Celebrating a multicultural Europe?: stories and silences of multiculturalism in the Eurovision Song Contest

The Europe celebrated in today’s Eurovision Song Contest is a multicultural Europe. And so it seemed when the three Austrian presenters of this year’s contest stood next to each other for the first time in the broadcast of the semi-final: Alice Tumler, whose mother is from Martinique, Mirjam Weichselbraun, whose parents are white, and Arabella Kiesbauer, whose father is from Ghana, are all well-known light-entertainment presenters in Austria. Together, they also help to personify an Austria and a Europe which, a narrative of multiculturalism would suggest, has incorporated the 20th century’s migrants of colour and their descendants into what it means to be Austrian or European in the early 21st century.

Arabella Kiesbauer, Alice Tumler and Mirjam Weichselbraun, presenters of Eurovision 2015
Arabella Kiesbauer, Alice Tumler and Mirjam Weichselbraun, presenters of Eurovision 2015

Eurovision researchers tend to agree that Eurovision is an event where performers, broadcasters and viewers all use and express ideas about the cultural identity of Europe, and ideas about how a particular nation might relate to Europe. Sometimes, what happens in Eurovision might even feed into how people think about the meaning of Europe in a wider sense.

As well as thinking about Eurovision from the point of view of lesbian, gay, bi and trans equality, or of the idea of European ‘enlargement’ after the Cold War, both of which I’ve tried to do before, another question that researchers of Eurovision have started to explore is: how well has Eurovision reflected the multicultural reshaping of national and European identities that took place in the late 20th and early 21st century, and is Eurovision – or Europe – always as inclusive as even that tale of progress might suggest?

When I put these questions to a European Studies class at the University of Cincinnati who I spoke to over Skype a few months ago (with thanks to their teacher, Sunnie Rucker-Chang, for inviting me to talk to her students), I didn’t begin by talking about something that had happened in Eurovision, but about one of many reactions to a Eurovision performance – indeed, as extreme a reaction against multiculturalism in Europe as it would be possible to find.

Norway from 2011 to 2012

The 1,500-page manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo and Utøya in July 2011, not only explained his ideology – a fantasy of defending Norway and Europe from Islamification, which targeted the Left because he believed that contemporary Europe’s accommodation of feminism and multiculturalism had left Europe vulnerable to an Islamic takeover from within – but also contained a day-by-day account of his preparation for the attacks.

On one day in May 2011, Breivik commented on that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, where Norway was represented by the Kenyan-Norwegian singer Stella Mwangi. Mwangi’s song Haba haba told the story of the life lessons she had learned from her Kenyan grandmother, with lyrics in English and Swahili – the first time any East African language had been heard on stage at Eurovision.

Breivik filled his commentary with racist slurs against Mwangi and the complaint that ‘my country has a crap, politically correct contribution’. Elsewhere, meanwhile, he wrote about the music that he himself intended to listen to as he motivated himself for the attacks: particularly songs by the Swedish far-right singer Saga; the epic soundtrack composition ‘Requiem for a Tower’; and a song from the Age of Conan video game soundtrack by another Norwegian vocalist, Helene Bøksle. Bøksle is white, fair-haired, and usually performs in Norwegian, her vocals well-matched with the epic style of music that Breivik admired. Coincidentally, Bøksle had also competed to represent Norway at Eurovision in 2011, with the song Vardlokk (Calling the soul).

The divergent way that Breivik’s extremist ideology made sense of two musicians, Mwangi and Bøksle, who were both deeply embedded in contemporary Norwegian culture shouldn’t suggest that there’s a simplistic binary tension between tradition and multiculturalism – and indeed, the fact that Breivik operated with a binary like that is itself a good reason to oppose one.

Rather, it illustrates an observation that can also be made about Eurovision in much more mundane ways: performances in Eurovision, and discussions about Eurovision, take place within a wide field of narratives about the idea of Europe, the cultural values Europe might have, and the relationship that any nation or person might have with those.

These narratives are always political; they are affected by politics, and they shape politics. And because Eurovision is set up as a competition between countries (just think how much you see the countries’ names on screen during Eurovision, compared to the performers’ or broadcasters’ names, after all), it invites its audiences to make sense of what they see and hear with reference to what they know about national and European identities.

The year after the Oslo and Utøya attacks, Norway’s participation again gives us an illustration of how Eurovision invites viewers to ‘narrativise’ what they see even if the narratives aren’t made explicit. The Norwegian contestant in 2012, Tooji, is an Iranian-Norwegian singer and trained social worker who has worked with young refugees (and his song, like many Eurovision entries since the early 2000s from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Armenia and Azerbaijan, worked ‘eastern’-sounding instrumental flourishes into its pop-R&B arrangement).

A Norwegian expression of defiance against Breivik’s racist, exclusionary concept of Norway and Europe and the terror he had planned to sow in Norwegian society? It was certainly there for a viewer to read if they wanted to, as was a demonstration of Norway as being fully up-to-date with contemporary transnational pop trends – although the song (while qualifying for the final night) still ended up coming last in the Eurovision final.

Watching any Eurovision Song Contest in recent years would demonstrate that the contemporary contest represents European multiculturalism and does so through a narrative of progress – that European nations, and Europe, have been successful in becoming multicultural, and that multiculturalism is one of Europe’s values.

Yet this has taken time: although Eurovision began in the very period when the largest scale of postcolonial migration into western Europe was taking place, it took many years for Eurovision to reflect this social change in any substantial way.

Danse, balance sur le white and black blues

Until 1964, Eurovision remained in the words of the Dutch musicologist and cultural historian Lutgard Mutsaers, ‘an all-white environment’ (2007: 164) – a monoracial track record first interrupted when the Netherlands selected an Indonesian-Dutch singer, Anneke Gronloh. Two years later, another Dutch representative, Milly Scott, became the first black musician to sing at Eurovision when she performed Fernando en Filippo (Fernando And Filippo) in 1966.

Yet, including Scott, there would be only five black participants in Eurovision between 1967 (when Eduardo Nascimento represented Portugal) and 1990, when Joelle Ursull (a former member of the trio Zouk Machine) represented France with the song White and Black Blues (based on Afro-Caribbean percussion and dance, though written by a white composer, Serge Gainsbourg).

France, indeed, stood out in early-1990s Eurovision for entries that represented France first as a multicultural nation and later as a nation of diverse regions (with songs in the mid-1990s reflecting Corsica and Brittany). The next French entrant after Ursull, Amina Annabi, was French-Tunisian, sang with North African vocal ornamentation, and very nearly won; France’s singer in 1992, Kali, was Haitian and sang in French and Antillean Creole.

In her book on Corsican choirs and the ‘world music’ market, Transported by Song, the musicologist Caroline Bithell connects this run of French entries to the policy of the 1988-93 French culture minister, Jack Lang. Lang wanted to reshape French national identity around the image of a ‘champion of cultural diversity’, evident in state support for ‘world music’ production but also in how the French national broadcaster represented France at Eurovision.

(Redirected towards the French regions, something of Lang’s diversity strategy remained after 1993, when French Eurovision entries tended to reflect the linguistic diversity of regions including Corsica and Brittany.)

Ursull was the first of 14 black singers who would perform in Eurovision during the 1990s, especially for France, the Netherlands and Portugal but also for Austria, Britain, Israel and Bosnia-Herzegovina (where Béatrice Poulot, from Réunion, joined Dino Merlin’s multilingual Bosnian entry in 1999). France and the Netherlands especially might have the potential to go down in Eurovision history as multicultural pioneers; though Mutsaers also points out that, as of 2007 when she wrote her book chapter, no Dutch Eurovision representative had had Moroccan or Turkish heritage even though these were the two largest immigrant communities in the Netherlands. (The Moroccan-Dutch singer Hind Laroussi subsequently represented the Netherlands in 2008.)

Come on everybody, let’s sing along and feel the power of a song

Eurovision’s first – and still its only – black winner, Dave Benton, competed alongside Tanel Padar in 2001 as part of an interracial duo representing a country not widely thought of as racially diverse: Estonia. When Estonia won Eurovision and hosted the contest in 2002, as Paul Jordan argued in his research on nation-branding in Estonia and Ukraine, the Estonian government acquired an even larger platform for its strategy to promote Estonia as a prosperous, technologically advanced democracy than it could ever have imagined when it first launched the so-called ‘Brand Estonia’ campaign. Through Benton’s participation, ‘Brand Estonia’ also became the image of an Estonia at the multicultural forefront of Europe.

Benton, who had moved to Estonian from Aruba in 1997, could be celebrated nationally for winning and could help to show that Estonia was multicultural. At the same time, he represented integration into the nation through language, the same expectation that the Estonian political elite had towards Estonian Russians (the background, incidentally or not, of Benton and Padar’s backing vocalists in 2001).

Jordan’s interviews with elites and the Estonian public about Eurovision and Estonian national identity found that politicians were very keen to talk about the successes Benton exemplified, and indeed Benton himself saw his own story as a success of integration; yet members of the public were also liable to point out evidence of everyday racism that the elite narratives did not contain.

(Some of Jordan’s research about his other case study, Ukraine, will appear in our forthcoming Eurovision issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe, including attitudes to the participation of Gaitana, a mixed-race Ukrainian singer, in Eurovision 2012 when Ukraine was about to co-host the European football championships. The articles are still a day or two from going online, but this Time article from 2012 describes some of the cultural politics in the meantime, including the reaction of Svoboda’s Yuriy Syrotyuk, who stated that Gaitana was ‘not an organic representative of the Ukrainian culture’ and would lead Europeans to think that Ukraine was ‘a country of a different continent’.)

This disconnect, and many others, reminds us that understanding multiculturalism, European identities and Eurovision needs us to do more than simply enumerate who’s been represented when (which this post hasn’t set out to do) and describe what narratives of multicultural progress can tell us; beyond that, we need to be aware of what stories of successful inclusivity might actually conceal.

People of colour are still underrepresented at Eurovision, and even more so in the backstage organisation of the contest than on stage – in other words, in the areas where the most power to shape the structure and direction of the contest is to be had. Even on stage, the performance scholar Ioana Szeman reminds us that Roma, ‘the largest transnational [ethnic] minority in Europe’ (2013: 126), have rarely been present on the Eurovision stage with Romani music or language, even as music that audiences interpret as ‘Romani’ or ‘Gypsy’ became fashionable during the pop-folk wave of the 2000s.

Exceptions, notably the Romani hip-hop group Gipsy.cz (who represented the Czech Republic in 2009), Sofi Marinova (whose song for Bulgaria in 2012 contained lines in 10 languages including Romani) and Esma Redzepova (part of the Macedonian entry in 2013), have failed to qualify through the semi-finals.

Commenting on Romania’s entry in 2012 (Zaleilah, which was performed by a group of Romanian and Afro-Cuban musicians called Mandinga and written by the Romanian pop-folk producer Costi Ioniţă), Szeman suggests that a simplified multiculturalism has emerged at Eurovision that smooths over the complexity of racism (in Romania or elsewhere) in practice. Gipsy.cz might have been able to reclaim stereotypes of the Roma musician and, in the context of Eurovision, suggest that Czech national identity could accommodate Romani ethnicity and language when this had been a matter of xenophobic dispute at home – yet the problem of whether (as Aniko Imre writes), in order to succeed, Roma musicians must ‘sell back to the […] majority’ an ‘exoticising, touristic vision’ of themselves which that majority had produced in the first place (Imre 2008: 336) is even more salient in Eurovision, with its extra pressures towards self-exoticism, than in the marketing of Romani hip-hop scenes in general which Imre was originally discussing.

The politics of exoticism, indeed, are an important corrective to any narrative about multiculturalism which is based solely on counting representation; we also need to account for what kinds of representation have more or less capacity to be seen and heard.

Come on closer and tell me what you don’t find here

Exoticification – depicting a place or people as attractive because they are different, reducing them to a handful of simplified characteristics ascribed to ideas about gender, ethnicity and race – depends on ideas of ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ in order to be intelligible – and is always dependent on some kind of unequal power relations. Indeed, it helps legitimise unequal power relations, as Edward Said’s Orientalism or Ella Shohat and Jack Stam’s Unthinking Eurocentrism demonstrated for many kinds of Western representations of the Middle East (including visual art, travel and historical writing, and popular film).

Eurovision, as a platform for representing nations and cultures while aiming to win votes from an international European audience you want to vote for you, has ended up lending itself to strategies of exotification very well – all the more so since the public, rather than expert juries, became responsible for Eurovision voting from 2000 onwards (and solely responsible for Eurovision voting in almost all countries between 1998 and 2008). The classic example – for the producers of many Eurovision entries in the mid-2000s, as well as for viewers and researchers – is Sertab Erener’s Every Way That I Can, which won Eurovision for Turkey in 2003.

By performing in Eurovision, and by winning and hosting Eurovision, Turkey could position itself as part of Europe (at a time when the Turkish government was interested in pursuing the objective of EU accession) and contest the discourse from many European states that Turkey should not belong to Europe at all. Yet the song did so by appealing to precisely the tropes through which orientalising representations have constructed the Balkans and the Middle East as opposites of ‘Europe’, combining up-to-date musical production with musical connotations of ‘easternness’ (itself fashionable in Western pop and hip-hop at the time) and the supreme orientalised stereotype of the harem.

(As far as its staging went, Every Way That I Can was firmly up-to-date in the early 2000s and indeed still wouldn’t look out of place in an MTV Music Awards-type setting today. Except the chances are it would belong to Katy Perry and, well, would bring with that a whole extra set of problems.)

‘World music’ production, cinema and literature are all subject to similar pressures, and indeed the marketing of these other cultural genres helps to shape the taste cultures that viewers might bring to Eurovision. Writing about tropes of war and ethnic violence in a range of 1990s films from south-east Europe, the film scholar Dina Iordanova described the position that cultural creators from the region often found themselves in as ‘self-exoticism’, and raised a valid concern: what kinds of representations are we less likely to see and hear when commercial pressures towards self-exoticism are so great?

Similar issues emerge from approaching the history of German-language Schlager music (one of Eurovision’s foundational pop genres, which has influenced Eurovision entries beyond Germany, Austria and Switzerland) in a postcolonial context. The German literature scholar Sunka Simon argues that Schlager lyrics ever since the 1950s have consistently expressed a fascination with an imaginary East and a hot South. This, for Simon, is colonialist imagery, abstracted from the places it purports to be about, sexualised and racialised.

Milly Scott’s Fernando en Filippo, indeed, was itself an example of abstracting names, music and symbols into a more abstract, exotic-but-different-from-here, exotic-because-different space: the ponchos and guitars of Scott’s backing vocalists suggested the song referred to Mexico, the geography in the lyrics might place the action in Chile, and ‘Filippo’ (unless he had Italian-speaking heritage as well) would have been more likely to be called ‘Felipe’ in either case.

Problems like these lead Katrin Sieg to the critique of ‘performing race in neo-liberal Europe’ that she develops on the basis of the Eurovision 2010 interval act, a collection of flashmob dances in European cities leading into a live performance of Glow by the Afro-Norwegian duo Madcon.

The image of a pan-European party with black African immigrant communities successfully integrated into the centre of the show and European citizens of colour (sometimes) dotted throughout the city crowds created a compelling picture of technologically-enhanced ‘unity in diversity’ yet, Sieg suggests, would fail to communicate how racialised structures of oppression in the past and present have created structural inequalities in Europe (or even the full scope of who has been affected by social hierarchies based on concepts of race):

It positions black Europeans as engines of the creative economy, but elides ever more urgent questions about race as a social formation governing social exclusions, exploitative divisions of labour and resource distribution. […] While the situation of indigenous or immigrant minorities that remain largely invisible at the ESC is often made more precarious by their lack of citizenship, the high cultural visibility that Afro-European entertainers enjoy compared to other minorities does not ensure stronger political representation, nor does citizenship status eliminate other (cultural, economic or social) forms of racialization, as the situation of Afro-German citizens demonstrates. (Sieg 2013: 28)

A narrative of perfect multicultural integration, then, would fall into the same kinds of silences that Alana Lentin and Sara Ahmed both point out exist in celebrations of a ‘post-racial’ Europe or a post-racial world – the idea that a world where a mixed-race man can be elected US President, or a Europe where a black man from Aruba can be part of the winning Eurovision entry from a post-socialist country, has overcome racism and that ‘race’ as a category of oppression no longer matters.

A narrative of inclusivity?

The contemporary Eurovision Song Contest displays a narrative of inclusivity which may be something to aim for – and far preferable, certainly, to the xenophobic alternative concepts of European identity that a Breivik or Syrotyuk would offer – but has dangers when seen as a self-congratulatory statement of simply how Europe is. One way to test the limits of Eurovision’s progress narrative might be to ask what aspects of multiculturalism or expressions of multiculturalism Eurovision could, or could not, incorporate easily.

The European Broadcasting Area
The European Broadcasting Area (active members of the European Broadcasting Union must be located here)

What scope, if any, might there ever be for staging the kind of critique that queer and trans people of colour in Europe have made of contemporary sexually-diverse nationalisms that, while incorporating gays and lesbians into the nation, put immigrants and Muslims under collective suspicion of not sharing the new national values – the kind of challenge to contemporary narratives of national identity that Jin Haritaworn and Fatima El-Tayeb have made?

Could a Eurovision entry – in a contest where the space of ‘Europe’, based on the International Telecommunications Union’s European Broadcasting Area, extends around the Mediterranean’s whole coastline, north and south – ever be used to oppose the fortification and militarisation of the EU’s external borders (including those at sea) in the same way that previous entries have advocated for environmental justice, nuclear disarmament or international peace?

And what obstacles might stand in the way of such critiques reaching a Eurovision stage?