A nationwide controversy has erupted in Germany over a taboo-breaking rap duo that won one of the country's most important music industry awards for a bestselling album and song that included lyrics that made references to the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camp prisoners.
Several past winners of the Echo awards, including rock star Marius Mueller-Westernhagen, announced Tuesday they would return their prizes in protest of rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang's winning the Echo hip-hop/urban prize at a ceremony in Berlin last week.
Kollegah, 33, and Bang, 31, won for their album "Young, Brutal and Handsome." It included the song "0815," which contain lyrics some found to be anti-Semitic: "Bodies are more defined than an Auschwitz prisoner" and "I'm doing another Holocaust, coming with a Molotov cocktail."
Kollegah, whose real name is Felix Blume, and Bang denied they are anti-Semitic and said their lyrics are being misinterpreted.
The death of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis remains a sensitive issue across Europe, and in Germany in particular. In Germany, for instance, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust and schoolchildren are expected to be taught about the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps.
The head of the Echo prizes, which are Germany's answer to the Grammys and are based largely on commercial success, bowed Tuesday to the growing outrage, apologized to the country's Jewish community and acknowledged to one of its leaders that it had been a mistake to award the two rappers such a prestigious prize.
"We emphatically apologize to you and everyone else whose feelings were hurt by this," Florian Druecke, chairman of the BVMI music industry association, said in a letter to community leader Charlotte Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor.
Knobloch called the decision to award an Echo to the rappers a "devastating signal" and said she was shocked by the association's apparent lack of sensitivity.
The rappers were even unexpectedly criticized during the awards ceremony by another prize winner. Campino, the lead singer of Germany's most famous punk band, Die Toten Hosen, dropped the customary acceptance speech and used his moment in the spotlight to rail against the rap duo.
"As much as I appreciate provocation, for me personally it crosses the line of acceptability when lyrics include misogynistic, homophobic, right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic insults."
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also criticized the duo, calling them "repugnant," and business leaders warned that the controversy could hurt Germany's industry abroad.
Days after the ceremony, the controversy raged on and became fodder on mainstream TV talk shows. Some expressed concern that the song's popularity with millennials might indicate that the lessons of the Holocaust are fading with a generation so far removed from the guilt and shame the nation struggled with after World War II.
Several past Echo winners began handing back their prizes this week. Among them was two-time Grammy winner Klaus Voormann, who returned his lifetime achievement award. Mueller-Westernhagen, meanwhile, said he would return all seven Echos he had won over the years.
"I do not believe that the Echo-winning rapper is anti-Semitic," Mueller-Westernhagen wrote on Facebook. "You're just shockingly ignorant…. I join my friend and colleague Klaus Voormann and will return all my Echos. That makes room at my house and in my heart."