If you’re like me (and I hope that you are at least a little bit like me, in that regard), you are sincerely interested in what a rapper has to say. What you make of it is your business, but the initial interest should be there. Now interest is something that can be aroused, and if I get directly to the heart of the matter and tell you that the subject of this review used to work as a prostitute for nearly ten years, that information is guaranteed to provoke some kind of reaction. There is of course the sensationalist prospect the majority of people are susceptible to (sex sells really in all kinds of ways), but even if you possess a genuine interest in how that came about there’s no denying that her past is what makes this rapper instantly interesting. It is obviously the reason I review a German rap release on a website with an anglophone orientation.
You may have your own views on prostitution, the kind we are talking about here. But before you let your preconceived notions determine how you approach such an artist, try to look at it from the perspective of rap music. Rap has for decades promoted the objectification of women, and countless times the degradation was a simple but fatal name-calling. The bitch. All those other words. I am fully aware that rap has qualified those terms many times. There are plenty of nuances to rap’s definition of a bitch. It may even have gone some way towards taking the sting out of the word, and only in a small niche of rap music the bitch is an actual – to put it in modern English – sex worker. And yet, that particular bitch is the mother of all bitches, of all the women who are prone to be hit with that stigma, to be seen as or to be called a bitch, and worse, to be treated like an inferior being, because that’s what they can be subject to in this man’s world.
I know women can be just as bad in putting down fellow females, but when we are talking about the power structure, that ominous something that rules us all and that rap music is still supposed to oppose, the professional whore, an outcast in any society, is a major symbol for the imbalance of power between genders. When someone now grabs the mic who, in general understanding, is the epitome of a bitch, who virtually embodies that abusive term, you have a perennial scapegoat and stereotype coming alive with the potential to scare a million chauvinists out of their pants. And yet where else could someone like that simultaneously openly talk about her experiences and still stay perfectly within the confines of the artform? As you will see, “Kurwa” is almost your typical rap album. Almost.
Kurwa/kurva means whore in a number of languages spoken in East-Central Europe, the album title not just offering a blunt characterization but also hinting at the artist’s biographical background. Schwesta Ewa was born in Poland, leaving for the United States with her mother when she was still a small child. Circumstances forced them to settle in Germany. Leading a hard immigrant life, adolescent Ewa began to slide into illegality, stealing, dealing drugs, as a minor pimping fellow girls in Denmark. She made up her mind about prostituting herself relatively early, literally waiting to turn 18 so she could take up the profession legally.
And so we’re already deep in Schwesta Ewa’s previous life as she tells it in interviews. The Schwesta Ewa story may be tough, but it makes sure the heroine comes out on top. She’s the kind of prostitute that never needed a pimp, that made a lot of money for herself while also being able to provide for her younger siblings, that had her own appartment in a brothel, that learned how to fleece dumb tricks, that sold drugs as a fruitful side hustle, etc. At the same time she is absolutely frank about the unglamorous side of the business, about being at the service of unpleasant men, about working the streets (a notoriously unsafe workplace), about having been addicted to crack, etc. Her raps corroborate that story, although naturally rather the heroic aspects.
If Schwesta Ewa would be asked to break her character down to one trait, it would likely be ambitious. Considering most dictionaries still primarily define ‘hustler’ as ‘a woman who engages in sexual activities for money’ (Merriam Webster), “Kurwa” gives the rap world a somewhat new but nonetheless valid meaning of the oft-cited ‘hustler’s ambition.’ Rap historians might be tempted to bring up all-female group H.W.A., but they will also admit that nobody in 1989 had any reason to assume the three ladies from Hoes With Attitudes had ever really been “Livin’ in a Hoe House.” Schwesta Ewa on the other hand backs up her boastful bars with a generally honest demeanor, to the point where she admits that the only realistic hope she had when her first video went online three years ago was that it’d get her more customers. And yet the attention it garnered prompted her to stop selling sex and concentrate on a career in rap.
“Kurwa” almost cracked the top ten of the album charts in January. It helps that she’s got an experienced team behind her, who furnishes her act with a fresh-faced but at the same time familiar street edge, a throwback to the heydays of commercial gangsta rap that is a welcome break from the brute and often humorless (not to mention strictly synth-minded) German street rap of the last decade. Death Row and Bad Boy are obvious reference points, from the “Rap, Kurwa!” intro, where a fictional pimp regrets losing his top earner, to the “Crush on You”-inspired duet “Tunneln und So.” “24 Std” (’24 Hrs’) pairs a Bad Boy concept with a Death Row soundscape. “Ein Guter Tag” (‘A Good Day’) is covered in a musically fresher paint but obviously recycles an old Ice Cube idea. “FÃ¼r Elise” (‘For Elise’) has nothing to do with Beethoven but rather copies another rap classic, Nas’ “One Love,” for a heartfelt acknowledgement of an older prostitute who took young Ewa under her wings.
“Kurwa” has been lauded for its storytelling, and indeed the album’s most convincing moments occurr during tracks that directly recall Ewa’s experiences. Songs like “Viktor” or “Boomerang” are told in vivid detail but also with an awareness for the rapper’s own role. Regularly, the Schwesta Ewa character climbs upon the observation post, like when she dissects the unstable prostitute/pimp partnership in “Nonne Wird Nutte” (‘Nun Turns Whore’), or when she gives a broad survey of what in German we call the ‘milieu’ (which encompasses more than the sex trade or the red light district) in “Spiegelreflex.” When she approaches the dramatic climax of “Boomerang,” a rape scene, she hesitates to go on, but then continues, referring to her obligation to report the kind of stuff she’s been witness to.
Her personal narratives can be just as captivating – “Paxx im Puff” (‘Packs in the Brothel’), which sees her boast about her drug dealing acumen (recalling certain Jay-Z-penned parts in Foxy Brown’s discography), or “Von Hype zu Ayb” (‘From Hype to Shame’), a reckoning with a former partner who started doing drugs and began to cheat. The album closes with another relationship analysis, “Du Liebst Mich Nicht” (‘You Don’t Love Me’), a well argued and well executed song, but also a clear attempt to add a more traditionally feminine dimension to Schwesta Ewa’s music (along with “Spiegelreflex”), depicting her as the vulnerable woman whose past compounds any romantic relationship.
In interviews Schwesta Ewa describes herself as maladjusted to a normal life, to have walked away from the business scathed, particularly when it comes to men. The attitude comes in handy when she lashes out against the German rap scene, particularly its exaggeratedly masculine representatives. Simultaneously she rolls with a crew that embodies macho behavior and lets them orchestrate her story. In short, there are many facets to this rapper. The fact that her label boss Xatar is currently incarcerated recalls the most exploitative periods of rap music, at the same time her longtime connection with these people seems believable. She raps in the currently fashionable immigrant street slang, but if anybody should be familiar with that mixture that incorporates words from Middle Eastern and East-Central European languages, it’s her.
Schwesta Ewa’s biopic is far from black-and-white, even though there are plenty of contrasts and hard cuts. Although it’s evident that she has been molded into a ‘rapper,’ she delivers as that bitch that doesn’t take any shit, rap simply being another stage for her performance. But unlike most rappers (male and female) playing their role, hers is to some degree relatable, the sober mind, the hardened personality, the materialism. Never the victim, Ewa gives you an idea that prostitutes might actually often be strong-minded individuals. She certainly acts the part, whether it’s on Trackmasters-style pop-rap tunes like “Kurwa” and “Schwesta Schwesta” (a nod to Schwester S a/k/a Sabrina Setlur, Germany’s first major female rap star), or Rawkus-era underground sluggers like “Schwesta Elektra” (with g-funk synths mixed in) and “Escortflow” (essentially a D.I.T.C. study). Even though the latter is comprised of then/now comparisons, its purpose is to demonstrate how Ewa still lives with the same frame of mind. Which is really the point of her career.
Remember, this is rap. People used to get record deals because they were gang members. Because they had been shot or locked up. An artistically vital and commercially viable sub-genre of hip-hop and rap (most commonly known as gangsta rap) is genre music in the very sense. It needs people like Schwesta Ewa. “Kurwa” could have been a disaster. To many people, ignorant as well as knowledgeable ones, it probably is a disaster. The jokes practically tell themselves. Poland? Germany? Prostitute? Rapper? It’s a bit too much, right?
Granted, for my taste “Kurwa” got a bit too many bonus points in the press. Her vocals lack any melodic quality but are instead full of exaggerated enunciations while the structure of her flow remains stoically the same. The producers are too obviously jacking for beats. The male guest parts are largely unnecessary. Double standards and shaky arguments creep in here and there. More wealth is purported than can realistically be made in either trade. The album goes to lengths (20 tracks) to create a certain image. The Schwesta Ewa story can easily be seen as a fairytale, leaving the protagonist only the role of the princess (a common crux for female rappers).
And yet… “Kurwa” is more true than a lot of rap that I hear coming from the States these days. It is both truer to reality and truer to hip-hop. It may be a variation of the old “gangsta bitch” theme, but it’s laced with hard-edged twists and turns only an insider could provide. It doesn’t just focus on the human underbelly but serves as a portrait of the underbelly of any European metropolis (in this case Frankfurt am Main). The album’s author does have the artistic ambition of someone who recognizes and respects her chosen form of expression. But even if you deduct everything that seems over-the-top, even if you take into account all the exploitative, sensationalist and voyeuristic aspects of “Kurwa,” you’re still left with a very unique and rare kind of social commentary. And a rather good, not just almost typical but even respectably traditional rap album.