A musician representing a minority, or a musician who is a member of a minority?

Mertsi Lindgren

My artistic identity is based on music. The first time I sang in public was in Sunday school when I was very young. I taught myself to play guitar when I was fourteen, and eventually graduated from the renowned Pop & Jazz Conservatory, even with a commendation. I have acquired tons of experience across the music industry. I have performed, sung, and played: rap, gospel, rock, children’s songs, folk music, pop, Romani music, Finnish Kaale songs, dance schlager, ethno-schlager, art music, hymns, Christmas carols, and instrumental music ranging from swing to Latino rhythms.

Being in the public eye is often a part of working in the music industry. When I participated in the 2007 Talent Suomi program with the ensemble Orkestra Suora Lähetys, it felt a bit strange, but fantastic at the same time, when people recognised me in my local grocery store. More recently, I was invited to appear in the Finnish Broadcasting Company’s early evening talk show. The interview touched on my work as a musician, my appointment as a government-funded regional artist, as well as my ethnic background. I brought my guitar along to the interview so that I would feel less nervous, as holding a guitar seems to ease my nerves. I had hoped I could sing something as part of the show, but it wasn’t possible because of the coronavirus restrictions. Luckily, I did get a chance to play my guitar.

When we talk about a musician’s public visibility, we must see it as an important part of practicing this particular profession. Having high visibility leads to increased work opportunities. When I think about this from my personal viewpoint, I have to consider this question: do I want to be known as a Romani musician, or simply as a musician? I have black hair, dark complexion and brown eyes. I dress according to Romani traditions, live in the community and practice the culture. When people see me, they know instantly what my ethnicity is – thus, it is nearly impossible for me to become well-known simply as a musician, and in fact utterly unnecessary as well. In my opinion, this question itself has a loaded, even discriminatory flavour: why would a musician and their ethnic background need to be separated in this case? What if Samuli Edelmann, the guest singer of Orkestra Suora Lähetys, was asked whether he wants to be known as a Finnish musician, or just as a musician? If we add more context to the question, and consider what kind of a profile a musician wants to create in order to pursue fame, we arrive at a much wider, yet much more complex framework for the question.

If a Finnish musician living in Sweden is asked whether they want to be known as a Finnish musician, or just as a musician, I believe that they will answer like this: as a Finnish musician, at least when performing for Sweden’s Finns. However, if they are playing in the Swedish star Carola’s band at the Stockholm Globe Arena, their Finno-Ugric ethnicity would have zero significance, at least from the marketing point of view.

Do positive stereotypes associated with a certain ethnic background matter? I think they do. Romani music and musicians with a Romani background have a reputation for virtuosity, mysticism, great emotions, aesthetics and excitement, and not without a reason. A mental image of a musician without any special definitions is a lot bleaker – a man who is a struggling freelance worker without a real job, who has a problem with alcohol, is divorced, and has long greasy hair. Which strategy is then more effective in terms of building a musician’s public profile: concentrating on ethnic background and professional skills, or only on professional skills? An added layer of complexity comes from the choice of profiling: whether to sell a musician as an opera singer, popular singer, diploma violinist, heavy metal guitarist, or panpipe player. Which image creates more confidence: a singing bus driver or an opera singer, a guitarist-fireman or a cellist, a Russian pianist or a Finnish bassist?

The writer is a Romani musician whose five-year stint as a regional artist, supported by the Arts Promotion Centre Finland, has just ended. He will perform at the Etno-Espa stage on Thursday 12 August.