As poster boy for Europe’s far right, Viktor Orbán is not short of critics. But perhaps the least anticipated voice of resistance to the Hungarian Prime Minister’s stridently nativist, blatantly kleptocratic regime is Dénes Hans Sallai, a 23-year-old rapper with a keen eye for the absurd.
Sallai, aka Dé:Nash, recently burst on to the scene with songs lampooning the regime’s attempts to cobble together a national narrative based on Christian values, historical grievances and faith in the nation. In “Keresztes Hadjárat 2019” (Crusade 2019), for example, sword-wielding patriots march on Jerusalem to fight George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist, long targeted as a liberal enemy of the state.
Fresh and irreverent, the music struck a major chord.
Sitting cross-legged under the plane trees of Budapest’s City Park, Sallai is still dazed by the overnight success of a project that started out as a joke. “I don’t know what to do with this quick fame I received,” he says. “It’s a responsibility as well. I don’t want to be leader of a political movement. I prefer looking up at these beautiful branches.”
Sallai was working in a tree nursery when the idea of satirising the regime through the vocoder took root. He was no rapper. Indeed, 70s prog rock was more his thing. Inspiration struck while he was watching a documentary on rap music. It suddenly occurred to him that the leaders of his country bore more than a passing resemblance to the “gangstas” on screen.
Thus was born Dé:Nash, a knowingly gauche, curiously compelling spoof act. He started off by rapping – though, in his case, it’s more of a monotone incantation – with close friend Krúbi, already a name on the scene. Long-haired and lumbering, Sallai proved a hit with the crowds. He decided to go it alone, crafting a concept EP on the regime’s ethno-nationalist mythologising.
“It was also possible that people would think it was really weird,” he says.
Weird it most certainly is. In the video for “Turul”, his biggest hit, Sallai dresses in rustic garb, presenting himself as Álmos, the prophet son of the Turul bird, a national symbol dating from the ninth century that was appropriated by the far right in the 20s. Álmos, founding prince of the Árpád ruling dynasty, is depicted playing a flute and brandishing a machine gun, a “pure, snow-white … Hungarian child”.
The song has a nursery rhyme quality that sticks in the mind. “It’s the most popular song, even though it’s the dumbest,” says Sallai.
Delving into darker territory, “V4 Krú” (V4 Crew) portrays the Visegrád countries – namely, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – which have joined forces against the liberal elites of Brussels, as masked hoodlums looking for a ruck. To the strains of a doom-laden synth melody, Sallai conveys a toxic brew of anger and resentment. “You will come begging to us in the end. But we will have no mercy,” it warns.
It all seems a million miles away from the mild-mannered young man smiling through a haze of fluffy pollen from the surrounding trees. “It’s nice when people appreciate what you do,” he says.
Sallai’s explosion into the collective consciousness is all the more remarkable, given the regime’s tight control over the bulk of the media and entertainment industry. Petőfi Rádió, once the main launchpad for independent bands, now focuses on commercial content and adverts for Orbán’s Fidesz party.
Hungarian musicians tend to stay away from politics for fear of losing airplay and funding. Last year, local rap star Fluor jumped in on a live broadcast at an industry event, shouting the words “George Soros”. Under pressure, he apologised on Facebook. Petőfi stopped playing his music for nearly two weeks.
“It’s like you’re walking on a minefield with everyone,” says Dávid Sajó, a music journalist for Index, an independent news site. “Musicians are afraid to raise their voices, not only because of the government, but also because they are worried about how it will be covered in the [pro-government] media with clickbait headlines.”
Now under the protective wing of Universal Music Hungary, Sallai has been free of such constraints. “They don’t depend on the government in any sense, so it’s easy for them to back someone like me,” he says.
In a country where dispirited opponents of the regime are fast sliding into apathy, his music has come as a breath of fresh air. This accidental leader of the resistance is now thinking of his next album. Will he be going back to his prog rock roots?
He smiles: “There has never been a prog rock revival. And there never will be.”