2020: Towards a More #UNITED Community: An Editorial

The Eurovision Song Contest is a competition that was intended to unite the countries in the European Broadcasting Union following the destruction of World War II. Based on the Sanremo Music Festival, it is now the longest-running annual international television competition and largest music event worldwide. In 2019, over 182 million people came together to watch the contest. The accumulated votes were counted; the combined jury and public opinion crowned Duncan Laurence’s “Arcade” the winner of the contest. As musicologist Philip V. Bohlman puts it in his Oxford University Press blog, despite the 2019 silencing of overt politics the contest amidst the geopolitics of Israel, 2020 could be seen as a crossroads that would determine the trajectory of the strong political undercurrent within the structures of the contest itself.

The politics have returned with a vengeance, and with it further disuniting tensions. Ukraine, for example, withdrew their participation in Eurovision 2019 due to, among other things, Maruv’s concerts in Russia, whom Ukraine still sees as an aggressor in the ongoing Crimea conflict. In this year’s upcoming Vidbir selection, the rules (preserved via Archive.org) set out by UA:PBC (Suspilne, the Ukraine public broadcaster) explicitly banned participants from having entered Crimea unlawfully and from having participated or performed in Russia (“the aggressor country”) in any capacity since the annexation began. The United Kingdom is still undergoing Brexit after several elections and political changes, and while it may not have affected their Eurovision score as claimed, the EU divorce may make travels to and from the constituent countries more difficult.

International conflicts have deterred pushes toward global unity, but nationalism and perceived corruption – in the context of Eurovision, the rhetoric of organizations and individuals supporting protectionist musical policies against the bureaucracy running national selections and Eurovision preparations – also serve as a major dividing factor and could have major consequences for the future of said countries in the contest. In Albania, as ESCtakeover has covered, tensions had been brewing between the members of Albautor, a copyright management agency, and RTSH, the public Albanian broadcaster. Edmond Zhulali, composer of the inaugural Albanian entry to Eurovision among others, gave an interview to Panorama after his post on 19 December, as discussed in ESCtakeover’s coverage on the aftermath of Festivali i Këngës. In this interview published at 19:40 CET on 24 December, Zhulali reiterated his distaste for non-Albanian music in the festival, claiming that it had been an unquestionable rule that the festival was made to showcase Albanian music.

Despite the rhetoric Albautor uses – promoting homegrown music – songs like Elvana Gjata’s “Me tana”, Luca Hänni’s (CH 2019) “She Got Me”, Eleni Foureira’s “Fuego”, and more borrow primarily from the Afro-Latin tresillo clave. In effect, the globalization of popular music forms has already happened. Ethnomusicologist and Festival 58 judge Dr. Mikaela Minga described tallava in a paper three years ago, a genre with origin attributed to the Kosovo Ashkali minority group that spread throughout the Balkan peninsula and evolved with the rise of digital/synthesizer technology and interaction with the local communities to which it spread. Indeed, should the identity of Albania be seen as a nation of emigrants in the future, it is in this cosmopolitan idiom, informed by folk practices, that the future of Albanian music may lie.

In the Albautor declaration posted on 30 December, Zhulali’s name again appeared alongside those of Eriona Rushiti and Enis Mullaj, the team behind “Ktheju tokës” (a song I have discussed and done a remake of informally before – posted on Tumblr). The declaration accused RTSH of withholding payments to S.U.A.D.A. (partnered with Albautor to disburse payments to represented performers of the fine arts) and demanded that RTSH stop transmission, sale, and usage of any of the represented parties’ work until an agreement could be met. Should the demands not be met, Albautor itself intended to file charges against the public broadcaster.

It is not directly clear if the claimed Albanian-only rule was only de facto; current rules saved on archive.org for future perusal provide no evidence that this is de jure – written explicitly in the rules and regulations). However, the presence of the current set of rules does not necessarily invalidate his claims. Using the method outlined on this page to determine the publishing date of the current rules – the format is 

http://google.com/search?q=inurl:[SPECIFIC LINK, NO BRACKETS]&as_qdr=y15

– returns the result 14 December 2019 on my browser in North America. This suggests that the current regulations set forth for the 58th Festival were published in their current form on that day. There is no evidence so far about other details behind the rule publishing process, however. If Albautor’s request from 24 December 2019 comes to fruition – a request for the authorized lists of regulations for the 56th to 58th Festivals as they claim is required by law – and if the 30 December declaration does as well, more clarification may be provided on these points in a later post.

The current fallout may have serious consequences should the legal process be conducted according to Albautor’s declaration. RTSH could lose the rights to a large catalog of Albanian works in the legal revolt should a compromise or legal solution be unreachable. This could create a chasm between the Eurovision public, who sees Albania’s output at Eurovision yearly via RTSH, and the other artists inside Albania, which as a small country with a language isolate does not receive much worldwide media exposure except for in times of calamity or via Albanian transplants like Eleni Foureira (Greece), Dua Lipa (England), and Ava Max (United States).

The outside media coverage has not helped the situation particularly much either. In fact, articles alleging possible jury misconduct started appearing shortly after the jury split was released. Quite a few articles were published with headlines such as these (all real):

  • Did Mikaela Minga deliberately sink Elvana? Our math says yes
  • Mikaela Minga enfurece a los fans de Eurovisión (Mikaela Minga enrages Eurovision fans)
  • Fundosi” Elvana Gjatën, ja çfarë mendon anëtarja e jurisë për këngën tallava (“Sinking” Elvana Gjata, here’s what the jury member thinks about the tallava song)
  • Mikaela Minga: “Έδωσα 2 βαθμούς στο Me Tana γιατί δεν εκπροσωπεί την αλβανική μουσική” (Mikaela Minga: “I gave Me Tana 2 points because it doesn’t represent Albanian music”), using the article with the third headline as the sole source
  • Rethinking the role of jurors going into the 2020 national final season (using the article with the fourth headline as the source and including, among other content, this quote: “[Mikaela Minga] was clearly looking to up-vote a song she felt was ‘Albanian’, and went on to rank Bojken Lako’s “Malaseen” first.”)

Instead of focusing on the song that won, media organizations covering contest news gravitated towards headlines alleging jury and/or broadcaster misconduct. This behavior effectively trivialized Arilena’s win with the song “Shaj” as a consequence of bad-faith voting despite every judge giving her at least 10 points and in spite of its raucous audience support on the night of the final. The tone shifted from congratulatory praise of the song to censure of Dr. Minga and her ethnomusicological fieldwork due to headlines painting her as a biased judge.

The people watching Eurovision and its related national finals have also given strong reactions. Beyond the messages written by presenter and festival leader Alketa Vejsiu shaming Dr. Minga, as well as Elvana’s thinly veiled attack on the judge, there are attacks on Dr. Minga from Eurovision fans, ranging from “cancelling” her over the news reports to thinly-veiled threats, like changing the Gjata bar scenario where one person died to saying that Minga went missing (not in reality). Several other comments evoked the same negativity about Dr. Minga. 

It was with scant surprise and deep sadness that I sent a few words and questions to Dr. Minga herself. A few days before this email, a source affiliated with Dr. Minga replied that the article associated with the third title was re-posted without permission and was originally written in 2016. The third article, however, does not mention the words attributed in the title of the fourth article, even under translation between Albanian and Greek. It is this source that was used to comment on the fifth source. I had just found the fourth article the night I sent her the email and, having not noted the sourcing at the time, wanted to ask Dr. Minga herself about the veracity of the sourcing. These are her exact words regarding the situation, verified by checking the email metadata before responding:

I have not given any interview or written anything about the 58th festival.  Anything put on my mouth, is fabricated

Considering the very toxic mediatic reactions towards me,  harassments, hate speech, speculations and misusage of the materials I have written (the essay about tallava, as you correctly wrote has been written almost 3 years ago), I choose to remain silent, take some time to absorb and think carefully on all the happenings, before writing anything. 

Mikaela Minga

In the response, I noticed five important points:

  • Dr. Minga had given no interviews or written about the contest, and yet people discussed the content of articles falsely attributed to her at face value and speculated about ill intent from her side.
  • People decried her status as an expert and attributed things to her – often based on second-hand “knowledge”, preconceived and strongly-held opinions about certain songs and what they “deserve”. In contrast, Rita Petro, the other Albanian judge, has given televised interviews since she gave Elvana 8 points. Petro was not called out as harshly despite still not giving as many points as the international jury because she was allowed to talk.
  • She was professional, if reticent, in her response and choice of words.
  • She considered the public and media reactions very toxic, and the actions have given her pause.
  • She reacted like any other human being would under this situation.

So often do we perennial Eurovision fans forget that our music tastes and opinions are not universal or facts outside the “I”, and more often than not, I have seen people invalidating contrasting opinions, labeling them as “wrong”. However, people are allowed to feel how they feel and have the right to civil discourse, even if they hold a seemingly unpopular opinion. Does anyone even know how she thinks about music in general, having studied varied cultural musics internationally throughout her entire life, though? I took Western music history and East Asian musicology classes because I liked the subjects. Even though it took me years before I could put my personal musical biases aside before analyzing music as I do at ESCtakeover, I found and made room to listen to all types of music and opinions. Such opinions include those of Dr. Mikaela Minga, whom we as a collective whole have dismissed outside of the numbers and signature on the jury sheet from the night of 22 December 2019.

In our lust for news and headlines, we, the media and the year-round fans of Eurovision, have failed to acknowledge the humanity of Dr. Minga. We have failed to critically assess the content we were writing and consuming and quoted these sources as truths and justifications for our feelings and actions. Instead, the demons in our minds have driven Dr. Minga to media exile, have driven attention away from the merits of the winning song, and have driven the fanbase away from the unity and collaboration that created the contest. As long as the community allows itself to be fed self-supporting lies and hate, this cycle has not claimed its last victim. It could be you next.

We cannot change wars or interfere in the legal process, but we have the power to change ourselves. We, the group of people reading this post, all have one thing in common: love and respect for the Eurovision Song Contest. In this point, we are already united! To foster a healthy and lasting community, we also need to foster compassion, respect, and love for each other in word and action and to research responsibly on those we aim to report on, lest our selves drive us further apart. We have the power and responsibility to be a better community for those who we welcome in. It is time for us, in this new year and decade, to work on building bridges between those we may not agree with all the time and work on reopening doors to those whose doors may have been closed. We may not believe or think the same things, but where it matters most – treating each other as a fellow human being worthy of each other’s respect – is where we should begin.

Dr. Mikaela Minga – on behalf of the greater Eurovision community, I am gravely sorry for the treatment you have been given during these past two weeks. We are all human, and you have a right to express your own opinions without being assumed to have ill intent, being verbally abused or being maliciously misquoted. When you’re ready to speak again, I hope we will all be ready to listen with open ears and open hearts.

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