Nina Hagen – Godmother of Punk, East Germany Dissident, Activist, Breaker of Rules

Nina Hagen is one of the most iconic figures in punk history. Through her music, style, outspoken lyrics and unmatched voice, she’s broken rules, questioned norms, confronted her critics, stood up for what’s right, and showed us that it’s alright to be weird.

Born to rebel

Nina was born in East-Berlin in 1955, then part of the German Democratic Republic. Her father was from a Jewish banker family, an author and anti-fascist. Her mother was Eva-Maria Hagen, a celebrated film star.

When Nina was 9, her mother married the singer Wolf Biermann. Biermann was quite the rebel, criticising the GDR and the SED, the party running the whole Marxist show in East Germany. Criticising the government in East Germany was, how shall we say, not very much appreciated, but that didn’t stop Biermann from singing is anti-government songs.

18303677_303
Eva-Maria and Nina Hagen. Source: DW.com

When Nina was 9, her mother married the singer Wolf Biermann. Biermann was quite the rebel, criticising the GDR and the SED, the party running the whole Marxist show in East Germany. Criticising the government in East Germany was, how shall we say, not very much appreciated, but that didn’t stop Biermann from singing is anti-government songs.

Having a dissident in the family didn’t make life any easier for Nina. At school, the teachers actually forbade her classmates to talk to her, because she had been “in contact with the treacherous ideas of a dangerous enemy of the state.”

Talking to Nina would have actually meant to go against the government, so obviously, none of the kids had the guts to not obey. From one day to the next, Nina found herself the outcast, without any friends… those conforming wimps.

Biermann taught her how to play the guitar, which I guess makes up for not having any more friends. Over the years he became her mentor and teacher, and she learned a lot from him, musically and ideologically.

She followed her mother around to rehearsals and stages, which is where she discovered the extraordinary power of her voice, and the ability to use it as a tool to make art.

Seriously, the woman’s voice is incredible and she can sing anything from folk music to opera, to rock, to screamo.

Her mother eventually got banned from performing in East Berlin, again because of Biermann’s oh so dangerous ideas. The whole gang moved to the countryside where Nina started performing with her mother when she was 15.

Nina always wanted to escape the East German prison, and to make rock music. Of course, you couldn’t just up and leave East Germany, so Nina’s plan was to become a folk music singer, with the hopes that that would get her on one of the groups allowed to travel outside the GDR to perform. Even though she performed folk music, she managed to subtly criticise the communist East German state through her lyrics.

The song “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (You forgot the Colour Film), for example, tells the seemingly harmless story of a girl being mad at her boyfriend for forgetting the colour film on their vacation, but was in fact “a subtle dig mocking the sterile, grey, Communist state”.

The West

In 1976, Wolf Biermann was granted permission to tour through West Germany but was banned from re-entering East Germany, probably to keep his “dangerous ideas” out of the country and stop them from infecting more comrades.

A petition was started to allow Biermann to return to East Germany, but to no avail. So Nina requested a departure permit herself, stating that she no longer had any roots in East Germany as her step-father, teacher, and best friend Biermann has been banned from the country, so she would like to request permission to join him abroad. She then casually added, that if they didn’t let her leave, she would do her best to continue singing his anti-government songs and keep the opposition alive, and would not let them shut her up. The government promptly approved her request.

18303664_303
Wolf Biermann, Eva-Maria Hagen, Nina Hagen. Source: DW.com

Nina was expatriated and moved to West Germany. She lived with a bunch of other artists, all very famous in Germany in their own right, where she was a became a true force of nature. She was finally allowed to dress the way she wanted, speak the way she wanted, and make the music that she wanted.

Nina travelled through the UK punk scene for a bit, and later, back in Germany, teamed up with the band Lokomotive Kreuzberg. Together they founded the Nina Hagen Band, publishing their first LP of the same name in 1978.

Her music was crazy, powerful, funny, outspoken, and no bullshit. The world loved it.

nina_hagen_band
Source: Wikipedia

Woman, touch thyself

Nina always voiced her “radical” views and stood for what she believed in, whether people wanted to hear it or not. Many of her lyrics focused on the empowerment of women, like the song “Unbeschreiblich Weiblich” (Indescribably Feminine) in which she sings about not wanting to have children because…

“Why should I fulfil my duty as a woman?
For whom?
For her?
For you?
For me?
I do not feel like doing my duty
Not for you
Not for me
I have no duty”

She also caused quite a scandal when she was provoked by another male guest on an Austrian talk show. I’m not sure what he said exactly, but it ended up with Nina having to explain the importance of the female orgasm to him, and how you can achieve that if the woman just touches herself in the right spot. You get the idea. To make sure everybody else also got it, Nina helpfully illustrated:

NINA HAGEN TV
Source: Deutschland Deine Künstler / ARD

Now, this was in 1979, where discussing, let alone showing, things like this on public television was a big taboo. Just think about the outrage an accidentally exposed nipple still causes these days, and you get an idea how much Nina really didn’t give a damn about rules, and norms, and societal bullshit.

You never really knew what happens when you invited Nina to a TV Show. She definitely always brought some much-needed energy, colour, and perspective to the table. Or, you know, she might blow up in your face, if you piss her off.

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Source: IMDB

Work-Life-Bullshit

In 1981, Nina had a daughter by the awesome name of Cosma Shiva Hagen. Instead of taking a break to stay at home and take care of her kid, Nina simply took Cosma along anywhere she went – on tour, on stage, on her album covers, what have you. I guess you could say that Nina Hagen successfully managed the balance between career and family by simply fusing the two together and becoming a rocking working mom.

NINA UND COSMA SHIVA HAGEN
Source: Deutschland Deine Künstler / ARD

Growing up in the spotlight like this didn’t seem to have a negative effect on Cosma as many critics might say. Quite the opposite in fact, as she grew up to be an amazing woman, and a successful actress in her own right. Seriously, how can you not be awesome with a name like Cosma Shiva?

Beyond Music

Being the outspoken person that she is, Nina Hagen has been supporting many charitable causes throughout her career. Storming fashion shows, protesting against nuclear energy, trying to change a law about closed psychiatric wards, you know so people don’t just lock you up because somebody said you’re a crazy person. She’s cancelled concerts in the Ukraine to protest against the government-sanctioned cruel culling of dogs. She’s dedicated an entire album to songs about civil rights and peace, and I don’t think she’ll stop trying to speak out for compassion, social progress, love and peace anytime soon.

Like most people who have gone against what is considered to be normal, and spoken up for what they believe in, Nina has been widely criticised by the press and the public. She’s been called eccentric and shrill, but seriously, that is exactly what makes Nina Hagen an official badass!

“There are so many idiots that have nothing better to write about Nina Hagen other than that I am a shrill publicity junkie. What kind of a job description is that? If I’d been born a man, then I would have been given a little more respect. […] no one would dare to call a creative male musician such things and such insulting nicknames as they have for me. It really is interesting.”

Nina Hagen, performing her first hit “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (around 1985, with English subtitles)

Sources:
Deutschland Deine Künstler – Nina Hagen. ARD Documentary.
Nina Hagen’s hunt for ‘truth and peace’. DW.com

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