Hamburg's bad-boy rapper shows crime does pay

German teenagers like their musicians to have a record, says Imre Karacs
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"I DID some bad things in my life, I know I got to pay the price."

Some of the mischief alluded to by the would-be jailhouse poet was pretty bad indeed. Eight years ago, in a fit of temper, the man who penned those lines burst into the Hamburg flat of his Turkish neighbours and beat three people to a pulp with a baseball bat. The Turks had been getting on his nerves for several weeks, he revealed afterwards.

For grievous bodily harm, and the unrelated theft of a car, the assailant was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, but he has yet to spend one day inside. "Why is this man not in jail?"ask the tabloids. "A judicial scandal," is how an outraged opposition politician describes the case.

In a country where racist attackers have escaped punishment with disturbing frequency in recent years, one does not need to be paranoid to suspect another sinister plot. But this shaven-headed thug is different from the usual Turk-beating fraternity, and the politicians and newspapers calling for his incarceration are far removed from the Nazi-hunters of the left. The pro-jail lobby are of the conservative persuasion; the kind who might, in other instances, pretend that Germany is immune to racially motivated crime.

But there is no conspiracy. This criminal remains at large simply because he is rich, famous and influential. He also happens to be black.

Since that incident with the baseball bat, Nana Kwame Abrokwa has made it big. The 28-year-old Ghanaian is now Germany's biggest rap artist, selling two million CDs last year alone. If he has paid "the price", he did it with cheques made out to his legal team.

Every time "Nana" is sentenced, his lawyers fire off yet another motion. It would be a crime to stifle the artistic talents of their client, they argue. The courts keep coming up with the same verdict, but Hamburg's Social Democrat-dominated government has stalled on the consequences. The latest period of grace runs out on 14 April, when the city government must choose between a suspended sentence - as the lawyers request - or the relocation of Nana's recording studio into the room reserved for him in Hamburg's Fuhlsbuttel prison.

Nana says he has paid his debt to society and mended his ways. He has become a practising Christian who gives Bible classes between performances. Yet some people are troubled by the thought that he owes his artistic fame to his past notoriety, and continues to mine violent seams: "Arnold Schwarzenegger style I'll break your back and neck. Believe me I've been through a lot of shit," he intones in his latest album.

This is the kind of stuff that sets tills ringing in the record shops. In the past two years, rap has become top of the pops in Germany, but local villains with the sort of "bad nigga" image that Nana cultivates are scarce.

The teenagers of Hamburg want their rappers to be black, American-speaking, and, ideally, boasting a criminal record. So far, only Nana fits the bill, but in the expectation of his imminent departure from the stage, the search is on for a replacement.

In towns like Darmstadt and Kaiserslautern, the record companies' scouts are patrolling the perimeter fences of US bases, hoping to find mean-looking GIs with a sense of rhythm. Their discoveries are then put through a crash course in attitude and released into an insatiable market.

The problem with GIs, especially those posted abroad, is that they tend not to have had too many brushes with the law. A K Swift, for instance, a rising rap star, is happily married with children, enjoys a cosy life in suburbia, and - at the risk of being sued for defamation - this newspaper can reveal that he has never seen the inside of a police station. But he cannot exactly rap about the flowers in his back garden, so his songs are full of the rough childhood he claims to have spent in gangster-infested Chicago.

Another rapper has a slightly more impressive CV. Johnnie B boasts that he was once caught shoplifting at the age of 16 in his home town of Gary, Indiana. "A promising start," the headmaster of a rap academy might comment, "but not enough dedication in later life." If only Johnnie B could beat someone up.