Jew! - Derailed Dispute about Karpe Diem’s Rap Lyrics?

May 09, 2016

Karpe Diem include the word ‘Jew’ in a list of swearwords in the song 'Attitude Problem'. This has caused a zealous debate. ‘Jew’ is definitely the word that everybody is talking about.

Disenchanted Fans and Tales of Sorrow

This is my translation of an excerpt from an Op. Ed. by Eliana Hercz, a young woman of 21 who sparked a debate about the Norwegian rap group Karpe Diem’s song Attitude Problem (Attitudproblem)  - from the position of a disenchanted fan.

Karpe Diem’s latest single Attitude Problem includes the word ‘Jew’ along with swearwords such as ‘cunt’, ‘bitch’, and ‘faggot’. This has caused a fervent debate, and mostly disapproving reactions. The debate over the use of 'Jew' in Karpe Diem's lyrics has even found its way to English-language press. Negative responses to Attitude Problem range from explicit charges of spreading anti-Semitism and legitimizing using ‘Jew’ as a swearword, to demands of censoring the lyrics because they are offensive or retracting the song all together. Karpe Diem have also received death threats, a most palpable reaction to their latest artistic expression.

A number of debaters have explicitly stated that they do not at all suspect that Karpe Diem are anti-Jewish, but that the lyrics of Attitude Problem are confusing, and obviously the song is not getting the intended message across. Proponents of this latter view include the leader of The Mosaic Jewish Community in Norway - Ervin Kohn, and even Eliana Hercz who contributed to sparking the debate about the song in the first place, suggests a rather similar reading towards the end of her piece. Rather than pin racist intent on Karpe Diem, Eliana Hercz  shares her experience of hearing the word ‘Jew’ - rapped by the band she loves - in the context of swearwords. And, Elaina reflects on how she dreads the moment that fans will be rapping those lyrics – and be utterly desensitized to how it may make her, and many like her, feel.

In her Op.Ed. Eliana Hercz lets the reader into how painful it was for her to hear the word ‘Jew’ in the word line-up of swearwords. I, for one, was gripped by her piece and truly saddened by her listening experience. I should confess that I am also a fan of Karpe Diem, and have often analysed their edgy and intelligent lyrics in my teaching, at times with blasting music as an intro. Against this backdrop, for a fleeting moment, I was anxious that I might come to share in Eliana’s disenchantment. As it turns out, I didn’t. I do not mean to imply that our listening experiences are entirely comparable. I may be a fan of Karpe Diem’s artistic expression, but I write this blog post based on my previous analytical engagement with their texts, reading a series of Op. Ed.s about Attitude Problem, and my interpretation of both the video and its lyrics.  My fandom is relevant in this context, because I have a fairly good command of many of Karpe Diem’s lyrics and this allows me to contextualize the lyrics without obliterating a multitude of (other) subjective reactions to the song. 

Opaque Lyrics & Artistic Expression

Attitude Problem is a song with far less lyrics, and less of an explicit political message compared to hits from earlier albums which spelled out the political critique in much more elaborate terms. For example:  ‘If you are a tiny bit brown, you are a tiny bit Bin Laden’ (Er du bitte litt brun, er du bitte litt Bin Laden), an iconic line from one of their first albums. In contrast, the lyrics of Attitude Problem are far less self-explanatory than many of their previous songs, also because the song has less lyrics and is divided into more sections than many of their earlier songs. In a word this song is far less verbal.  

Karpe Diem have a chosen a more opaque artistic mode of expression in this particular song: Few words, fewer sentences, a lot of slang and a number of swearwords. This mode of expression requires a great deal of the listener or reader in terms of interpretation skills, as aptly pointed out by Associate Professor of Nordic Literature, Thorstein Nordheim in his analysis of the lyrics. In my view, the ambiguity of the text may cause confusion about the intent of the lyrics, even if I consider it implausible that Karpe Diem chose Attitudes Problems as a vehicle to express anti-Jewish sentiments. Most notably, because I, much like Ervin Kohn, do not believe that Karpe Diem harbour any anti-Jewish sentiments. 

The artists themselves would have preferred not to have to (over) explain their artistic product, but in light of the ensuing debate, Karpe Diem have had the need to express that their intent with the song has been entirely misinterpreted. In Karpe Diem’s responses they have tried to explain how the whole point of the song is to critique the use of ‘Jew’ and the other words listed in the song as insults or swearwords, hence the title Attitude Problem. For instance, Ariel Sharon should not be critiqued for being a Jew but for his politics.

Focusing on a word, or one sentence and de-contextualising the word 'Jew' from the rest of the song's lyrics or the imagery in the video ( Magdi's distorted face) does not do justice to Karpe Diem, particularly when coupled with their corpus of edgy lyrics, famous for political protest and firmly placed within an anti-xenophobic spectrum of thought.

‘Jew’ as a Swearword

One of the most baffling reactions is the insinuation that Karpe Diem and their song Attitude Problem are somehow responsible for the fact that the term “Jew’ is used as swearword in Norway. In the words of one debater (my translation):

To suggest that Karpe Diem are responsible for making ‘Jew’ a swearword which some commentators appear to be implying, totally misses the mark. Karpe Diem are using words that are commonly used as swearwords in society. I do however agree with the argument that there isn’t a more neutral version of the word ‘Jew’ than ‘Jew’ – and that this is but one of the ways the word differs from for example ‘whore’. However, to accuse Karpe Diem of launching ‘Jew’ as a swearword or have them take the fall for a societal ill that far precedes their lyrics is ludicrous, as other commentators have expressed in an exasperated fashion. I am all for a rational conversation where it is clearly stated that ‘Jew’ ought to be a neutral word. 

We could – and I believe should – discuss how the word ‘Jew’ ought not be to be used as a derogatory term. The uproar about Karpe Diem’s song may possibly betray much deeper sentiments; Is it possible that Karpe Diem’s Attitude Problem struck a chord and unleashed suppressed fears that anti-Semitism may be on the rise in Norway?

The extremities of Holocaust and anti-Jewish atrocities are without doubt part of the heightened sensitivity with regards to the ways in which the word ‘Jew’ is utilized in popular culture and the public sphere at large. I am very much in favour of this sensitivity. However it might also create a blind spot. For, what seems very striking with the case of Karpe Diem’s song Attitude Problem and the public debate it has sparked, is that there seems to be a very high sensitivity about the word ‘Jew’ which is not afforded to the other groups also included in the list. The swearwords connected to gender or sexuality did not spark a similar uproar. While both ‘cunt’ and ‘faggot’ are more clear-cut swearwords, they still signify groups that deserve the same respect as Jews as a group. In my view, the saddest thing about both the song and the debate it sparked is that it shows that young Jewish Norwegians find the lyrics hurtful, even if Karpe Diem had an entirely different artistic intention and political message at heart.