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Boos for Roma singer at Coldplay show in Bucharest reignite Romania's racism debate

Romanian manele artist Babasha, June 2024
Romanian manele artist Babasha, June 2024 Copyright Babasha/Tatuatu
Copyright Babasha/Tatuatu
By Aleksandar Brezar
Published on Updated
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Coldplay frontman Chris Martin personally invited the increasingly popular Romanian musician Babasha for a duet in front of thousands gathered in Bucharest's National Arena on Wednesday. Neither of them expected the crowd to react with such bile.

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When Romanian singer Babasha walked out on stage in Bucharest on Wednesday night in front of 50,000 people for a guest performance with Coldplay, he felt like his dreams had come true.

Then came the boos.

Frontman Chris Martin personally invited the increasingly popular Romanian musician for a duet in front of thousands gathered in the National Arena. Neither expected to have to fight through heckling so loud you could barely hear them sing.

“I expected (the audience) to be divided, but I didn't expect it to be this bad,” Babasha, whose songs garnered millions of views on YouTube, said after the incident in a message on TikTok.

The problem, according to Babasha, is that he is Roma — a member of Europe’s largest and most marginalised minority — and that manele, the genre of music he performs, is denigrated by many in Romania as the music of the lower classes and the criminal milieu.

“For those who don't understand this, manele is only infamous because of racism, not because of the music itself,” Babasha explained.

Centuries-old genre stirs ghosts of racism

Manele blends folk music with modern electronic sounds in a manner not too dissimilar from turbofolk, popular in neighbouring Serbia, Greek skiladiko, or chalga in Bulgaria.

However, unlike turbofolk, which only became big in the 1990s, manele — mostly performed by Roma artists — has a much longer history and is deeply rooted in the traditions of the Roma community. In fact, classical manele goes back to the late 18th century, when it was brought to Romania as dance music by Roma from Istanbul.

Yet its critics deride it to this day for its supposedly crude language and banal lyrics, with the odium going so far that some Romanian cities banned manele in public spaces.

Notably, in March 2010, the city council of Cluj forbade taxi drivers from listening to the genre while on the job, while the same rule was applied in Galati against its public transportation operators in May of the same year.

Experts attribute the resistance to the same reasons behind pushback against rap or reggaeton — genres now seen as mainstream but launched by underprivileged groups. 

The persistent rejection of manele is a part of widespread racist feelings towards Roma.

What happened at the Coldplay gig on Wednesday “was not just protests, but an outpouring of suppressed hate,” journalist Cătălin Striblea said in a Facebook post on Wednesday, pointing out he was stumped that the otherwise progressive crowd the British band attracts reacted with such bile.

“It was as if you could cut it with a knife at one point. It was palpable,” he explained in the now-viral post — a sentiment echoed by Željko Jovanović, one of the most prominent European Roma rights activists and president of the Roma Foundation of Europe.

“This is hardly news in Romania,” he told Euronews. “Several years ago, Madonna had a concert in Romania, and she chose to speak out against anti-Roma discrimination, and Madonna was booed.”

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But why is the European country so susceptible to racism against Roma? 

Centuries of being less than human

“Romania is the only country in Europe that treated Roma like slaves. There is a history of 500 years of Roma slavery in Romania,” Jovanović explained. “The population has this historical memory of Roma being less than humans or less than citizens.”

And while ordinary people might actually enjoy manele and musicians like Babasha in private, centuries of negative sentiments and little political will for change meant that anti-Roma rhetoric became an all-too-easy way for politicians to enrage the public and score political points, Jovanović said.

“There were several instances in Romania of political initiatives to rename the Roma, because Romanians were angry that the Roma community and Romania are often confused abroad. So they wanted to change the official name of Roma to a historically derogatory term.”

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A riot police officer gestures while trying to turn an elderly Romanian Roma woman away during a raid by the National Environmental Guard in Vidra, 13 April 2021
A riot police officer gestures while trying to turn an elderly Romanian Roma woman away during a raid by the National Environmental Guard in Vidra, 13 April 2021AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru

Meanwhile, the situation that Roma in Europe find themselves in keeps deteriorating, and not just in Romania.

“Data shows that the devastation is so high that the level of unemployment, even the level of access to clean water and sanitation, is worse than in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia,” Jovanović added.

While some have spoken out against the mistreatment of Roma in Europe, Jovanović believes there are many more who abstain out of fear of the majority. Yet, he is hopeful matters will improve.

“If you look at the history of similar situations across the globe, the first thing to recognise is that this is a long battle. Secondly, it requires political organisation and political power among the Roma."

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"Third, you need supportive friends in the media, the political sphere and the economic sphere who have an influence on public institutions to help them understand they need to reshape schools, universities and the media in a different way — places where the public opinion is being formed."

“Without this coalition, this will only be prolonged further, and the situation will become even more dangerous,” Jovanović concluded.

'Boo better'

In the meantime, several notable Romanian performers stood up in Babasha’s defence.

“Bravo, dude. To sing like you did in front of a stadium that boos you, it's so f*cking rock'n'roll that it can't be bad. I even envy you for not being in your place, to bathe in that ocean of hypocrisy," rock musician Adrian Despot from Vița de Vie said in a post on Facebook.

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“I found it a very brave and beautiful idea because it's about acceptance, inclusion, about recognising that every artist, every musical genre must be respected," pop star Loredana Groza told domestic outlet Observator Press.

Finally, on the second night of the rock band’s Bucharest back-to-back performances, Martin opened the concert by saying he was “shocked, sad and angry”.

"People must be treated equally, and that’s what Romanians deserve,” he said on Thursday, asking the audience to boo him and “boo better” than the night before.

He then brought Babasha out again, and this time, the audience danced, followed by a long applause for the Romanian performer.

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Babasha seems undeterred despite his disappointment at the Bucharest audience's lack of respect and appreciation on Wednesday.

“Regardless of all the booing in the world, I would have still accepted (Coldplay's invitation) because something like this happens once in a lifetime," he said on TikTok.

"I'm just a 22-year-old kid who really works day and night for a dream, no matter if I'm singing manele.”

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