The girls whose music is their strongest weapon against patriarchy.
The group Pretty Loud has been active in Serbia since 2014. Its members, 12 of them, mainly live in Belgrade’s neighboring city, Zemun. Their music is a mixture of pop, rap, and Romani traditional music, whereas their texts are written in Serbian, Romani, and English, making them a pretty unique bunch.
They are highly political and engaged, which isn’t so typical for the Balkan generations they represent.
They use their verses to highlight the problems of patriarchy and racism, which they are often exposed to in their local community. Yet still, they discuss the importance of education, especially for women.
The band itself sprang from the Grubb Foundation’s work, who have their head office in England but are active worldwide, including Serbia, where they are focused on educational and music programs, and the Romani population.
“We have been part of Grubb before the band was established. We enrolled in dance workshops, learned, and when Pretty Loud was created, we were very young. I was maybe 15 years old. I didn’t know what I wanted back then, why I was fighting until I came to Grubb. Then I started thinking and realized that we must talk about everyday issues, the violence, early marriages, equality, and prejudices,” Silvia Sinani says, recalling how they started.
K2.0 met Silvia and Zlata Ristić at the Foundation, and spoke to them about their work and what they wish to achieve. Apart from working in the band, both are employed by the Foundation.
Silva Sinani and Zlata Ristić found their voice as members of the girl band Pretty Loud, talking about feminism, and the inequality that surrounds them. Photo: Courtesy of Pretty Loud.
K2.0: What was your primary motivation for joining Grubb?
Silvia: I became a member of Grubb by accident. I didn’t even know what it was, what they were fighting for. You are probably aware that our Romani weddings are big, and I used to dance at those weddings. A colleague of mine worked at Grubb as a teacher and invited me to come dance in their venues. It seemed interesting to me, so I stayed.
I later found out that they have a director from Canada who is traveling, has their own musicals, talks about prejudices and the discrimination they are combating. That was interesting to me because I’m doing what I love, and I’m also fighting for the Romani people. When I’m on stage, it’s not only myself that I’m representing, because I represent all the Romani. Ten years ago, they offered me the chance to become a dance teacher and transfer the knowledge I obtained.
When they asked us if we wanted to have our band, we said yes, and then we decided it would be a women's band.
Zlata: I didn’t have a clue about Grubb. I had some male and female friends who went to Grubb, but I wasn’t interested. I remember the time when they were filming the video for the “Gadji” song, created by our friends from the band Roma Sijam; they asked me to dance in it. I continued enrolling in their activities, learning, dancing, and I became a dance teacher. Now it’s been seven years since I started working here.
At what point did the idea for the first Romani female rap band emerge?
Silvia: The boys had their group. First, Roma Sijam, then the Juniors, and we were mere dancers. When they asked us if we wanted to have our band, we said yes, and then we decided it would be a women’s band and that we would discuss our problems through the music. That’s how we established the band.
Were your parents and the people around you supportive?
Silvia: The support came from our parents, our grandparents. If they hadn’t supported us, perhaps we wouldn’t have been so courageous and strong to go down that path. My dad was strict, and education came first for him. He said I couldn’t dance if I had bad grades.
They raised me to make my own decisions about what I want to do. They were strict in their upbringing, but they supported me. I had a goal in mind. As for the neighborhood I’m living in, everyone is helping us. We are glad because of that. This type of support is the most important to us, and then, of course, the support of everybody else. This support motivates us to be better, to try more.
Zlata: At the very start, my grandmother wouldn’t let me do it at all. She told me to get away from all that jumping around, that I didn’t need it, because I won’t get anything out of it. My mom supported me, so I participated secretly. I told her [my grandmother] that I will be at my mom’s, but I came here. Later she also saw that I decided to enroll. This is what I fought for, to be able to decide on my own about what I wanted. She supports me now, and all is well, but at the beginning, it wasn’t the case.
Did you know each other before the band was established?
Zlata: We all live in the same neighborhood. We have known each other since we were very young. We all grew up together, so we know each other, but we have been making new acquaintances as well.
What about outside of the Zemun neighborhood you live in? What’s the communication like, the reactions of people?
Zlata: Lately, we have been receiving vast amounts of supportive messages. They are asking about how they can become one of us. They like how we are working to the benefit of our nation and all women, and they can’t wait for our performances to start.
There are a few haters, but they are ridiculous. It isn’t so bad when they write that “the deaf are fortunate.” They have the right not to like our music.
The group’s members who come from the Roma community in Serbia find it important to sing about education and independence for girls. Photo: Courtesy of Pretty Loud.
Besides the fact that you are communicating with the Roma community, you also convey your message to women. These are two marginalized groups. Do you think you are helping them or raising their level of consciousness, that of Roma people and women? You often stress that education is critical.
Silvia: Through our pages on Instagram and Facebook, we communicate with our peers, but we also do it on the streets when they ask us about it. As for education, it is vital. In order to be your own person and achieve something in life, you have to get a proper education.
I completed secondary school and was supposed to enroll at the university, but I froze my year because I should have traveled, so I got over it, but it is never later to get educated. So that one day, when you get married, when you have kids, you can have your own money, not be dependent on anyone. That way you can afford for yourself anything you like. You need to have some kind of goal in your mind.
Zlata: While writing lyrics, we write about how our peers or women should behave. We write about the importance of education, of them being independent. Whoever recognizes themselves in the lyrics finds encouragement. This is the way we do it.
Silvia: I think that’s how we encourage them. We can’t decide on their behalf, but whoever recognizes themselves can find some kind of support. That’s how we support them, and they help us by listening to our music, sharing it.
There aren’t too many songs, but it’s vital that they exist in three languages — Serbian, Romani, and English. Do you communicate with people outside the Roma community?
Silvia: There are a lot of followers outside Serbia. We are learning English, trying to write so everybody can understand us and so we can get support in this manner as well.
We participated in last year’s Women of the World festival, and it was a great honor to be invited. Back then, we only had songs in Romani and Serbian, and we created this music video as a mashup of our songs. We finished them but couldn’t decide on a single piece for the music video, so we settled on a mix. For this reason, there is a bit of English, Romani, and Serbian, and early marriages are the topic.
A particular focus in the video was placed on Samanta, a young Roma girl who must marry. Zlata married very early, and she is already the mother of an 11-year-old boy. What do you think of this experience, and is it important to discuss it?
Zlata: My parents didn’t force me. I decided to marry on my own. I thought it was the right moment. Of course, I was wrong.
I now have a son who is about to turn 11, but I’m an excellent example of a person who didn’t give up on her life. I didn’t go out to gather scrap metal to survive. I was searching for a job. I strove to do what I want and raise my kid. We are growing up together. My grandmother and mom are helping me out, and it isn’t too hard.
Yes, I’m alone, I work two jobs, but I wouldn’t be able to do that if I hadn’t finished school. I try to give my kid whatever he needs so that he can get proper education, perhaps even more than I once had. This isn’t too difficult for me, and I’d like to use my example to provide support to all other single mothers; they should fight and not give up.
You are doing precisely that when you make such public statements.
Zlata: I want to have a public job. I don’t have an issue being a single mother, which is a problem among the Roma people, because then you can only marry a man who was already married once, who has kids… And if I go out with my makeup and nice clothes, they immediately comment by saying: “Look at her, she has a kid, she’s alone. She should be ashamed of herself.”
Women continue where they left off and are stronger than when they used to be younger. Stronger, smarter, more cautious. I can only advise them to enjoy life.
It's our goal to reach as far as possible, not only to the Roma people but to change people's attitudes toward Roma.
Silvia: Pretty Loud is operational in Novi Sad and there we had a colleague who was forced by her parents to get married early on. She couldn’t choose if she wanted to get married or not but her father decided, while her mother didn’t have a vote in the matter. Then friends wrote a song for her that we are still using. She is the example of only one girl, whereas this is happening to many Roma women often.
Zlata: She had to do this due to poverty, reputation, not to disappoint her dad, because that’s how she grew up, that’s how she was raised. We write about love, equality, and violence as well. I hope that people will want to listen to all those songs, even at events after the pandemic.
Your public engagement is used to demolish prejudice against the Roma, and not only within Serbia.
Zlata: We have the whole world, not just our country. It’s our goal to reach as far as possible, not only to the Roma people but to change people’s attitudes toward Roma. To show the bigger picture the way it is. We aren’t all the same.
Often people emphasize that gypsies are stealing, lying … We are an example that that’s not the case, that we are getting our education and working. We aren’t the only ones, there are many others, but no one mentions that. We are here to prove that one shouldn’t condemn everybody else for the wrongdoings of another person. I’m not saying there are no issues, but they exist in every society. It’s easy to condemn all Roma.
I’m bothered by people saying “gypsy business.” Some Roma people are more educated than others, but nobody talks about that. It’s easier to say ugly stuff. We are here to reveal that not all Roma people are like that.
Pretty Loud became very popular and their voice is more powerful than many other voices from their own Roma community, and other marginalized groups in the Balkans. Photo: Courtesy of Pretty Loud.
How often have you faced discrimination yourselves?
Silvia: Not very often. However, it recently happened that I went to smoke some shisha, hookah. We visited the bar regularly, and they wouldn’t allow us to sit in an empty bar garden because they told us we need to make a reservation. We really thought that we should, so we tried calling and making a reservation. Nobody was picking up the phone. I told this to the server and asked him: Is the issue with us being Roma women?
I requested to speak to his boss, and he said that the boss isn’t available. It didn’t happen only one time. When I go out with a Serbian friend, then they let me in. However, if I’m accompanied by a Roma girlfriend, then I need to make a reservation. I told them I would come to the bar with the inspection unit, so he got scared.
You always emphasize the importance of education. A problem faced by large families is the impossibility to have all the children attend school, so they are forced to work as youngsters, often as collectors of secondary raw materials. How do you end this circle?
Silvia: I think that the state must get involved more, help them, so they don’t have to buy books. They can manage to get a pen, notebook, but books are expensive. And snacks are sometimes an issue. They are ashamed to take snacks from the house because someone may tease them. The state must get involved. Everyone talks about how helpful they are, but these are mere words, with no deeds in sight.
It doesn't matter who you were in the past. You should look to the future and fight for your wishes.
Zlata: Our Roma people don’t get jobs when they look for them, so some parents tend to say that there is no point in searching for a job, since you won’t find it. And that’s one of the reasons why they aren’t attending school — color matters. When you call them on the phone, they say you are accepted, but then they claim that the position is taken when you go in-person. My neighbor was looking to rent an apartment, and everything was great until he showed up personally. They didn’t want to rent the apartment to him.
Rap is an appropriate type of music for the things you are talking about. Do you have any musical role models?
Silvia: Cardi B was my role model. Her manner of rapping, her appearance on stage. She published a song and became famous overnight. She has this rude behavior and swears a lot. I mean, she isn’t my role model because of that, but because of the way she raps.
She used to be a stripper. That’s why you should have some goal. It doesn’t matter who you were in the past. You should look to the future and fight for your wishes. She succeeded in that.
Zlata: I don’t have anyone in particular. I want to discover myself so that I can be a role model to somebody else, today or tomorrow. I hope I’m getting there. I think I’m doing great.
These days we celebrate March 8. How do you see the status of women in society today and how can your work help in this regard?
Silvia: I think we picked a very nice way to talk about critical topics through music. The status of women in Serbia, not only Roma women, is tough. There are many groups and organizations fighting to improve their situation. We are doing it as well. We chose to do it through music because that’s what we know best. But when we unite one day…
We aren’t fighting against men but only aspire to have our own rights. To be equally paid. First that and then everything else.
Zlata: I think it’s necessary for us not to be women only on March 8. Men are ashamed when a woman earns more. Be the housewife, take care of the children. Why? I would even drive a truck. Why the hell not?!K
Angelina Mihailović assisted in conducting this interview.