sex, drugs and class war: feminist trap in serbia
Mimi Mercedez is one of Serbia's few female rappers, using the genre to push a radical, female led, left wing agenda.
Serbian rapper, Mimi Mercedez is, at the most basic level, an Eastern European take on Brooke Candy: she boasts vulgar, hypersexualized rhymes without the cyborg stripper aesthetic. You could argue that when you strip away the cyborg, there isn't really that much left; nearly 20 years since Lil' Kim's debut, the emancipated female isn't a particularly challenging concept anymore. That's in the west at least. But in a vehemently patriarchal society like Serbia's, where women are expected to behave like model 50s housewives, a girl discussing sex as openly as any dude would on spring break is seen as something incredibly deviant.
Since uploading her first tracks to YouTube in 2012, 22-year-old Mimi has been subverting social norms with a level of explicitness like no other Serbian cultural figure before her, dropping lines like "there's something in my voice that irritates you loads / there's something in my voice that makes you want to fuck me in the throat." She also used to work as a stripper (something you could probably deduce from her music videos or Instagram), which gives her a street cred that's built so many rap careers.
Although this makes her a target for online misogyny from both men and women alike ("whore, who'd let you father their children?" is a depressingly common line), she's found a hotbed of support amongst Belgrade's hip, middle class urbanites; probably because, in her own words, "they like a mouthy woman who flaunts it." But this is problematic for Mimi, who makes repeated references to class, capitalism, and far-left politics throughout our interview. She's from the street and a self-proclaimed representative of the proletariat, but her ability to reach the masses is severely limited by her medium because hip-hop doesn't enjoy the same pop appeal in Serbia as it does in the west.
If you want to speak to the masses, you need to be fluent in 'turbofolk' - a Balkans-wide bastardization of Turkish music, similar to what you might hear blaring from a kebab shop stereo: nauseating wailing layered over accordions and cheesy Eurodance beats. Mimi is well aware of this, and although her music can be broadly pigeonholed as trap, some of it has traces of turbofolk influences, drawing the attention of the local pop industry. Mimi recently announced an upcoming collab with former Eurovision contestant, Milan Stanković, and Mile Kitić, a sleazy Bosnian Tom Jones, who she describes as "harder than any rapper that has come out of Serbia."
Turbofolk's lowest common denominator status has caused some Serbian rap fans to cry "sell-out", but Mimi sees it differently: "turbofolk is our national heritage in the same way hip hop is for African-Americans", she shrugs. "Take someone like Marlon Brutal, who's like Skepta in Britain, you'll hear turbofolk influences in his music because that's what he listened to before he started rapping. People who mimic foreign rap are, to use a term they like so much, the least 'real'."
And she's not wrong. But is her approach conflictive with her 'man-of-the-people' aspirations? Serbia doesn't have a culture of dialogue. Here, disagreements are usually settled with force rather than debate and there's little tolerance for anything the deviates from the orthodox. In a country bruised by a quarter-century of crisis, people cling to anything that gives them a sense of stability, and archaic societal norms offer that. So when Mimi drops raps like "I'm not like other dumb girls / who find joy in family and cooking soup," she's kicking away society's collective crutch. But Mimi maintains a sense of perspective, arguing that "I might want to communicate with the masses, but I'm not delusional to think that they're all going to be on my side."
Mimi occupies a peculiar place on the landscape of local popular culture. Serbia isn't Iran. A lot of local pop borders on softcore porn, but the flesh and innuendos serve to satisfy the male gaze and enforce a constrictively narrow and patriarchal standard of femininity. Turbofolk singers might allude to sex, but the dynamic is distinctly different: they dangle it, and themselves, like a congratulatory carrot. Women are a trophy to be won, never initiators who fuck for their own fulfillment. And sex is always wrapped in metaphors, never rapped bluntly in lines like "I'm not Barbie and my boy isn't Ken / He's my Manuel Ferrara and I'm his Lisa Ann."
This bluntness is part of the reason why people find her so threatening. "In sexual poverty, when you pull away the veil of mystery from sex, there's basically nothing left because you don't have the act itself", she explains. "It's a lot easier to accept that when you add all kinds of other meanings to it. Here, women are terrified of their sexuality, while guys, in most cases, aren't even able to fulfill some basic physiological needs. So I totally understand why people wrap it up and present it as something else. When you strip things down too much, you're forced to face up to the harsh reality. That's too strong of a sensation for anybody."
Mimi is very much about girl power: she has another three rap aliases created to artificially boost Serbia's quota of female rappers. And while she's brought several of her girlfriends into the game as part of an all-girl rap group, she rejects the feminist tag that so many try to pin on her. In her eyes, feminism only exists within liberal capitalistic discourse, which she rejects as a whole. She believes it's impossible to truly overcome the gender imbalance in a system that requires widespread inequality to function.
"I don't want to fight for women's rights in capitalism because I'm anti-capitalism, end of. I don't need the state to protect my rights as a woman because I don't believe they have my interests at heart. Feminism is just another insignificant battle that doesn't actually change anything. In that sense, it's irrelevant if you're male or female, and all this talk about being an oppressed female distracts from that."
At first glance her outward materialism appears utterly contradictory to her leftist ideals - after all, her alias borrows from a luxury car manufacturer, her videos feature fluttering cash and faux gold, while one guy in her crew even has the Ralph Lauren logo tattooed on his chest. But rejecting brands and materialism is a luxury largely afforded to champagne socialists who've never had to long for them.
"I have a complex regarding branded goods and I have a need to show people that I have money to provide for myself", Mimi states. "I remember in school, you had people who had Nikes and those who didn't. You don't know why at the time, but there are kids who are better dressed than you because they're a lot richer than you are, so it's only natural that when you start earning your own money you feel the need to compensate for that."
Ultimately this ostentatious posturing is more of a role-play than genuine avarice, and that rap offers an avenue of escapism: "We make stuff up all the time in our music", Mimi admits. "I think that fantasizing and exaggerating is an important element of rap, because it gives us the opportunity to imagine ourselves in a way that we might never be able to achieve due to the circumstances we've grown up in."
Text Aleks Eror
Photography Nemanja Knezevic