BUDAPEST -- "Fidesz is the ruler! Our soul is flying!" belts out Krubi, a young hip-hop artist, on a stage glowing with orange light. Performing at Sziget, Budapest's biggest summer music festival, the Hungarian rapper follows up his ironic line with a performatively reluctant kiss on a puppet resembling Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. When the peck finally comes, it draws a loud cheer from the crowd.
Krubi, whose real name is Krisztian Horvath, is among a new wave of Hungarian artists who are embracing politics, boisterously mocking and criticizing the right-wing Fidesz government. For young Hungarians who have grown up during Orban's 12-year rule, the music and the concerts have become a crucial outlet for dissent, despite artists critical of the government facing censorship and being cut off from state funding.
In August, around 400,000 people -- among them many foreigners -- descend on Budapest's Shipyard Island for the Sziget Festival, where ticket prices can top $100 for the chance to see big-name international artists such as Lorde, Billie Eilish, and Macklemore.
But away from the main stage and the global stars, the festival also has a political dimension. During Krubi's set, the crowd is chanting "dirty Fidesz" before the rapper launches into one of his most famous songs about an imagined sexual encounter between the current and former Hungarian prime ministers in a public toilet.
On another stage, the singer of the indie-rock band Carson Coma is wearing a T-shirt saying "Homophobes Are Gay," a swipe at the government's LGBT policies that have banned adoption for same-sex couples and clamped down on LGBT themes in books aimed at children and teenagers, even mandating that books deemed offensive be wrapped in plastic in stores. The weeklong festival also holds vogue dance classes and discussions on LGBT issues, including one with the organizer of Ukraine's Pride march.
In the middle of his Sziget set, Hundred Sins, a DJ who always appears in a mask, plays a song in support of Ukraine. "Guys, why the **** are you partying? People are getting killed in our neighborhood," he says, referring to Russia's full-scale invasion of the country in 2022. "Just stop for a moment, we have to talk about this." His emotional appeal was also a critique of the Hungarian government, which has opposed EU-wide sanctions on Russia, refused to send arms to Ukraine, and has maintained warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For the most part, young people in Hungary are no fans of Orban's Fidesz government, which has been accused by critics of backsliding on democracy, challenging the independence of the judiciary, and being hostile toward migrants and the LGBT community. According to a 2021 poll carried out by a Budapest-based market research company Median, only 14 percent of Hungarians aged between 18 and 49 would vote for Fidesz, compared to 64 percent of people over the age of 60. Another study, from 2021, found that 33 percent of 15–29-year-olds believe that the current government can only be removed by violence.
While serving as prime minister from 2010, Orban has tightened his grip on media. According to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, oligarchs close to the government have seized control of over 80 percent of the Hungarian media via economic or political means. Fidesz has also extended into the cultural sphere, with a government-funded talent incubator becoming the majority stakeholder in Libri, the country's biggest and most influential publishing house, and has funded billion-forint patriotic blockbusters about Hungarian history.
But while the ruling party's dominance of the media has helped to firm up support among Fidesz's older voting base, it has likely had little impact on the country's youth. Young Hungarians tend to get their news and entertainment from social media and streaming platforms, where anti-government artists have much freer rein, instead of legacy platforms such as television and radio.
More Politics, Please
Only 40 kilometers from the capital, Sukoro is a picturesque village on the shore of Lake Velence, a popular vacation spot for sun-seeking Hungarians. In July, it's also the traditional setting for the popular student music festival EFOTT, which draws crowds of tens of thousands every year. One of the performers this year is Hungarian rapper Lil Frakk, who is openly critical of Fidesz and has endorsed the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization that regularly clashes with the government.
"If I think what's happening to teachers is bad, then I will speak and post about it," says the 25-year-old Hungarian-Greek rapper, whose real name is Jorgosz Babaitisz. He is referring to a recent law passed by the government that could mean thousands of teachers leaving the already-beleagued profession. "This is authentic to me."
While his newest tracks don't directly address politics, there is still a political undertone to his music, he says, with subtler references to current events. "So far, I have only received positive feedback," he says in between sets, smoking a cigarette as the sun sets over Lake Velence. He isn't back on stage again until 2 a.m. and says that "probably those who don't agree [with me], don't even find me."
At the EFOTT festival, plenty of people do agree with him -- and there are many more who are at least willing to listen. "It's important to talk about politics," says 20-year-old Mate from Szekszard, a small city in southern Hungary. He mostly listens to young rappers critical of the government, with whom he "fortunately agrees," and says that young audiences welcome artists speaking out about politics or other issues.
Among some of the revelers, there is an appetite for even more politics. Standing between a Ferris wheel and a bar, Mate is dressed similarly to his favorite rappers, with a thin mustache and a vest over a T-shirt. A handful of guys in similar attire surround him, all sipping from refillable cups. "Hungarian artists should talk about current politics more often," Mate's friend, Balint, 20, agrees.
"In politics, everyone has their opinion. If an artist wants to speak out about it, it's his business," says a 16-year-old chilling out by the lake, who goes by the nickname of Dave. He's excited about seeing his favorite artist, rapper Azahriah who, in one of his latest songs, about the lack of media freedom in Hungary, has sampled a clip from a Fidesz politician. For Dave, though, it's more important that artists show their personalities through their music, rather than necessarily politics. He would still listen to someone whose politics he didn't agree with, he says, as long as he liked their music and found them to be honest.
It is a common refrain among young Hungarians: they might not agree with what you have to say but think you should have the freedom to say it. Two women in their early twenties from Gyor, a city in northwestern Hungary, also think that artists could talk more about politics in their music. "I don't think that it's relevant what [an artist] says. The way they present it matters more," says one of the women, who prefer not to give their names.
"We would encourage this [outspokenness], even if we didn't agree with the message," her friend adds. They are not fans of any of the government-endorsed artists, they both say, before their friends catch up with them and they make their way toward the main stage to watch WellHello, a band frank about their liberal views.
There are legions of the government-endorsed artists that the two women from Gyor are referring to. According to Agnes Patakfalvi-Czirjak, a social-anthropologist focusing on populism, Orban's government has promoted "the popularization of nostalgia-based nationalist Christian content." National celebrations and rural concerts, often funded by the government and free for attendees, contribute to the artists' popularity as well as their revenue.
With Emilia Barna, a Hungarian sociologist who focuses on music, Patakfalvi-Czirjak co-ran a research project on the connection between populism and mainstream music since the beginning of Orban's rule in 2010. According to the academics, who are both from the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Fidesz favors music that promotes nostalgia and national unity, a staid playlist of inoffensive rock, new covers of old classics, and offerings from contestants on primetime TV talent shows.
A good example is Kowalsky meg a vega, a group that once made a music video in cooperation with the Hungarian military. "There is no bigger love than voluntarily giving your life for others," the bands sings, as the video tells the story of a loving father who joins the military to defend the nation.
Another Fidesz favorite is singer Gabi Toth, who often appears in Hungarian folk attire, with long braids and traditional embroidery. In 2022, in Szekesfehervar, a city in central Hungary, she stood next to the prime minister during an election campaign rally, singing along to a patriotic song.
On August 20, after performing at a free concert funded by the government in downtown Budapest, Toth was given the honor of ceremonially drawing a cross on a loaf of bread to mark the founding of Hungary as a state.
There aren't any such opportunities for Hungarian artists who aren't ideological bedfellows of the government. They are rarely played on government-controlled public radio, Barna and Patakfalvi-Czirjak say. There are also financial repercussions. Artists with critical views are often excluded from state financial support, mostly doled out by the Culture Ministry, and have to rely on income generated through social media and streaming platforms. Those who don't side with the government can lack "the infrastructure leading to popularity and therefore miss out on opportunities," Barna says.
Carson Coma's government-funded concert in Brussels was canceled earlier this year, after their front man openly sided with anti-government demonstrators. The venue cited technical issues and the Liszt Institute-Hungarian Cultural Center Brussels said it was due to "reasons beyond the band's control."
There is also censorship. Rapper Beton.Hofi had a lyric referring to the government spying on text messages cut from the version of his song played on state television. And the pop group which rapper Babaitisz performed with at the EFOTT festival, WellHello, got into hot water after its front man, Tamas Karacson, shouted "George Soros" during a live interview with state television in 2018. For government-controlled or government friendly radio, it was a bridge too far and WellHello's songs were taken off the air.
Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist, is regularly vilified by the government and on state media. When his name appears on public television, it is usually connected to allegations of shadowy foreign funding, or to his bankrolling of the Central European University in Budapest, which was thought by many in Fidesz to be a dangerous breeding ground for liberalism and eventually forced out of the country. WellHello was only allowed back on air after Karacson issued a public apology on Facebook. "I didn't want to make anybody's life more difficult…and I don't want my idiotic behavior to cause a headache at anyone's workplace," he said.
It's a fine line you have to walk, says rapper Babaitisz. He would, he says, accept money from government-affiliated organizations, as long as he is allowed to speak his mind. But he says he recently declined an invitation for a concert in Felcsut, Orban's hometown.
"I need to accept that this is the price [for being outspoken]," Funktasztikus, another Hungarian rapper, says. His lyrics are often critical of the government and Hungarian politics in general and, in his rare interviews, he has criticized other musicians for accepting government funds instead of expressing their opinions.
"In my view, this country is becoming increasingly hopeless, especially in rural areas," Funktasztikus, whose real name is Adorjan Csato, told RFE/RL in an e-mail. He lives in Hungary's poorest county, Borsod-Abauj-Zemplen in the north of the country, unlike most Hungarian hip-hop artists, who tend to live in Budapest or other big cities with an active political opposition and vibrant cultural life. In Csato's hometown, Mezokovesd, the Fidesz candidate reached over 60 percent support in the 2022 parliamentary elections, while the candidate of the joint opposition got just a quarter of the vote.
"I feel like the government media's brainwashing has reached its goal, and there's no going back," Funktasztikus says. He doubts the significance and relevance of political opposition from rappers and other musicians. "My 'colleagues' are watching the fight and demise of artists and bands, stigmatized by the political system, from afar."
This sense of political fatigue is shared by others. "I have criticized the government so much that my listeners are packing up their luggage to start afresh somewhere new," Krubi raps in his latest hit track, Krubi interju, a reference to the increasing number of young people that are leaving Hungary every year, fed up with the country's flagging economy and a political system they don't trust. A recent poll found that 40 percent of Hungarians under the age of 30 were considering living abroad.
Krubi's skepticism might be well-placed. With their fans already broadly critical of the government, rappers such as Krubi are preaching to the choir, while older people -- Orban's base, who tend to get their music from the radio -- aren't exposed to them at all. And according to sociologists Barna and Patakfalvi-Czirjak, these musicians don't necessarily articulate complex critiques of the government.
"Instead of moving outside of the discursive framework successfully applied by the government, they distance themselves from it using irony and humor, but they don't create a new discussion and fail to point [people] in a new direction," says Patakfalvi-Czirjak.