If you've been to Bulgaria or I have ever subjected you to the Youtube videos, you know who Azis is. For those of you who don't, he is probably the most controversial celebrity in Bulgaria today. Why? It might have something to do with his background- he is Roma and identifies as either gay or bisexual, something which seems to change depending on his mood. In Bulgaria, as in all European countries with a Roma minority, there is a heavy amount of institutionalized prejudice against Roma for reasons I won't get into here. Because of this, Azis experiences double (or even triple) prejudice as a result of his identity as Roma, queer and a leading figure in Bulgarian pop-folk music, commonly referred to as chalga.
Pop-folk, as its fans prefer to call it, is a fascinating combination of folk music, techno, pop and oriental tunes represented in every Balkan country. A lot of the most popular Bulgarian pop-folk songs are, apparently, translations of Greek, Serbian or Romanian hits. Pop-folk originated in the early transitional years, after the so-called collapse of socialism, and has its own subculture characterized by grandiose displays of wealth, scantily-clad female dancers and lewd, bawdy lyrics. For example: "Oh little millionaire, you've got money, you walk on women... give out your money, give it to everyone, little millionaire." Recently I went to one of the famous chalga clubs in Sofia to see Azis perform live, and my expectations were pretty high. If you've seen one of his videos, you'll understand. As you can see in the photo above, his entrance was impressive: dressed in full-length white angel wings, high heels and a tight, revealing bathing suit (?). But his performance went downhill from there. Most of the time he was sitting on a couch onstage, occasionally belting out a few lines with another singer. The best part of the experience was definitely the crowd-watching, but I was pretty disappointed overall. Maybe my standards were set too high (I was expecting the Bulgarian version of Cher or Lady Gaga) or Azis has just gotten lazy lately. And you can hardly blame him.
Soon after this under-whelming show, Azis announced publicly that he will be leaving Bulgaria for good, off to an unspecified location. He cited the lack of respect for his talent and the growing level of homophobia as reasons for his departure. Read more here. I'm not sure how much of this is a publicity stunt, and despite his international following I can hardly imagine him gaining enough popularity abroad to support himself. Although Perez Hilton is a big fan, he doesn't seem to be up-to-date on these recent developments, or Azis' newest video, which may be the most provocative one yet. You really have to just watch it, but it includes a naked sauna scene (the tub he's sitting in has "Russia" written across the front) in which his genitalia are "censored" by a small hammer and sickle symbol. What this has to do with the lyrics, I'm not sure... but I think this is part of his enigmatic public persona. Most Bulgarians either love or hate him (and I think we can safely assume there are more haters at this point) and my friends here are usually shocked to learn that I like him, or listen to his music.
For the record, I'm not a big chalga fan. I think that the rhythm is too fast-paced and gives me a headache. But Azis is always a good conversation-starter, because of his attitude towards traditional gender roles and social norms in Bulgaria. And I think that this is as good an argument as any for his status as a "cultural icon."