The Language of Resistance
The rap lyrics came fast and furious, flying over the haunting riff of Mykola Leontovich's Carol of the Bells.
They conjured up the cracking concrete towers of housing projects. They rose, as if fighting, forcing their way out, pulsing with all the anger, despair and hope of young men whose lives are shaped by poverty.
The message was familiar, but the words were foreign. This was Polish hip-hop: the gritty testament of the blokerski - the young, white, working-class men of the bloki, or housing projects, in post-communist Poland.
Transported from the streets of Warsaw, Polish hip-hop filled the living room of a two-family brick house on Clifton's Van Houten Avenue. Part of a hip-hop subculture that has been emerging in Polish-American ethnic pockets, Patryk Pilarski, 19, and his friends were lounging on couches after a night of dancing at Club Centrum, a Polish hotspot in the basement of Passaic's Polish American Cultural Center. While images of American rappers Eminem and 50 Cent played silently on MTV, Polish hip-hop blared from the stereo, mingling with dense cigarette smoke and the aroma of Polish-style mielone, or ground beef stewed with onions, sauerkraut and peppers.
"Even if you don't understand the words, you can still feel the music," said Pilarski, bobbing his head to the beat, Gucci cap cocked to the side.
In the same way, it didn't matter that young Poles didn't always understand the lyrics of the American hip-hop that trickled through their borders in the early 1990s. Like other marginalized groups across the world, there was an undercurrent of anger and a struggle for social justice that resonated with the youth, and they appropriated it as their own form of resistance against the dominant social structures - or to "fight the powers that be." Unlike American hip-hop, which now also glamorizes the lavish lifestyles of successful rappers, Polish hip-hop retains the rugged realism of the streets - mostly because Polish rappers haven't achieved the same sort of commercial success that their American counterparts have.
In a mostly all-white, Catholic, homogenous society, these young Polish men did not face the same problems of racism that American blacks did. But they did see the rift widen between the haves and the have-nots, as Poland careered into capitalism. After the fall of communism in 1989, the inner cities of urban centers like Warsaw and Poznan plunged into an abyss of unemployment, drugs, poor schools and an unsympathetic, underpaid police force.
In 1993, one of Poland's first private radio shows, hosted by Bogna Swiatkowska and DJ Volt, played a major role in popularizing both American and Polish hip-hop, and it familiarized listeners with issues facing American blacks.
"That's what Polish hip-hop is based on - American hip-hop. That why this sounds so ol' school," said Pilarski.
In fact, Polish hip-hop still has that raw, underground quality that characterized American hip-hop when it first began, when kids in the ghetto didn't need more than two turntables and a microphone.
You can't get any "realer," said Pilarski, than Peja - real name Ryszard Andrzejewski - whose track was playing on the stereo.
Mario Palgan, 31, nodded his head appreciatively. Palgan knew that Peja's words about the haunting images of starving kids and the need to "use force to fight force" rang with truth - back in Poland, Palgan knew Peja personally, living next door to him in Jezyce, a bullet-ridden "hood" in the Western city of Poznan.
"South Bronx! South, South Bronx!" Peja yelled, the only English words in an otherwise all-Polish track. He was saying how even though an ocean divided them, Jezyce echoed the South Bronx.
But that is only part of the appeal. The songs are not always easy to find in an American market, but Pilarski and his friends - a mix of first and second generations - download music from Polish hip-hop Web sites like plhh.com because they feel that this music is uniquely their own -- that it validates their own experience.
"What's good, son?" asked one friend, as he swaggered into the living room.
Hip-hop becomes a creed that extends beyond just the music. If you adopt this "way of life," it becomes apparent in the way you walk, talk and dress, something that applies in Poland as well as in America.
Peja was dubbed with his stage name after shaving his head because of peja, or lice. This sparked a trend with Polish hip-hop heads - Pilarski and some of his friends sport bald heads, making them readily identifiable in Poland as part of a rebellious youth culture.
"If you've got your head shaved, it would be really hard to get a job. They would discriminate (against) you," said Pilarski. It would be the equivalent, he said, of a job applicant walking into an interview with a do-rag, the tight skull cap that Blacks sometimes wear to maintain unruly hair.
Here in America, the jeans sagging way below the waistline, South Pole sweatshirts and silver-link chains also give Pilarski and his friends away.
Over the decades, American rappers gained commercial success crossing over into the mainstream and finding markets with wealthier, suburban youths. As the industry came to be seen as a form of upward mobility out of the ghettoes, the music morphed, too - rappers incessantly boasted about their "bling bling," their sprawling houses, diamond-encrusted jewelry and opulent wealth.
In Poland, however, many of the rappers remain just as poor as their fans.
"You know where they make their music? In the basements of their houses, on their computers, because they're poor," said Pilarski.