When Taco Hemingway was living in London, he was dining on yellow sticker supermarket ready meals, trying to record music with borrowed money. The Polish musician was working hard, releasing back-to-back EPs of clever, existential rap touching on Polish identity and history. His first was a low-fi mixtape recorded over MF DOOM beats, his second a collaboration with now longtime producer Rumak. But neither of the projects cut through, and so Hemingway – real name Filip Szcześniak – moved back to Poland and started again. He released his debut Polish EP Trójkąt Warszawski in 2014 and quickly became one of Poland’s most decorated rappers, and – as of this year – the first Polish musician to reach a billion streams on Spotify.
Taco Hemingway isn’t the only rapper to move back to Poland – several big Polish rap stars were making music outside of the country before, with either no or limited success, including the German-born Malik Montana and Dutch-Polish artist Mr. Polska. There are countless more Polish rappers trying to make it in the UK, releasing music in sub-genres that are popular here – grime or drill, for example. With nearly a million Poles now living in Britain, it’s impossible not to ask: why are they not gaining greater recognition?
Much like Hemingway, many Poles who moved to the UK after EU enlargement haven’t stayed permanently. Circular migration – where you’re indefinitely in-between countries – is a feature of post-accession economic migration, meaning that the music these emigrants make is likely attuned to the tastes of Polish rap fans living in Poland. AwEy, who lives between the Polish city of Łódź and Crewe – and whose aspirational track “Plan” has clocked up nearly 100,000 YouTube views – reveals that for those who are rapping predominantly in Polish, the Polish market is always the end-goal.
“Even for those rappers who live in the UK and don’t want to return to Poland, Polish listeners are their target audience,” he says. AwEy too moved back to Łódź when opportunities to further his career were presented to him there. That Polish language rap stands little chance of success in the UK is also down to the language barrier, he argues: “Let’s not beat around the bush, fans of rap who don’t understand Polish aren’t going to be interested in what Polish rappers are doing.”
A lack of interest in Eastern European music from western fans also has a long history. In opposition to the greater cultural influence of African countries after decolonisation, the artistic output of Eastern European nations has not enjoyed wider appeal due to barrier-breaking developments such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, while the policies of the major labels may not have been overtly discriminatory, it is fair to say that there were challenges to marketing post-communist music internationally, due to the connotation that the experience of communism is implicitly affixed to the meaning of sounds emanating from this region. The scholar C. Michael Elavsky has argued that Czech rock was not “compelling to the Anglo-centric organisational culture of the majors and the policymakers…who often perceived Czech sounds as not only ‘outdated’ or ‘underdeveloped’ sonically, but also their Czech corporate counterparts as ‘developing their business acumen’ in a ‘backward’ market environment.”
Paradoxically, works from these countries were no longer regarded as “exotic” enough, or to be speaking for any oppressed people or cultures. And so, finding successful Polish artists outside of Poland usually requires looking deep into the past to composers like Fryderyk Chopin, or within the realm of jazz. Those who have made careers outside of Poland more recently have predominantly found success in other Soviet Bloc countries. And while a few Polish rappers have collaborated with well-known British acts – Popek, for example, who’s linked up with Krept and Konan, Big Narstie, JME and Wiley – these are anomalies rather than a continuing trend.
But what about those who’ve made a permanent home in Britain or are second or third-generation Poles, for whom Polish isn’t even their first language? Manchester-based Hedo Jackinabox, who came to the UK aged 19 and has been making music here since 2007, describes himself as heavily influenced by the UK sound. He says it differs from Polish rap, which, in his opinion, is slower in tempo and involves more storytelling, derived as it is from America’s Golden age hip-hop. “The 140 BPM type rhythms, the bar and the verse structure, using words that will have a second meaning, has played a massive impact on my music,” Hedo says.
He also sounds British when he raps – there’s no discernible Polish accent in his voice and on his latest album, 2021’s Jackpot LP, as he raps almost exclusively in English about the hustle of being an underground MC, with braggadocious bars shouting out his hometown of Salford and ability to eliminate his opps. And yet, despite being a skilful MC with respect amongst his peers both on the UK Polish rap scene, where he often supports Polish heritage acts as they tour the British Isles, as well as amongst British grime rappers (collaborating with acts such as Merky ACE), he remains underground.
Convince, a third-generation Pole who hails from Plymouth and now lives in Birmingham, makes drill – peppering his English-language bars with catchy Polish words and phrases that sound easy on the British ear. He points to the prejudices that Poles face as one potential reason for Polish rappers’ lack of success in the UK. “When I start talking to people about my heritage, I always hear the stereotype that Poles are manual labourers, which just isn’t true,” he says, relaying how he was told by fellow pupils at school that he was destined to become a plumber.
To make matters worse, these stereotypes play out on our screens – Jan-the-builder on Coronation Street and Konrad-the-shopkeeper on EastEnders being prime examples. Convince believes such portrayals are “harmful, because in the end, what you’re doing in creating a separation from yourself and the other person.”
In other words: when Poles are only ever seen as manual labourers, there’s no incentive for rap fans to look for talent amongst the Polish community. For Convince, the analytics on his tracks prove this point. “The main people who are supporting are Poles in Poland who have an interest in UK rap, or Polish-British people in Britain who’ve been waiting for this sort of thing for a while,” he says. But there is also deeper and more ominous xenophobia, which came to a climax after the Brexit referendum.
“A first-generation Pole from my school had a Molotov cocktail thrown at their shed,” Convince says, adding that he’s also experienced abuse on social media, after releasing music celebrating his Polish heritage. Uploading a snippet of his track “This Is England” to TikTok, he got 170,000 views and positive feedback comparing him to French The Kid, but also comments like, “Get the Polacks out”. “I was born here,” he says. “Where am I supposed to go back to, Plymouth?” Convince believes that music labels are also at fault when it comes to providing opportunities for Polish rappers. “Rap music has been a big thing in the UK for a while, but if you look at the signees for major labels – none of those people are Polish. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not for lack of talent,” he asserts.
Anamelia, a bilingual singer-songwriter who was born in the Polish city of Białystok before moving to Huddersfield aged 11 in 2006, also describes a lack of interest in Poles making music in the UK. “I’ve applied for funding before, but I didn’t get recognised. Even though there’s a clear gap in the market, they don’t want to give me any money to make Polish music in the UK,” says the artist, who’s had support from BBC Introducing and is part of the Reform Radio-backed HERchester collective of female MCs from the north. Like the other artists interviewed for this piece, she’s found greater support amongst the Polish diaspora and in Polish media than from British listeners.
Undeterred by these challenges, Polish artists are taking matters in their own hands, determined not to allow a lack of interest from British audiences and gatekeepers to prevent them from gaining fans and making money. While Hedo Jackinabox has started his own record label and is selling physical copies of his music in both Poland and the UK, Convince has banked on the additional interest that collaboration can bring, hoping to grow his audience via exposure to other rappers’ fans. Anamelia is making moves by penning Polish-language choruses for Polish rappers such as AwEy, while hosting a radio show about migrant musicians. There’s also the PPZ Label, dedicated solely to Polish artists in the UK, whose YouTube views run into the hundreds of thousands.
However, aside from AwEy, none of the artists interviewed for this feature contemplate a move to Poland. “I just wouldn't fit in at all. I have totally different views to the general public,” Anamelia says, alluding to Poland’s current populist right-wing government. The sentiment is echoed by Hedo Jackinabox. For Convince, as someone who’s never even been to Poland and is studying maths and computer science at a British university, the UK is home.
Instead, Anamelia is calling for unity amongst the Polish rap scene in the UK, which, echoing the splintering amongst the British Polish diaspora – with each migration wave, post-war, Communist-era and post-accession, usually sticking to their own – is not as aligned as it could be. “Any movement, if you want to make a change, you have to stick together to make those changes, because the people at the top aren’t going to listen until a group of us gets together and says, ‘actually, this isn’t right,’” Anamelia says.
The British market is missing out by not being interested in Polish rappers – a fact underlined by the reverse “brain drain” of clearly talented artists like Taco Hemingway leaving the UK to thrive elsewhere, while the rap made by Polish-British acts offers a chance for Britons to learn about this little-celebrated demographic of British society. Crucially, Polish-British rap can be a gateway to debunking some of the pervading stereotypes about Poles that persist. Referencing Dave as an example of a rapper educating audiences Convince says, “I don’t think I can snap my fingers or make a certain track and that stereotype of Poles is going to be abolished, but I think music can make people question their beliefs, and in time, maybe that stereotype will fade.”
Perhaps when that happens, rappers of Polish heritage will finally be on a level playing field with their British counterparts.