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Abstract

In "Were the Balkans Made for Rap? Semiosis within the Homemade Hip Hop Imaginary," I explore the relationship between media-making and the reimagining of home after socialist Yugoslavia’s violent dismemberment. The 1990s included not only the virulent nationalisms so often a part of Western news, but also a painful shift in political economy, an end to a multinational federation, and the supposed triumph of liberal democracy. In public debates, hip hop artists took creatively critical stances on these changes, presaging some of today’s most pressing concerns about social well-being, xenophobic populism, and state breakdown. Shifting understandings of what was authentically “homemade” (domaće, also “domestic”) were reflected in their rap, DJ, and video compositions. Performed with limited mass visibility, homemade hip hop was once widely regarded as yet another foreign import. Over time, however, it came to generate big audiences online who saw artists as increasingly attuned to domestic issues. Since 2003, as I conducted multi-sited ethnographic research in three peripheral, modestly sized metropoles (Zagreb, Sarajevo, and Belgrade), my research attentions were drawn to how artists practiced politics through semiotically rich categorizations and evaluations. I sought to better understand how popular culture addresses changing senses of belonging in a radically altered context of amplified social division and proliferated boundaries. Clad in playfully serious pseudonyms, artists referred to their hip hop scene using a variety of names, including “Balkan,” “ours” (naša), and exclusive national labels. Among these, the descriptor “homemade” stands out. In the language(s) once widely known as Serbo-Croatian, domesticity shifts its meaning depending on how speakers evaluate the symbolic proximity of signs, including those of audiovisual crafts, commodification, history, health, gender, and racialized alterity. Artists who gravitated toward media that proudly traces a black genealogy became entangled in social questions about what is – or alternatively, is not – domestic. Such queries are themselves ensnared in troubling and longstanding questions about race, class, and where Europe ends. However, the word also has other uses. Calling something homemade can point to a subtle, anti-fascist critique when one refers to a cosmopolitan, post-Yugoslav scale of shared experiences from Slovenia to Kosovo. Common memories of relatively stable industries now downsized, offshored, and otherwise less productive are likewise interwoven with homemade signification. Domesticity thus supersedes strictly ethnonational connotations, implicating a wide array of politicized and quotidian themes that artists confront. Like anthropology, hip hop has long made epistemological gestures toward the importance of small but nonetheless potent emblems. Accordingly, my dissertation elevates emblematic themes that transnationally active hip hop artists regularly explore: contemporary mobility, entertainment, and heteroglossic selfhood. These topics reflect broader politics of domesticity in post-Yugoslav spaces. Homemade hip hop artists’ play with multiple voices intersected not only with state efforts to promote exclusivist identities, but also with everyday matters of the kitchen table, bed, and bathroom. Artists endeavored to distance themselves from negative elements of post-socialist transformations, which for them included entertainment media said to be in the service of a new oligarchy. In rightwing and leftist discourses alike, the era since the 1990s has too often proven full of different stagnations and intolerable new cultural flows. Through their concert tours across new borders, YouTube appeals to broad publics, and celebrations of antiquated vinyl records, homemade hip hop artists attempted to transcend what they saw as the adverse aspects of present-day mobility. Their alternative uses of technology, audiovisual aesthetics, and unfolding ethical relationships to domestic selfhood, media, and mobility illuminate their perspectives on new forms of social difference.

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