A rapper in parliament: Bulgaria’s call for more authenticity7 min read
“Do you have a guy in Parliament?” A billboard in Sofia city centre reads in bold white letters. The question is a reference to the popular song “Imam Chovek” (“I have a guy”) by rapper Hristo Petrov (better known as Itzo Hazarta). In the song, he parodies the widespread informal practice of vruzki in Bulgaria. This exchange of formal favours based upon personal loyalties is the cornerstone of the country’s informal economy. So how did a piece of rap lyric end up on a billboard as part of a political campaign in the run-up to last month’s parliamentary elections in Bulgaria?
Petrov’s unique campaign and consequent election as a candidate of the brand new party We Continue the Change (PP) has altered the way we think about the crossover between rap and politics. On a global scale, this musical genre has become synonymous with social activism, as most prominent rap artists often belong to socially disenfranchised groups. Many artists have found success due to their ability to verbalise people’s disillusionment with the political system. Consequently, due to the immense social capital of these performers, they often serve as great PR tokens during a campaign, regardless of the legitimacy of their political endorsements for a given party.
A rapper successfully running for office offers new insight into the overlap between these two traditionally very different realms. While instances such as Kanye West’s US presidential campaign might serve as an obvious deterrent to mixing rap and politics, the case in Bulgaria might prove different. According to Petrov, he no longer feels comfortable being just a rapper, who shows discontent in his lyrics. Instead, he would like to take a shot at becoming the so-called “real deal”.
Rap and Politics in Bulgaria
The Bulgarian rap scene is no stranger to anti-political discourse since the cultivation of this genre in the country after the fall of communism. The list of songs name-dropping politicians and parties is extensive, but one of the most emblematic songs has to be by Upsurt, of which Petrov is a member and the designated lyricist. The song “Kolega” [Collegue], released in 2005, perfectly captures the disappointment of the democratic transition in the country and the consequent development of widespread societal apathy in the 2000s. It is, perhaps ironically, still a beloved hit song by many, maintaining its relevance over time. Such rhetoric in Bulgarian rap has also gained momentum recently during the protests of last summer.
Despite the popularity of these songs, most Bulgarian rappers often refrain altogether from political affairs. Their lyrics provide social satire, but they themselves remain neutral. For example, in the song “Luryaaa”, rapper Qvkata DLG explains that he doesn’t vote and laments the fact he is “yet another person who has discovered a sickness but offers no cure,” yet most of his work references social injustice and political inadequacy.
In terms of political endorsements, Bulgarian rappers have participated in election campaigns mostly for monetary gain. Petrov himself has been heavily criticised recently over participating in a concert organised by the former ruling party Citizens for European Development (GERB) in 2019, although he refused to take pictures with the candidates or tell people who they should vote for.
Along the same lines, when it comes to rappers participating in elections, their attempts have been far less successful than their music careers. For example, Petar Petkov, better known as Ghettoman, is a member of the political party People’s Voice (GN), which since its creation in 2013 has not secured any parliamentary seats, despite participating in all past elections.
Another case was that of rapper Marsel Velichkov or Marso from the popular Murda Boyz, who shocked his fanbase in March by announcing that he would be running for parliament with the ethnic minority party, Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). His motives remain a mystery, though it has been theorized that he did it for publicity – explained by his rather peculiar campaign video. Nowadays, Velichkov chooses not to comment on the situation, and never ended up actually making it to parliament, despite the party securing around 10% of the vote.
A New Kind of Politician
When Petrov announced that he would be running for parliament as a candidate for the PP Party in October, his announcement was met with scepticism. Despite his immense popularity even his supporters were wary of how well he would be able to adapt to political life. Some criticised him for “joining the dark side”, while others, disappointed by recent examples of people from show business getting into politics (like the party formed by Bulgarian TV- host Slavi Trifonov in 2021) only saw his candidacy as a PR stunt.
Nevertheless, the rapper led a short, rather unconventional election campaign, which ultimately proved very effective. Apart from the provocative billboards, which stood out for their originality in comparison to those of other candidates, he also made good use of different media outlets. In his interview for Dnevnik, he admitted that he had previously voted for a candidate of Democratic Bulgaria (DB), who now stood as his direct opponent in his district. In an almost 3-hour long podcast appearance on the popular online show Pri Toto he discussed many topics traditionally seen as taboo for politicians such as his failures throughout his career, his struggle with alcohol and drugs (and consequent sobriety), as well as a very controversial outburst he had during his time on the show Big Brother.
With an honest approach to discussing his own history, Petrov solidified his image as a concerned citizen, who has decided to take action and risk his own success in the name of achieving something greater. He has repeatedly remarked on how much he stands to lose by running for parliament with regards to both the extensive support he enjoys as a musician and his different business ventures, which undoubtedly he will have to leave behind if elected. This strategy has worked in his favour as the common belief in Bulgaria is that people only get into politics to get rich.
He also did not boast about how successful he might be in parliament and avoided sweeping promises for the future. He instead, zeroed in on the point that as a collective the PP party can bring about change. The key to his campaign success was this emphasis on authenticity, which many other politicians in Bulgaria have lost. In a society where people have lost any semblance of trust in the system, his approach of “telling it like it is”, in many ways parallel to the way he appeared in his rap songs, as connected with the electorate.
At the elections on the 14 November, Petrov managed to win in the 25th district of Sofia with an overwhelming 32.13% of the vote against both former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov (GERB) and Kornelia Ninova of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), as well against the very candidate he had previously voted for, Elisaveta Belobradova from DB. His success is part of a larger momentum for the PP party, which came first in the recent elections. His contribution of almost 7,000 preferential votes, had a significant impact in terms of securing the capital and made him the first rapper elected to the Bulgarian parliament.
While one man, rapper or not, cannot change a political system solidified over the last three decades, Petrov might signify a change in the societal perception of the accessibility to political life, which up until 2020 appeared forged behind unbreachable walls. Similarly, he might also set a new precedent for what we consider an appropriate or acceptable background for a politician. Ultimately, his election has proven that on some occasions, rap and politics can mix as they are bridged by people’s appreciation for authenticity and Bulgarians are desperately calling out for a more authentic political class.