How a trad Christian pop folk singer became the most controversial person in ex-Yugoslavia
When you listen to Danica Crnogorčević’s music, you will be instantly amazed by her voice. Wonderfully colourful and powerful, she comes across as a Montenegrin Enya, and in a lot of ways the two share a lot in common. Like Enya, she cuts an almost impossibly wholesome figure: a church-going (her husband is a priest), 29 year old History of Art graduate, who uses her distinctive voice to sing about bygone times, faith and her (Montenegrin) Serb heritage, much like Enya celebrates her Celtic roots and Ireland’s lore.
Unlike Enya, however, Danica Crnogorčević is considered the most dangerous woman in the Balkans arts these days attacked by regional art grandees, and potentially sued by her state, for damages. The crime: singing the original version of a 19th century song on which inspired Sekula Drljević, a WWII fascist collaborator in composing a song which, after many significant edits, became the current Montenegrin anthem.
The song which Crnogorčević performed several times, most controversially at the 2023 Chirstmas concert in Podgorica, “Oj, Junaštva Svjetla Zoro“ (“Oh, Bright Dawn of Bravery, oh!”), was first sung in 1860s, and later as part of a play about heroic exploits of Montenegrins in Belgrade’s National theatre and thus shares dramatic roots with the Serbian anthem “Bože pravde“ („Oh, God of Justice“).
The drama that the old version of the song caused rocked not only the Montenegrin public but reverberated across the region. After being threatened with a lawsuit by a former PM of Montenegro from Milo Đukanović’s DPS party, Crnogorčević was also dragged over the coals by regional artists, including a feted liberal theatre director from Sarajevo Dino Mustafić.
This latest flare up is just par for the course. Crnogorčević has been consistently reviled by parts of the Montenegrin and regional commentators and press. This is in large part due to her 2020 hit song “Veseli se Srpski rode” (“Rejoice, oh Serbian kin”) which previously cited dangerous, and even, “genocidal”, by regional commentators and press.
The folky, catchy hit raised eyebrows as it became the unofficial anthem of the protests in opposition to DPS’s proposal to effectively nationalise property of the Serbian Orthodox Church (other religious property in the country would remain in the hands of the Islamic, Catholic and Jewish religious communities). The protests ultimately led to the end of DPS ‘s rule after almost 30 years (or since 1945, given they are an off shoot of the SFRY’s ruling party), which many of Crnogorčević’s detractors saw as a regression for the “multicultural and antifascist“ nature of Montenegro (religious discrimination and Fascist collaborator part-authored anthem aside).
However, the fraught politics of the region aside, it is quite something that such a homely, retiring figure has become so reviled on an art scene which was so built on playing with national symbols and identities, for such an innocuous transgression.
Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, many a career in the arts was made on subverting national myths, much like in the rest of Europe.
The most successful theatre director from the region, Croatia’s Oliver Frljić is best known for having actors vomit on national flags or take them out of various bodily orifices (which caused major uproar in Poland). Historic figures which feature prominently in Serbian history, from St Sava, the founder of the autocephalous Serbian church to Gavrilo Princip, who shot Franz Ferdinand, have been re-examined and mocked in various plays since 1990s The interrogation even took a judicial root where Njegoš’s epic “Gorski vijenac” (“The Mountain Wreath”) has been talked about in the Hague as an inspiration for war crimes during the wars in Bosnia. This is all on top of various “de-mythologizations” of various beloved customs and institutions which are a constant on the “anti-nationalist” parts of our arts scene and usually feted as its best part. Indeed, over two decades ago Marina Abramović was portraying people in Serbian national dress copulating with the earth and a po-mo novel by Svetislav Basara, a prominent author and former Serbian diplomat, which in one imaginary scene describes a beloved children’s poetess, Desanka Maksimović, craving anal sex was given one of the top literary prizes a few years ago.
Thus playing with complex identities and taboos is no stranger to the Serbian and regional arts scene, and while much of the hijinks stir up some condemnation from the public, they are well received by local and global arts establishments. In a lot of ways, despite portraying themselves as rebels, and selling themselves rare free thinkers in a backwards culture, these “rebels” have become very mainstream, and indeed gate keepers.
Thus, unlike in the usual back and forths these popular condemnations stir up, there was very little defense of Crnogorčević from the liberal circles, which on occasions go as far as penning letters in support of actors accused of sexual abuse of minors. The gatekeeping by former artistic “rebels” was made even more obvious a few years ago when a popular and very traditional, figurative design for a monument to Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the medieval Serbian state, was made the main topic of conversation in Belgrade’s and region’s arts scene as horrific kitsch that needs to be blown up. Similarly, for the past few decades regional “intellectuals” have been harping on about the nefarious nature of local pop music (“turbo folk”) which they blamed on everything and anything from oppression of women to civil wars.
In a lot of ways these strong reactions from what is the “arts establishment” in the region (as much as they are loath to accept their position and responsibilities it entails) remind one of the proscriptions against “degenerate art” whether that of Impressionists in mid-19th century Paris or of various dissidents across authoritarian countries. Their cries of “Écrasez l’infâme!” show that Crnogorčević, traditional art and popularly beloved art have become the true avant-garde in the region, something that has a potential of saying something new and shocking, even if it is done in the most corny and tepid of tones, and not in the old rebel way of 50 years ago: screaming, naked and covered in blood.