everyday perspectives and celebrates utopian, queer, migrant, decolonial and feminist perspectives in our society. It offers a focus on futuristic forms of queer (post)migrant living and working collectively, where ambivalences and differences are seen as potentials. Pop culture means celebrating and experiencing migration and making it visible.

Nuha Ruby Ra @ Kino in der Kulturbrauerei – Photo: Käthe deKoe

I attended this year with a focus on the panels, but of course also got to enjoy some of the concerts, performances, and the karaoke at the Çay Stube that was organized. The Kulturbrauerei homed the festival as per usual and provided the ideal map for the combination of talks, readings, and concerts scheduled this year.

Music in Exile

On the first evening, even though I was really tempted to go see Anna B Savage perform her stellar new record live, I headed for the round table called Musicians in Exile – Different Perspectives. It featured two artists who recently fled to Germany from the Ukraine, DJ Jeff a famous Afrobeat DJ and student in Ukraine originally from Nigeria, Belarusian/Ukrainian synth-pop singer Zyrianova Odarka, and the renowned pianist Aeham Ahmad who had to leave his home country Syria in the recent years. The panel was moderated posing questions to the individual participants. While the individual stories were highly interesting and represented different perspectives, the individual-based moderation inhibited engagement with each other’s experiences and the meaning of music and art in exile on a deeper level.

Exile: involuntary displacement or immigration from one’s home region due to political persecution.

Countless works of art, literature, and music have grown out of a state of exile, expressing the pains of not being able to live and create where you want to, where you feel at home. Art and exile share an interesting space. Political art and music are often what forces artists to leave their home country. Aeham Ahmad stayed in Syria and continued to share his art as an act of resistance to the war waging around him. Music in the hostile environment provided creative refuge and space for expression while at the same time endangering the existence of the artist who is vocal about injustices. What happens to creative resistance when forced into exile?

»Musicians in Exile – Different Perspectives« (Odarka, Pamela Owusu-Brenyah, Aeham Ahmad, Gianna Main, DJ Jeff) / Talk @ Haus für Poesie – Photo: Camille Blake

Stories of exile are individual perspectives and shaped by many different circumstances. But there was one common aspect of the experiences shared that evening: the reproduction of racist and colonial structures of German and European politics by favoring white people over racialized people forced into political exile. This showed very clearly in the way Aeham Ahmed, and DJ Jeff described their journey to and arrival in Germany. Fleeing the Ukraine, DJ Jeff was constantly confronted with racist discrimination at the borders, at the hotels, through the policies covering train fares and organized stays for people with Ukrainian passports but completely disregarding people fleeing the Ukraine without the citizenship. The wicked double standards of the German and European foreign and border politics clearly showed on the example of the personal stories of these musicians in comparison to the experiences Zyrianova Odarka made. And this is by no means just a problem that disappears once the borders are crossed. Black people and People of Color continue to receive different treatment from the state, and the public’s willingness to help.

While the focus on the personal stories allowed each artist to share intimate insights from their perspective, it would have been interesting to explore the meaning of exile in their creative work. What does exile mean to each individual person? Do they consider themselves to be in exile? What did they leave behind creatively? Do they find themselves able to relate to other musicians and artists with exile experience? As they all come from a spectrum of genres, there might have been an interesting creative dialogue between them. The overall interesting panel confirmed what most who engaged with the paradoxical political policies regarding immigration already knew: Germany and Europe need to do better!

The curation of this year’s Pop Kultur festival emphasized its name as an event that represents beyond heteronormative white mainstream of the German music industry. They invited speakers and musicians from different backgrounds but as a festival with its base in the district of Prenzlauer Berg and a daily rate of 31€ the festival remains accessible only to a certain demographic. The food and drink prices at a spicy 4,50€ for a small lemonade at the cinema opposed the vision of the Çay Stube as opening the festival to everyone. The freely accessible space in the middle of the premise was curated with performance, for example, by the non-binary artist Anthony Hüseyin performing their latest project “O” and an open Karaoke stage. But situated in Prenzlauer Berg, the demographic represented barely deviated from the fashionable leather coat and chain wearing festival crowd.

We Got Work To Do

The struggle that festivals face between financial survival and not wanting to represent only the mainstream was also part of a panel talk on the next day with Jana Posth of Lollapalooza Festival, Misla Tesfamariam, and Graf Fidi. The panel was moderated by Juliana Reil and Christoph Reimann from Deutschlandfunk Kultur in collaboration with the German Association for the Deaf who provided a sign-language interpreter for the conversation. Misla, the only Black person in the group made some very good points about the prevailing racist structures of the music industry. “As a Black woman you are either completely invisible or you stand out completely”, she says.

In the white male-dominated field of the festival and music industry Misla says, that of course there are constant racist (micro-)aggressions. But that is her reality anyways and nothing she spends much thought on unless asked about it by white people in similar situations. She also comments on the token role of Black people and People of Color, cheekily adding that she only ever gets invited to panels about diversity and never gets to panels about the business, even though she believes herself to be a “pretty great manager”.

“There is so much work to do in the music industry. Festivals are just one symptom of a whole system that is the problem.” – Misla Tesfamariam

That seems to be the verdict of the talk. Misla points out that even quotas like KeyChange are just superficial band-aids for structural problems. Without guidelines for quotas, festivals can hire 50/50 women while paying them less or give them the worse time slots. When the question pops up whether a diverse festival team would be the solution, she laughs. “Yes, a diverse team is better for 1000 reasons”, she says but continues that just because a team is diverse that does not mean that the people are sensibilized for discrimination or if they are, it does not necessarily mean that they are free to act. The structures of the rigid system often limit agency. Many people hoped for changes in the industry especially because of the attention the BLM (Black Lives Matter) got after the murder of George Floyd. The reality remains sobering when looking at Festivals like Rock am Ring (which had less than 5% FLINTA acts on their line up) or Tempelhof Sound (where the overwhelming majority of the Festival guests as well as the line up were white and from the US/EU music industry).

»Pop-Festivals: Welche Gesellschaft soll das abbilden?« – Panel von Deutschlandfunk Kultur (Christoph Reimann, Misla Tesfamariam, Jana Posth, Juliane Reil, Graf Fidi) / Talk @ Kino in der Kulturbrauerei – Photo: Käthe deKoe

During the talk interesting communication strategies surface. Jana Posth, for example, seems to fall into a sort of state of defense constantly highlighting the things that are going well and the new initiatives that they planned like the all-female stage curated by two female bookers and the sustainability concept of the festival. While those things are of importance, pointing them out over and over deflected from the other issues that Misla and Fidi raised.

The talk lived off the relentless and interesting contributions of Misla Tesfamariam and Graf Fidi, who rightfully criticized many things still not going as they should. It is only to hope that the only person at the panel in a position of power can look beyond the veil of optimism that the all-female stage and the wheelchair friendly access of the Lollapalooza festival provide and see the work that remains to be done.

Artists off the Mainstream

It is this critical character that makes Pop Kultur such an important and inspiring festival in the Berlin and German music scene. Even though they operate within the industry structures , they manage to create dialogue, raise criticism, and uplift voices that often go unheard in the music industry. The panel talk that was part of the Africa and Diaspora Connection highlighted the situatedness in the US- and Eurocentric perspective of what is considered mainstream by featuring artist from Ghana’s alternative music scene. While the Afropop has become mainstream in Ghana and is widely listened to in the US- and European context as well, it confines the rich musical culture of the country to a unified sound export. The speakers, the poet Poetra Asantewa, FOKN Bois an experimental Duo, Wanlov the Kubolov, and M.anifest challenge this conception and highlight the revolutionary potential of music off the mainstream. “Does mainstream equal commercial?”, rapper M.anifest who moved the crowd later that day at the main stage at Kesselhaus, asks at the round table of artist.

»Artists off the Mainstream« – Panel von Deutschlandfunk Kultur (M.anifest, Wanlov the Kubolor, Okhiogbe Omonblanks Omonhinmin, Poetra Asantewa, M3NSA) / Talk @ Kino in der Kulturbrauerei – Photo: Dominique Brewing

They continue to talk critically about the Western influence, discussing the lack of support available to artists in Ghana. The artists give insight into the fluidity between mainstream and alternative they have to accomplish to inhabit space in the music industry but also their relentless resistance to the conceptions of pop. The conversation was especially interesting to watch as within the context of a pop festival there rarely space granted for people who from the same region to engage in a discussion that is not centered on explaining their reality in conversation with a white host or panel partner. The connection among the artists who have only partly known each other previously is intimate. While they live unique stories and struggles regardless of their common origin in Ghana, they agree on the fact that it is on Europe and the West to do a better job at supporting music from the Global South instead of just profiting from it.

Politics of Pop

The call for radical change and reform is also a demand at the concert of the singer and musician Xenia Rubinos. The artist released her new record “Una Rosa” last year but has been part of the industry since her debut 2013. At the heated Maschinenhaus stage, she belts her demands for justice and solidarity with Black and PoC persons in a show that is powerful enough to move to tears.

»Yeni Yeşerenler« (Duygu Ağal) / Reading @ Haus für Poesie – Photo: Dominique Brewing

Reaching beyond music, the festival also included a reading of Duygu Ağal out of their new book “Yeni Yeşerenler”. At the Haus für Poesie the author read with a steady voice for a respectfully quiet crowd. The fictional novel engages the perspective and story of a young, racialized queer person growing up in Germany. Bridging two language – the book is written in Turkish and in German leaving whole passages untranslated, short secret messages for the Turkish speaking community.

The curation of the musical and performance acts reflects the political panel talks. Pop is political, just as the private is political. There is no unpolitical music. It inhabits a space in political society – that becomes clear at Pop Kultur. The festival follows not only a cultural and musical agenda of bringing new acts to the stage but it functions as a reminder that what we listen to is in fact political. In the age of algorithms feeding us music akin to what we already listen to, Pop Kultur breaks with the curational spiral and bends expectations by fusing minimal neo-sufi compositions of the Pakistani musician Arooj Aftab with the queerfeminist political rap by German-Kurdish rapper Ebow , the Ukrainian rap by alyona alyona, and the deconstructed post-punk performance of UKs Nuha Ruby Rah. Pop Kultur reshapes our understanding of pop and questions not just the boundaries of the genre but the entire music industry while putting on one hell of a show.

The next edition of Pop Kultur will take place at Kultur Brauerei from 30th of August to 1st of September 2023.