How a journalist’s murder is defining Slovakia’s protest music for a new generation

How a journalist’s murder is defining Slovakia’s protest music for a new generation
A shrine to Ján Kuciak, and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. Image: Ing.Mgr.Jozef_Kotulič/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

In the two years since Ján and Martina were killed, some of Slovakia’s biggest artists have moved to memorialise them in song, capturing a universal means to speak out against injustice, inequality, and despair.

2 July 2020

In late February 2020, nine days before the country’s parliamentary elections, a group of Slovak artists released a song destined for viral stardom. With idealistic lyrics centred on a utopian image of social harmony, peace, and brotherhood, “Predstavujem Si Krajinu (“I Imagine the Country”), chimed with a thirst for change that eventually cumulated in the country’s parliamentary elections, eventually bringing Slovakia’s biggest political reshuffle in years. The song was an immediate hit. To this day, it has over 300,000 views on YouTube, a solid record for a country of 5.5 million people.

Many songs have become manifestos for a generation fed up with greed, lies, and cronyism

“It is almost scary how current this song is today,” says Marek Kučera, who organised the project. Kučera denies having any political motivation in releasing the song before the elections. The song, he says, was made to commemorate investigative journalist 27-year-old Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, whose murders in 2018 shocked Slovakia. The couple were gunned down in their home in February 2018. Police later linked the killings to Kuciak’s work as a reporter for news website Aktuality.sk, which focused mainly on investigating tax fraud of several businessmen with connections to top-level Slovak politicians. Their deaths became a flashpoint in one of the most turbulent periods in the country’s modern history, sparking mass protests against deep-rooted corruption. The scandal eventually tarnished the image of the ruling SMER-Sociálna Demokracia party, which suffered a decisive election defeat; its first defeat in parliamentary elections in 14 years.

In the two years since Kuciak and Kušnírová were killed, some of Slovakia’s biggest artists have moved to memorialise them in song: from provocative rap beats and indie rock, to pop and poetry. Some, like “Predstavujem Si Krajinu”, are reflective of a more meditative approach. Others, recorded as mass street protests, have become manifestos for a generation fed up with the greed, lies, and cronyism among the SMER-Sociálna Demokracia’s elite. Two years on, many of those songs have continued to live on as more universal means to speak out against injustice, inequality, and despair.

The act of protest through song has a special place in the history of Czechoslovakia. Marta Kubišová’s masterful ballad “Modlitba pro Martu” (“A Prayer for Marta”) became a symbol of Czech and Slovak resistance against the Warsaw Pact armies in 1968, and ensured that Kubišová would be blacklisted by the authorities. When she emerged onto a balcony above Prague’s Wenceslas Square during the 1989 Velvet Revolution to sing her ballad a cappella, it immediately became an iconic moment. The revolution itself also had a few unofficial anthems, including Ivan Hoffman’s “Sľúbili Sme Si Lásku” (“We Promised Love to Ourselves”), and “Pravda Víťazí” (“Truth Prevails”), by the band Tublatanka. Both written during the revolution, they quickly surged in popularity as young people full of hope searched for an outlet for their emotions as they stood at the crossroads of history.

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“Predstavujem Si Krajinu” also has a socialist heritage. The song itself was born in the summer of 1989, as the collapse of communism was rapidly gathering speed. Dežo Ursiny, iconic rock performer and a hero to many, took to the stage at a local festival and sang John’s Lennon’s “Imagine”, only for it to be followed by a Slovak version, beautifully written by Ivan Štrpka. The Slovak song would become “Predstavujem Si Krajinu”. It was obvious at the time that the song voiced a dream of living in a country free of Soviet influence.

Now, without changing a word, the song has become more meditative; almost a love letter to Ján Kuciak. The verses “And it still seems to us / You are here with us, Ján / And the smile on your face / Gently flows to us,” declaimed at the song’s finale by Milan Lasica, an 80-year-old writer, actor, and one of the most distinctive voices in Slovakia, could make a dead man cry. In the first version, “Ján” referred to Ján Palach, a Czech student who self-immolated in protest against the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

It is unsurprising, then, that Slovaks are already drawing parallels between the songs that framed the 1968 invasion and the 1989 revolution, and those which captured the discontent following Kuciak and Kušnírová’s murder. Many artists see their new songs as part of the country’s next struggle for freedom.

“It is said that the Slovaks are a nation of doves, but it turns out that as soon as someone touches our democratic principles, we can unite like our parents and grandparents in 1989. Maybe every generation has to go through this kind of fight to deserve their freedom. If anyone feels that I can continue this tradition, of course I’m happy,” says Roman Oravec, the lead singer of the band The Smalltown Boy. A week after he found out about the murder, Oravec wrote “Pieseň pre Jána a Martinu” (“A Song for Ján and Martina”). The next day, with help from his roommate, he recorded the song in his room. Twitchy, smartly written, and alluding to early protest folk of Bob Dylan, it says, “They killed hope / They killed peace / We want an eye for an eye / And a tooth for a tooth.”

But Slovakia’s new wave of protest culture has also emerged from new outlets. Hip-hop arrived in the Slovak mainstream after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but it has now taken centre stage in capturing the anger of younger generations. Previously, Slovak hip-hop had rarely been political — such subjects were seen as too divisive, a way of scaring away potential fans who were either not interested or held opposing views. Kuciak’s death, however, marked a turning point.

“For me, this is a sad milestone in Slovak history. I wrote my song out of disgust”

Hip-hop captured the anger that erupted when the couple died, and millions of Slovaks realised the country that they had fought for in 1989 had been corrupted. Two songs in particular, Chceme Pravdu” (“We Want the Truth”) and “Krv Na Rukách” (“Blood on Their Hands”), appeared as furious pieces of protest music.

In “Chceme Pravdu”, singer-songwriter Michal Dušička — better known under his stage name Majk Spirit — excoriates almost everyone from the Italian mafia (whose interests Kuciak had covered in his reporting) through to selfish millennials who are “materially secure, keep their mouths shut.” “Krv Na Rukách”, written and performed by artist Vec, is also filled with anger focused on the ruling establishment. “Murdering a journalist is unthinkable in the developed country where we claim to live,” Vec tells me. “For me, this is a sad milestone in Slovak history. I wrote my song out of disgust. And to warn all the bastards who think that the truth can be silenced by force.” These feelings are palpable in the track, which still has an electrifying effect on the audience.

But if Vec and Majk Spirit captured a nation’s anger, then this new wave of music also encompasses something more — a feeling of reconciliation. Although its creators resist easy interpretations, “Predstavujem Si Krajinu”, with its nostalgic tune, captures the spirit of a country lifting its head once more after a period of mourning. Other songs also take a more gentle approach. “Millión EUR, performed by the duo Edo Klena and Katarína Knechtová, is racked with sadness and remorse. Rather than beating out an explicit political message, it ponders: “In every century there are martyrs / Whom you can’t buy”.

Although less explicitly political, these songs remind us of the purpose behind these tributes: not just to discuss the harsh reality of corruption and violence, but to also bring people together. Two years on, Slovakia’s protest songs are not just angry tirades, but artworks designed to keep both Kuciak and Kušnírová’s memory — and the righteous despair that followed their deaths — alive as the country’s politicians slowly move on.

As the band The Peter Bič Project sings in its gentle 2020 ballad, “Tichá Pieseň” (“A Quiet Song”): “Something can be forgotten / Something else not very much / In my mouth I feel a salty taste / In the wings a quiet song sounds”. Perhaps it is not a protest song as we know it, but it still reflects how the anger of the last two years has turned into something more spiritual; a quietness which speaks to the journey that Slovakia has taken.

But could something as simple as music be enough to save Kuciak and Kušnírová’s memory? Michal Kaščák, CEO of Pohoda, Slovakia’s biggest music festival, certainly hopes so. He invited leading musicians to sing for Kuciak and Kušnírová in Bratislava in March 2018. But here, real protest music isn’t just about a viral hit that’s sung on the streets, but something more long-lasting that promotes a feeling of belonging.

“Every year, we organise a concert on the day of their planned wedding,” Kaščák says. “As much as the wedding was to unite two families, their tragic end will always unite people who care about freedom, the truth, and the country they live in.”

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