Pop queen joins the fray of Roma rights

By • on September 5, 2009

Some 60,000 Madonna fans added a sour touch to the pop diva’s “Sticky and Sweet” tour when it touched down at Bucharest’s Parcul Izvor 26 August. The generally rapt crowd turned momentarily hostile, showering the star with boos when she briefly interrupted the show to speak up for Roma rights.

“It has been brought to my attention … that there is a lot of discrimination against Romanies and Gypsies in general in Eastern Europe. It made me feel very sad,” Madonna told the crowd, according to an Associated press report.“We believe in freedom and equal rights for everyone.”

Madonna spoke after mashing up her 1987 hit “La Isla Bonita” with the Roma song “Leila pala tute” (Crazy love) in collaboration with the Russian Roma band Trio Kolpakov. The performance was part of the “Gypsy” segment of her show, which included traditional Roma dancers and costumes and images of Roma people on a giant video screen. According to Laura Coroianu, one of the organizers of the event, the segment “had been part of Madonna’s ‘Sticky and Sweet’ tour ever since her first show and it wasn’t created especially for Eastern Europe. Elsewhere, the public enjoyed it.” Trio Kolpakov said at a press conference that the reaction from the Romanian audience was the “worst” they have seen on the tour.

Madonna declined to comment on the boos, but Bulgarian newspaper Novinite reported that she didn’t reiterate the speech at her next show, held 29 August in Sofia.

While Western media outlets such as the Guardian and the Telegraphcovered the incident as a sign of Romanians’ prevailing anti-Roma sentiment, the domestic view was slightly different. Romanian journalist Cristian Tudor Popescu interpreted the incident as “a question of customer protection,” saying concert-goers had paid to see a show, not a political lecture. “Nobody can tell you who to love and hate,” he said. Romanian tennis legend Ilie Nastase, who also attended the concert, also thought that the moment had been inappropriate for Madonna’s declarations.

All in all, these two public figures seem to share the view held by many Romanians who expressed their take on the concert: it was not Madonna’s views that were inappropriate, but the context she chose to voice them in, given that most concert goers were expecting a night of sheer entertainment and not a discussion on issues thorny enough to begin with.

The Roma parliamentarian Madalin Voicu further explains the issue: as an interpreter of pop music, and a “product of American kitsch” Madonna has a fan base whose education matches their kitschy music tastes. In other words, it was the interpreter’s credentials that undermined her sincerity, making her views seem just another quirk of a star well-known for her eccentricity, or perhaps a prop for show, in any case not a sign of deep felt concern for the discrimination against Roma.

Her declaration would have been met with cheers elsewhere”, he adds for Evenimentul Zilei, thus supporting the point of view held by the Western media: the lack of democratic education of the Romanian public was also to blame for their hostile reaction. However, according to Canada’s Globe and Mail, bloggers around the world echoed the boos of Madonna’s Romanian fans, and qualified her reaction as “deeply silly,” given her lack of information on the topic, coupled with her naivety that she could “deliver everyone a quick telling off at a pop concert, and solve all the world’s bloody problems in one fell swoop. Thus, to attribute the public’s reaction to their deeply ingrained anti-Roma feelings might seem like missing the point, given that most of her fans’ criticisms were directed to the inappropriate context of her gesture, and not to the statements themselves, seen as true by most them.

Commenting on the concert, the Romanian president Traian Basescu, present at the festival Romani Kultura (Roma Culture) held 28-31 August in Sibiu, declared that, despite Madonna’s claims, Romanian politics doesn’t discriminate against Roma. The president’s involvement itself testifies for the amplitude taken by the issue. The enduring Eastern European prejudices against Roma are old news, and, while people such as Radu Motoc from the Soros Foundation Romania are skeptical about the change brought about by Madonna’s declaration, the public debate that sparked in Romania brought the issue of discrimination into a spotlight that should make it hard to ignore.