Nicholas Semwogerere, alias Smooth Deep, hip hop artist and a great friend of Bosnia and Herzegovina
“Sarajevo Times” had the opportunity to speak with Nicholas Semwogerere, a rapper from Great Britain who also goes by the name of Smooth Deep. Before he came to BiH for the first time several years ago, the only thing he knew about BiH was that there was a war here during the 1990’s. Deciding not to listen to the negative and inaccurate misconceptions that still endure in the West of BiH and the region, Nicholas came to Sarajevo with an open mind. He discovered a warm and friendly spirit in Sarajevo that he says does not exist in his home city of London. Despite the numerous problems in BiH, he says that people here still know how to appreciate the simple things in life. This attitude towards life touched Nicholas on a personal level, as he now appreciates the simple things in life much more than he used to. As a hip-hop artist, he credits BiH youth with their openness to new musical forms and styles of expression, and labels hip-hop as a type of music that gives a voice to the voiceless. However, the reality in this country is that the majority of youth wish to leave for what they believe are better opportunities abroad. Nicholas asserts that opportunities abroad are easier to find, but would not say that it is ‘better’. He sees the vast and untapped potential in this country, and that it is up to the youth in this country to try to force the change that they want to see.
By Medina Malagić
You first heard about Sarajevo as a teenager, and that western media did not represent BiH in such a positive light. What were your expectations when you visited the country for the first time? In what ways were you surprised?
Well, I heard of Sarajevo way before my teenage years. I remember seeing news reports about the siege when I was a little boy in the early nineties, but reports were generally very brief and I just remember thinking to myself “wow, what is going on over there”? It was not until my teenage years that I got an idea of where in Europe Bosnia and Herzegovina actually is. But, even then all I really knew was that there was war there. I did not know much more beyond that. To be honest, I did not have specific expectations when I first came to BiH. After being in Serbia and Croatia I learnt to discard everything I thought I knew about the region in general and just open my mind to learn what it is really like. However, what did surprise me is the way in which many people carry positivity with them every day despite the things that happened not so long ago and the rebuilding that still needs to be done.
What are some of the most common misconceptions in Western Europe of BiH and the Balkans, and has the image of the country in the West changed in the last few years?
One of the most common misconceptions is that “everyone” in BiH and the Balkans is racist. In fact, it is the most common misconception. First of all, for as long as I can remember everything in Eastern Europe is “Russia” to people in Western Europe. That is not to say that “everyone” in Russia is racist, but let’s be honest, that particular stereotype is more justifiable if we are talking about The Russian Federation in particular. With that said, the irony of this way of thinking is that in actuality I would say that Britain is more racist than most places in Eastern Europe.
The difference is in the expression of racism and discrimination. In the UK we have what I call “Racism with a smile” where as places which are stereotypically seen as racist, the truth is simply that they expresses their racism in a much more open, direct and crude way. As Britain once did, let’s not forget just over fifty years ago hotels and shops had signs saying “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”. However, overtime the expression of racism became more sly and clever. Anyway, get to my point here of some of the biggest reasons people in Western Europe have this ideology of BiH and the Balkans being this “scary” place for foreigners is because of the way in which the general media has often portrayed the region, whether it be through simply only reporting the negative or always playing on negative perspectives in movies. Aside from racism, people have the idea that the Balkans is generally just an unfriendly place, which is funny for me to even think about because that is quite the opposite. I’ve traveled to a lot different places and I can honestly say I have never been more welcomed than I have in the Balkans. A significant amount of people in the West still think there is a war going on. This is changing though to be honest. I’m also proud to say that I’ve opened a significant amount of people’s eyes in my London to the great things BiH and the Balkans have to offer. People have even asked me to take them to visit.
You mentioned that the hip-hop scene in BiH is small but there is a lot of potential. Untapped potential in almost all sectors in this country is a huge problem. Since your time here, have you noticed a shift in an increasing influence of different types of music in BiH? How do you think people here, especially the youth, perceive experimental/different types of music? Are they receptive to it?
The youth are very perceptive and on the ball when it comes to getting a hold of different types of music. The Internet clearly plays a key role in this. From what I have noticed more and more people, youth in particular are looking for a wider variety of music. Furthermore, musically gifted youth are looking for a way to express themselves through music, which is why I believe the Hip Hop scene in Bosnia continues to grow. Hip Hop has always been an art form that gives a voice to the voiceless. I feel like the youth of BiH are speaking and the politicians should listen. I personally can’t stand music like turbo folk. The more Bosnian I learn the worse turbo folk gets because I can actually understand the lyrics better. The songs are quite distasteful but with a few shots of Rakija they are bearable. However, my personal feelings about it aside, I think it is healthy that the youth are engaging with various styles of music. Music is not just random sounds that hit your eardrum; it is a form of expression and identification even. People should be able to express themselves the way they feel fit, as opposed to just doing what everyone else does because it is the norm.
Can you tell us more about the differences between your life in London and in Sarajevo? What does the city have to offer that makes it stand out from other places that you have lived in/visited?
London moves at high speed it’s stressful and although Sarajevo has stresses also, it’s a different type of stress. More importantly, there is a different way of approaching stress. I could talk about how it is nice that people can always make time to sit down and have a coffee with each other and things like that, which I love of course. In London, grabbing a coffee is often a literal thing. You grab a coffee and then just jump into a train, bus or taxicab. However, what is special about Sarajevo goes deeper than that because the fact of the matter is there are other places in Europe and the world where people “make time”. It is the spirit of the city, the people that is the icing on the cake for me. No matter what happens, people know how to smile and have a good time. I think people in Sarajevo and BiH in general understand that having a good time is more about how you spend your time as opposed to how much money you spend. I feel like the fact that many people in Sarajevo have tasted the bitter side of life they actually can appreciate the simple things more than people in London can. Things are not perfect in Sarajevo but Sarajevans understand that things could always be worse.
What were some of the difficulties/culture shocks that you initially experienced when you first arrived in Sarajevo? You also briefly mentioned in your interview for klix.ba the nuances of Bosnian humor-they turn life difficulties and experience into jokes. Do you have any examples of everyday encounters with people and/or situations that illustrate this?
It was difficult for me to understand the fact some people call themselves Serbian or Croatian when they were born in Bosnia and in some cases have never even been to Serbia or Croatia. Seeing the amount of graves dotting around the city also took some getting used to. I mean, in all honesty I know it would not affect a lot people. However, being an empathetic person it was another thing to get my head around. As for the humour in that is has to be one of the things I love the most. A spirit that says “we are still here”.
The majority of BiH youth would leave their country for perceived ‘better’ opportunities abroad. You have come here from the West and see something unique in this country that many people now take for granted. So, what advice would you give to young Bosnians who don’t see any prospects for themselves in their home country?
I will not infantilize the youth of BiH and say that there are not more opportunities abroad. There are. However, we have to be careful about using the term “better”. There are not better opportunities abroad. The opportunities abroad are just easier to obtain. My biggest problem with the youth in BiH is that so many have a lot to say about things that need to change in BiH, but not as many actually have the will to be that change they want to see. Instead, they say, “I am going to leave”. If you want to do that, fine. Everyone should have a choice but if everyone chooses that option where will this change actually come from? Thin air? With that said, I encourage youth to take the chance to live outside BiH but to gain knowledge, earn money or better themselves in one way or another, but I also urge them to come back to BiH and use what they have gained overseas to help rebuild BiH. The more the new generation forces change the more opportunities will open up in BiH. It is really that simple. I understand it is easier said than done, but it’s so much easier to look at everything that is wrong in BiH than to actually pluck up the courage to try and make things right. The potential of BiH as a state is infinite. The sooner the youth realise that the better. We are all partially products of our environments, but a lot of youth in BiH are not seeing the fact that your environment can also be a product of you. On the other hand, the politicians in BiH understand this clearly and abuse this fact but are looking after number one, themselves, instead of doing their jobs.
Do your future plans involve eventually moving to Sarajevo?
Of course, that is a “no brainer” as the saying goes. The first I came I did not want to leave and I’ve been trying to move to Sarajevo ever since but finding work is hard enough for citizens let alone a foreigner. However, if there is a will there is a way and now that I am a certified ESL tutor I’m hoping that some doors will open up for me in that respect. I would be proud to officially be able to call myself a citizen of Sarajevo.
Can you give us some examples in what ways Sarajevo inspires you?
First of all the strength of character of the city and the individuals I’ve met inspires me. Before coming to Sarajevo I used to moan about the most trivial things but I appreciate the simple pleasures of life more than ever now. Furthermore, many people I did not even know have been willing to give me a helping hand when I needed it. People have told me this is something that is dying in Sarajevo but I can say with confidence it is something that is totally dead in London. So, with that said it’s a frame of mind Sarajevans should try to hold on to.