A Hungarian Rapper’s Bandwagon Gets an Unlikely New Rider

The 22-year-old rapper is so popular — he recently held three sold-out concerts at Hungary’s largest stadium — that even Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a stodgy champion of traditional values not known for being in tune with youth or its culture, claims he is a fan.

Mr. Orban has said he particularly likes the song “Rampapapam,” a reggae-flavored ode to the joys of cannabis. It’s a surprising choice given the prime minister’s conservative views and one that raised questions about whether he has actually listened to it or just watched its video showing the musician playing soccer, the leader’s favorite sport.

But Attila Bauko, a Hungarian superstar better known as Azahriah, has won so many passionate fans in Hungary that Mr. Orban, who has had 14 years in power, appears to want some of the rapper’s energy and stardust.

“Since they see that a lot of people like me, it seems they want to be friendly,” Azahriah said in an interview backstage before a concert last month at the Puskas Arena, a sports stadium in Budapest, that attracted nearly 50,000 people for each of the three nights he performed.

Official favor “should be flattering,” Azahriah said, “but feels strange and uncomfortable” when so many of his young fans loathe the governing Fidesz party.

When tickets for his recent concerts sold out within minutes of going on sale in October, Mr. Orban’s office put the singer’s image and a “sold out” sign on a TikTok video promoting one of the prime minister’s speeches.

The video was later deleted after a wave of online mockery. Azahriah sold 138,800 tickets online while only a few thousand people turned out to hear Mr. Orban run through his own greatest hits — a familiar litany of complaints against the European Union.

Azahriah first caught the public eye a decade ago when, at age 12, he began a YouTube channel. He occasionally played the guitar but mostly just talked, attracting a youthful following with accounts of his troubles at school in Ujpalota, a down-market district of Budapest studded with Communist-era concrete apartment blocks.

His personal story resonated. His parents were divorced and he was raised mainly by his mother, an officer in the Hungarian military. His father moved to Germany to work as a mechanic, following a path taken by many Hungarians frustrated by their prospects at home.

He turned into a show business sensation after he started calling himself Azahriah, a biblical name meaning roughly “helped by God,” and, in 2020, teamed up with Desh, an already established artist, to record his first hit, “Meadow.” His first album, “I’m Worse,” was a collection of mostly English-language songs.

He later switched to Hungarian and “Hunglish,” a mix of the two languages, with occasional snatches of Spanish and Roma.

His rapid rise to the top of the Hungarian charts — earlier this month he had four of the top five songs on Spotify’s most-listened list in Hungary — has been so fast that psychologists, called on by media outlets in Hungary to explain the phenomenon, talk of “mass psychosis.”

Gergely Toth, Azahriah’s manager, recalled that when he first signed Azahriah three years ago, he was a niche artist performing at concerts before 1,500 people.

“I’m in the middle of this whole thing, and even I find it hard to explain what happened,” Mr. Toth said. “People cheer for him like they cheer for Hungary’s national football team.”

Politics, however, have thwarted Azahriah’s chances of representing his country in Europe’s musical equivalent of the World Cup, the Eurovision Song Contest. The authorities, alarmed by Eurovision’s reputation as Europe’s biggest gay event, in 2020 ended Hungary’s participation in the annual competition.

“It would have been great if I could have won Eurovision as a straight white man,” Azahriah said.

David Sajo, the entertainment editor for Telex, a popular online Hungarian media outlet, said he was not a big fan himself, but he praised Azahriah for widening Hungary’s musical horizons through his mixing of Afrobeat, Caribbean ska, Latin music and other genres that is “pretty basic and generic in the West, but unique here.”

Mr. Sajo said Azahriah’s big break really came in 2022 with a scandal that could have ended many other careers. After a concert at a provincial pancake festival, a video appeared online showing the artist having sex backstage with a female fan.

“Suddenly his name was everywhere day after day, in every gossip magazine, every mainstream newspaper and every internet site,” Mr. Sajo said. “Before that, he was just another Gen-Z celebrity. After it, he became an A-list superstar for the whole country.”

Azahriah said that the episode was embarrassing, but acknowledged that “it widened my popularity.”

His most fervent fans are young women like Luca Szeles, 20, who is from a small town in northern Hungary and is studying to be a kindergarten teacher. She purchased tickets for all three of the recent concerts and slept on the sidewalk outside Puskas Arena to ensure she would be at the front of the line for entry at each one.

She said she relates to Azahriah like no other artist, even Taylor Swift, whom she also likes, because he sings about “real things in my own life” — like his reference in one song to growing up in Ujpalota.

She said she had watched his YouTube channel for years but became really hooked in 2021, when he released “Mind1,” a doleful track performed with Desh. She was going through a difficult patch at home at the time, she recalled, and connected with the lyrics “every night you’re waiting to see what tomorrow will bring, but you know everything is going to be the same anyway.”

But his fans also include older people, too, like Julia Bakos, 50, an economist, who attended a recent concert with her 10-year-old son. She said her musical tastes used to run to Depeche Mode, a 1980s English band, and Hungaria, a Communist-era group, but she fell for Azahriah because he “has something for everyone” and constantly switches between genres and languages.

And unlike many stars, she said, “he seems like a decent person” who tries to reach across political and generational barriers.

During a recent concert, he told the audience that some fans would like him to talk more about politics, but he said that was not his job.

His occasional political interventions have avoided personal insults and mostly been driven by his disgust at what he described as Hungary’s “warlike atmosphere” between bitterly antagonistic political camps.

“Musicians are not obliged to talk about politics,” he said. “If you don’t have anything to say, that is fine. But in a free country, it is not OK to stay silent because you are worried about hurting your career. We are not in Russia.”

In February, he joined a chorus of public outrage over the pardoning of a man convicted of covering up pedophile abuse at a children’s home. The Hungarian president, Katalin Novak, a close ally of Mr. Orban’s, was forced to resign over the furor.

“There are certain issues that go way beyond a moral level that I can accept,” he recalled.

A few of Mr. Orban’s loyalists tried to discredit his intervention by reviving his own scandal and painting him as a sex abuser. But they quickly dropped that effort, which had only reinforced public support for the musician.

“Azahriah is one of the few people in Hungary who cannot be destroyed by Fidesz,” said Mr. Sajo, the entertainment editor. “They know he is too popular to mess with.”

Balazs Levai, a movie producer who is making a film about the artist, said that he had struggled to understand Azahriah’s appeal and decided that “he is like a guy from a Hungarian fairy tale — somebody who comes from absolutely nowhere to become a hero for everyone.”

Source link

The 22-year-old rapper is so popular — he recently held three sold-out concerts at Hungary’s largest stadium — that even Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a stodgy champion of traditional values not known for being in tune with youth or its culture, claims he is a fan. Mr. Orban has said he particularly likes the song…