Stories in English

Connect-R: „First of all, I am Romanian. Gypsy is just a subdivision”.

2012. március 12. | CIJ - Romania

Dollores Benezic

Before becoming a famous rapper, Ştefan Mihalache was just an ordinary Gypsy, born and raised in Dristor.[1] The petty discrimination he suffered as a child and poor teenager taught him that it takes serious determination to get over your ethnic frustrations.

„I was on the bus, listening to the tradio and thinking: will I ever be listening to my tune on the bus? It was as if God had listened to my wish. I heard the DJ announcing a new song – Open Soul Surgery – of the Giganţii (the Giants). I couldn’t tell if I was imagining things or if it was true. I had reached my destination, but I didn’t get off, I stayed on the bus to listen to my song. I was so proud, I wanted to tell everybody it was mine”.

That was years ago. Stefan Mihalache, the 17-year old boy who, in 1999, was surprised to hear on the bus the song that he had written for his girlfriend, has become Connect-R, one of the most famous hip-hop artists in Romania. In 2010, in Craiova, at the Best Music Award, he received the first prize for the best song of the year. On his T-shirt it was printed: „I am a Gypsy”. That was extensively covered by the media. The word disturbed the delicate ears of the Roma activists.

One learns about discrimination in the first grade

In the first grade he understood that his colour prevented Ms Marin, his teacher, from treating him like the others. „From the very first day he asked me to sit at the back of the class; whenever she had inspections, she would give me a day off, so that I don’t spoil het class” Connect-R said.

Ms Marin and the attitude of other children who „knew something from home” made little Stefan resort to desperate gestures: „I took a brush and some soap and started to rub my hand. I still have the scar. My idea was to get rid of the colour, a sort of dirt, to be like the other children”. His mother explained to him why he was different, though basically, he was as Romanian as the other children. „She explained to me that Romania is the country that adopted us, that we were Romanians, though of different ethnicity and that we spoke the same language, Romanian. Since then I have known that I am Romanian. For me, Gypsy is a like a sprt of subdivision!”.

In Dristor he spent the happiest part of his childhood. It was the time of his friendship with a boy from another minority group, Ahmed, the Turk, of his football games, the time when they were doing fine – his mother had a job in a factory, and his father worked as a tinsmith -. Stefan was part of a dancers’ group at the Children’s Palace, he was on TV – all that happened in the fisrt 12 years of  Connect-R’s life.

…sometimes a bar of chocolate can buy popularity

His childhood in Dristor taught him two essential things: it is up to you to get over a difficult situation, but sometimes money can help. „I received many presents as a member of Primăvara (Spring) Group. I would come home with bags full of chewing gum and chocolate. By the time I got to the 6th floor, I had only 2-3 candies left. I was trying to buy friends. And it worked. I would also show them how to dance. It was the time of Michael Jackson’s Mookwalker. That helped me overcome their reluctance”.

În 1982 a big gorilla was born in the jungle

In the 1990s people would sell their houses and buy something smaller in order to pay their debts. “We moved to Militari[2], where we almost starved. The factory closed down, my father could not keep up with the technology and could no longer work. There was no tin for roofs anymore. There were days when we literally starved. My mother sold all her gold, all the valuables she had. Those were several horrible years” Connect-R remembers.

One day I wrote a poem for a schoolmate. „In 1982  a big gorilla was born in the jungle – he was a Gypsy like me and I was laughing at him. A girl saw the poem and told me to put it to Hip Hop rhythms. It was the first time I had heard there was Hip Hop in a language other than English. I could not have imagined that”.

Then he met Bruckner, from BUG Mafia, he learnt  there was Romanian Hip Hop and started to write poems and put them to music. He was 17, he had graduated a vocational school to become a car tinsmith – his father’s dream – and was working in a car service workshop. But, whenever he had spare time, he would write poems in his note book. It was a matter of time until his boss Lucian understood he was not meant to be a car tinsmith and kicked him out.

My father could not believe one can make a living as an artist

Then he sold newspapers at crossroads, had seasonal jobs in constructions and, eventually, found his ideal job: sound director with Urban Records. „ There I learned where C was on the keyboard and everthing I know in terms of music. I owe everything to Luca who taught me everything I know”.

But, above eveyone, it was my mother. „My mother has always had faith in me and my passion. My father is more pragmatic, though he is an artist, too. If he drinks something, he can sing anything from Tom Jones to Harry Belafonte. But he never thought you could make a living as an artist, that is why he never encouraged me”.

„I am Gypsy!”

The first songs he recorded had a social message. But nobody noticed him. Success came unexpectedly. At the end of 1990s, Open Soul Surgery became a hit with highschool students.

He made his first real money with the album “2 in 1” made for RACLA, the first band in which he played before singing as a soloist. „1500 euro was a lot of money in 2003! I gave it all to my mother. She got red with anger: my son, you must be connected with drug dealers. I had to call Rimaru from RACLA to convince her that it was honest money”.

Then things went smoothly: in 2006, he was the first rapper, together with Arsenie, that represented the Republic of Moldova in the Eurovision contest. In the same year, his song If love disappears got over one million hits on YouTube.

Little Ştefan Mihalache from Dristor was now famous. Even if the frustrations of his childhood were behind him, in 2010, he did not forget to show everyone where he came from. After Best Music Award, “I am a gypsy”  was everywhere in the media. Even on Euronews. Maybe he was more famous for that than for his music.

Yet, he didn’t want to say that on music. „When asked by a reporter what the black people’s day was, Morgan Freeman answered bluntly: what is white people’s special day? The more you talk about something, the more that something exists. You should be natural, not aggressive. A hip hop manifesto would have shown my frustration. I showed my T-shirt, I got my prize and that was it. Nobody suspected anything. I did it in a moment of joy, when I was happy”.

The discrimination is real, but the gypsies play their part

Connect-R admits that he could have chosen the wrong direction many times. The environment and poverty would have been the best excuse. „There are even jokes. How do you feel when you see a Gypsy without hands? Relieved. They are aware of such things, they can’t pretend they do not exist and say that people are mean and discriminate against you. This is part of our ethnicity, you can’t deny that. I have to tell people I am not like that. That I did not live in a tent, I have worked, I am educated”.

It is God that saved thim. „If you know God you don’t mug, you don’t steal. Spiritual education is important in any family. My parents wanted me and my sister to go to school. Now I am involved in a UNICEF project, together with Impreuna foundation. We are telling children it is important to follow their artistic talent, but it is more important to go to school and learn a trade. If something happens and I can no longer sing, I can always be a car tinsmith, I know how dismantle a car and make it back”.

But for the moment, he sings. He is fashionable, young people admire him, despite his dark skin, his hip hop clothes, African hair braiding, or maybe, because of all that.

szólj hozzá: Connect-R

[1] Dristor – a neighbourhood in Bucharest.

[2] Militari – a neighbourhood in Bucharest

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