The Echo Awards — Germany's equivalent to the Grammys — is facing widespread censure after this year's prize for best hip-hop album was given to a duo whose lyrics include boasts about how their bodies are "more defined than Auschwitz prisoners" and that they will "make another Holocaust, show up with a Molotov."
At the award ceremony, which took place on April 12, rappers Kollegah (Felix Blume) and Farid Bang (Farid El Abdellaoui) took home the prize for their album Jung, brutal gutaussehend 3 (translated: Young, Brutal, Good-Looking 3).
Kollegah, who has 1.4 million followers on Instagram, has been accused of drawing upon anti-Semitic tropes in his solo work. In his song "Apokalypse" [Apocalypse], which has amassed over 2 million views on YouTube, Kollegah intimates that Jews spearhead the evil that exists in the world, particularly through banking.
Last year, Kollegah was forced out of a planned performance at the Hessentag festival after the Central Council of Jews in Germany and other Jewish groups asked the city of Ruesselsheim to cancel the invitation and not give Kollegah a platform for "hatred, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and misogyny." In response, the rapper called the Central Council of Jews "ignorant of the largest youth culture of our time and also the most commercially successful branch of music" and said that their accusations of anti-Semitism were baseless.
In protest, several prominent German artists have returned their own Echo awards.
Musician, album designer and record producer Klaus Voormann, who designed the cover for The Beatles' Revolver and The Bee Gees' debut album, returned the lifetime achievement Echo he received at this year's ceremony. As explained to Deutsche Welle: "What had felt like a gift to me on the occasion of my 80th birthday has revealed itself to be a big disappointment."
Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, Italian conductor Fabio Luisi (who, among his roles, serves as the principal conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera) and the chamber ensemble Notos Quartet also returned their Echo prizes.
Christian Höppner, president of Germany's Culture Commission and one of the seven members of the Echo's board, has resigned, saying that the situation was "no longer tolerable in our society," adding that he found Kollegah and Farid Bang's lyrics "repugnant." Major German political figures and business leaders from other fields have also weighed in.
On Saturday, Germany's justice minister, Heiko Maas, told the magazine Der Spiegel that "anti-Semitic provocations do not deserve a prize, they are just disgusting," adding that the fact that the prize was given on Holocaust Remembrance Day was "shameful." As in other countries, Germany is facing the rise of far-right, populist movements and grappling with an influx of refugees from places like Syria.
Maas also retweeted a post from singer Campino, the frontman of German punk band die Toten Hosen. Campino wrote that in principle, he thinks that provocation is good and right, but that "for me personally, misogynistic, homophobic, right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic insults cross a line."
Unlike other major music awards, like the Grammys or the U.K.'s Mercury Prize, the Echos are not explicitly a measure of artistic achievement. Instead, the prizes are given to Germany's top-selling musicians, based on German chart rankings. (In 2017, the nominee process was shifted: 50 percent of the selections are now voted on by an expert panel, but the jurists must choose from among the country's five best-selling titles.)
As a result of the current controversy, Florian Drücke, head of the BMVI Music Group, the company that gives out the awards, announced that the Echos would further restructure its nomination and award process.
Even so, the Echo Awards is already losing money. Organic food company Voelkel announced that it was ending its sponsorship of the prize ceremony. Other major sponsors, including the beer company Köstritzer and the car company Škoda, have told German media that their companies would be watching revisions to the awards process carefully.
German record company BMG, which distributes Bang and Kollegah's music, has said that it is standing behind the duo: "We take artists and artistic freedom seriously, and we do not tell our artists what should be in their lyrics and what not."
BMG is part of the major, multinational media company Bertelsmann, which during World War II published millions of anti-Semitic texts as the largest German book publisher, and used Jewish slave labor in Latvia and Lithuania. Its then-head, Heinrich Mohn, also made personal donations to the S.S., Third Reich special forces and Nazi guards. In 2002, the company issued a formal apology for its wartime activities, and for later attempts to cover up that history.
Today, BMG announced that it would be donating 100,000 euros to a campaign to fight anti-Semitism in Germany, particularly among schoolchildren.