If you’re looking for male, pale, and stale indie rock acts headlining booming outdoor festival stages afront a glitter-smattered, beer-chugging mosh-pit of fans, Pop-Kultur is not where you will find it. Equally, if it’s a 24-hour hard-techno clubbing experience that has drawn you to Germany’s capital, you’re better off trying your luck at the notoriously exclusive Berghain. Pop-Kultur is offering something quite different.
Taking place over three glorious nights in the multi-various industrial spaces of Kulturbrauerei, an old brewery in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, Pop-Kultur is challenging what we consider pop culture to be, who can be part of it, and how we consume it. Funded through various channels, including the German government and the European Union, the festival, now in its fourth year, is free of the usual commercial incentives to pack in as many headline acts and sell as many tickets as possible.
Instead, Pop-Kultur offers a uniquely intimate setting to appreciate cutting-edge performances from both established acts and emerging talent, across a ground-breaking breadth of nationalities, ages and backgrounds. In between concerts and DJ sets, we hung out in Kulturbrauerei’s cobbled courtyard, where a range of participating artists shared their thoughts on what they brought to Pop-Kultur, their perspectives on the festival, and its idiosyncratic approach to showcasing music.
Gracing the main stage of sorts, the cavernous cement-walled Kesselhaus, were Berlin music producer Henrik Schwarz and Dutch Alma Quartet with “Punderphonia”, just one of the experimental performances commissioned only for Pop-Kultur which saw Schwarz “plunder”, deconstruct, and reconstruct classical compositions. Swedish singer-songwriter and rapper Neneh Cherry lit up the stage with tracks such as 1989’s “Manchild” and new single “Kong”, demonstrating she’s still as much a force to be reckoned with in challenging stereotypes of female performers as when she was at pop’s forefront in the ’80s and ’90s. American Chelsea Wolfe and Swedish Anna von Hausswolff both brought suitably gothic performances to the venue: Wolfe with her neo-folk rock, including tracks from 2017’s Hiss Spun, such as “16 Psyche” and “Scrape”, while von Hausswolff’s was all dark and compelling on songs from this year’s Dead Magic.
A clear highlight, however, was Ghostpoet, who performed introspective tracks from last year’s critically-acclaimed Dark Days and Canapes, his distinctive sung-spoken-style floating atop electronic beats. Speaking with Obaro Ejimiwe ahead of his performance, he reflected on the success of his latest album, but also digressed on how many had characterized its thread of social commentary as rather bleak:
“I try to write about life as a whole, which is the good the bad and the ugly,” Ejimiwe says. “I try to talk about the world as I see it: the emotions people go through everyday and the lives we’re trying to lead in this world that is constantly changing. I wouldn’t as far as to say it is happy but feels quite positive to me.”
Expressing some cynicism about the current music industry — “it’s quite stifling and not really developing new artists or giving them time to really find their sound” — he would love to see more projects like Pop-Kultur: “Giving young and new artists a platform to play to people they may not get a chance to play to on a regular basis is really encouraging. I hope more stuff like that can spring up around the world.”
Tucked upstairs in Machinehaus were a spectrum of artists who imbued the stage alternately with a quiet pindropping ambience and raucous attitude, from the likes of Berlin’s Ava Bonam and German pianist Lisa Morgenstern, to London’s guitarist and singer Nilüfer Yanya and rapper Ms Banks. Also playing the venue was Ebow, a Vienna-based German rapper who additionally sings as part of group Gaddafi Girls. She loved being at Pop-Kultur, not only to play her biggest Berlin show yet (“it can be difficult for artists based in the south of Germany and Austria to get gigs in the city”) but also to have the chance to discover other new artists herself:
“The booking is really diverse and you can easily drop into different places and see different artists doing different music,” says Ebow. “You don’t even necessarily need to look at the programme.” Diversity is high on her agenda, with sexism, racism and lack of equality being just some of the themes her German lyrics meditate on: “In the UK you have all these really talented female rappers, in the US and Latin America too, but in Germany there are not that many women rapping. So I’m trying to bring a different perspective.” And her refreshing style overturns what we typically expect from hip-hop artists: “I’m not trying to overly sexualize myself or be a really tough gangster – I’m just trying to be me the person I am, the woman I am and I think it really important to bring something like that to the hip hop in Germany.”
The underground Alte Kantine provided the home to two acts on the brink of greatness: Flohio, the 25-year-old born in Nigeria raised in Bermondsey rap artist, was a revelation with her fresh and fiercely intelligent brand of grime. On Thursday night, French electronic duo Agar Agar had the packed out room riled up with attitude-filled vocals and synth-pop beats. All were straining to see their bizarre uninhibited onstage antics, which mirror their quirky music videos, as their tongue-in-cheek “Sécurité” officers became their backing dancers and stripped down to bare chests.
Ahead of the gig, the Parisien pair, who met at art school, explained how they characterise their sound as perfect for a late night Pop-Kultur slot: “It’s a transition between concert and club music.” Amidst Armand Bultheel’s chat about his other hobby, finger skateboarding, and Clara Cappagli reminiscing about her days doing five-hour DJ sets, they spoke about their eclectic music influences: “Armaud’s a fan of instrumental electronic music while I’m more into garage, punk bands, subculture.” Together, they wrote their forthcoming debut, The Dog & The Future, while staying in a Southern France cottage in the woods, playing video games and painting. Their laid back approach is one they believe ensures they continue to make original and fresh music: “Sometimes to do nothing is really important in the creative process,” says Bultheel.
The Palais club, meanwhile, had The Last Poets on its stage, a decades-old outfit commonly credited with being the fathers of modern hip-hop and who prompted a moving moment’s silence for the recently deceased Aretha Franklin, “the Queen of soul,” before performing tracks such as 1971’s “Black Is”. Later, Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force was a wild ride through disparate African rhythms and dance and OY, a collaboration between vocalist Joy Frempong and drummer and producer Lleluja-Ha, took us on a space odyssey with their otherworldly sounds.
Up at Franz Bar were the off-the-wall Shortparis, a post-punk rock affair hailing from Russia whose sounds and spasmodic movements created one of the most memorable performances of the festival. Also playing was ANDRRA, whose mesmeric, dim-lit set, sung in Albanian, was extremely powerful and moving. A graduate of the festival’s unique “Nachwuchs” talent-nurturing scheme three years prior, the musician and producer (real name Fatime Kosumi) originally hails from Pristina, Kosovo. Moving to Berlin had been a challenge for her as an artist:
“In Pristina you could too easily fool yourself with the feeling of achievement, that you are doing something very special,” Kosumi says. “In Berlin you cannot do that. They don’t buy anything immediately. That was very healthy for me as an artist. It makes you really go deeper and understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You have to be offering something new to the scene.”
Greatly helped by Pop-Kultur’s programme to develop her material, ANDRRA is now able to give voice to the women and stories she grew up with in Kosovo, previously entirely absent from mainstream culture, taking lyrics of songs originally sung to child brides (a fate suffered by her own mother and grandmother) and composing her own music to them: “I wanted to build this bridge between the contemporary aesthetic that I love and the stories that surround me in a way that I never hear or see in pop culture. Whenever I perform, I feel I’ve brought those women with me on stage.”
Tel-Aviv artist Noga Erez closed out the club’s lineup with a brilliantly edgy and high-energy rendition of songs from last year’s debut, Off the Radar, released on Berlin-based label City Slang. Speaking earlier that afternoon, Erez explained how the album’s success had completely changed her life: “It’s basically taken me from making music and hoping and dreaming to do all this stuff to actually being able to do it. My life has changed 180 degrees.” The album’s electronic sound takes in influences from across jazz, hip-hop, and R&B, and Erez is determined to remain experimental.
“My music is so fluid and it’s so dynamic, it’s changing all the time,” Erez contends. “I’m exploring things, but I’m not doing it in a linear way, I’m just giving myself maximum freedom.” This fusion of styles, she thinks, is the way of contemporary music but also something platforms such as Spotify can be at odds with: “It’s almost 2019, and you have to pick one genre to define your music? It’s insane.” But festivals such as Pop-Kultur can be the perfect antidote to the confining side of the industry: “It’s a little place on earth that has some some kind of Utopia. That is what art enables, it allows people from all over the world to come together around something that has such great spiritual qualities. As humanity, this is one of our best things that we have: we can all be in the same room and listen to the same music and kind of get connected for a second in a world that sometimes feels very lonely and very isolating.”
Outside of Pop-Kultur’s live concerts were a inspiring programme of talks and projects on display such as “Mix the City” Berlin, which allowed you to select and mix pre-recorded clips from Berlin-based musicians in unusual parts of the city, an innovative concept that will in future be able to combine with parallel projects in cities across the world online. On display in the bustling courtyard was exhibition “Over The Rainbow”, bringing together photographs by Meryl Meisler and Ben de Biel who captured subcultures in New York and Berlin. Even the festival’s marketing was full of arty kitsch, with graphic designer of i-D magazine and Pet Shop Boys fame, Scott King, evoking the German concept of nationhood in his scenes of the Bavarian landscape that adorned the promotional posters.
As festival director Katya Lucker tells us, what makes Pop-Kultur special is exploring a truly broad concept of what can be pop culture: “You’ve got everything from talks with Irmin Schmidt from ’80s German rock band Can, to very new and young artists who may not be known across the world or even in Germany.” It’s a result of curators Martin Hossbach and Christian Morin working tirelessly across the year to build a programmes of artists that is inclusive rather than exclusive, with the only criteria to provide a platform to music and artists with depth and originality, an instinctive rather than methodical process.
“It actually evolved out of a business conference on the industry with panel talks,” Morin explains. “But we wanted to bring the artist perspective back in. Artists had become a kind of content provider for all of the platforms. A product. There was no more discussion about the meaning of art. So that was one of the main approaches when starting the festival.” In particular, Morin drives the commissioned works side of the programme: “Outside of the usual routine of recording, releasing, touring I think there’s more room for creation in between. Most artists have other ideas in the back of their heads – we want to give them the possibility to bring them out.”
As a condition of their funding, Pop-Kultur is forbidden to make any money off the festival, but that’s also afforded them some freedom. “It’s not like a normal mainstream festival, like Lollapalooza, which is about getting bigger and bigger and bigger and just making money and selling tickets,” Lucker insists. Yet a lack of commerciality protects the artistic emphasis of the festival, as Hossbach explains: “It’s a great political decision to say we spend money on art, and to be supported in this way mean no one no one tells us what to do. That makes big difference in comparison to being reliant on sponsors.” That freedom has since led to alternative solutions that can set an example for the industry, such as the festival’s progressive gender balance, on which the lineup boasts an impressive 50-50 split: “Other festivals say they can’t find enough female artists,” says Morin. “We wanted to prove that this is a wrong argument. And I think we succeeded.”
However, despite its laudable diversity credentials, Pop-Kultur has come under fire for a very specific affiliation: Among the national embassies providing funding for flights and accommodation for its artists to participate in the festival were Israel. With the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement taking exception to any cultural event associated with the Israeli State, a boycott campaign was launched and a number of artists withdrew their participation last year, including Young Fathers and myriad Palestinian acts, and a number this year, including John Maus, Shopping, and Nadine Shah. Even so, the festival insists, “We are not intimidated by boycotts.”
Aside from needing to navigate this challenge, Pop-Kultur has certainly proven the viability of its unique festival concept. It has created a safe space of sorts in which commercial drivers can be shut out and the most innovative sounds from the margins of the mainstream and the underground can be celebrated, nurtured, and explored as a purely artistic pursuit. Whether you spend hours poring over its program and studying its artists to plot your course through the three days, or move fluidly between its labyrinthine spaces to see what you stumble across, Pop-Kultur will not fail to excite, delight, and inspire. It’s a refreshing and necessary break from the increasingly homogenous festival scene in the heart one of Europe’s most culturally rich cities.