FRANKFURT, Germany—When a German mother learned that Schwesta Ewa, Germany’s most famous female rapper, was buying her 17-year-old runaway daughter Celine S. lip injections, sending her out to work as a prostitute, and cashing in half the money for herself, she freaked out and called the police.
The cops then recorded Schwesta Ewa (which translates to Sister Ewa, but her real name is Ewa Malanda) yelling at a different sobbing girl who had forgotten one of her work phones at home: “Why don’t you cry because you’re [so] stupid!” What if a client was calling to book an appointment right now?
“Whore,” Malanda screamed, “I will fuck your life.“
At this point 31-year-old Malanda had already released her debut album to rave reviews, her musical abilities complemented by her long auburn hair, hazel eyes, and voluptuous figure. She was making plans for her next album but, still, she had doubts about whether her newfound celebrity status was worth giving up her previous job working in Frankfurt’s brothels. “What does it do for me when I go outside and people take pictures of me, going 'Yeah, wow, Schwesta Ewa!' ... I’m used to money, right?" she mused in an interview.
But as we now know Malanda didn’t ditch the red light at all. Last month, she was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, not because she’d been pimping out her fans (managing prostitutes is legal in Germany, unless it’s exploitive)—but because she beat them up and didn’t pay taxes.
Malanda, sounding sad, announced to a courtroom filled mainly with curious teenagers that she was “ashamed.” Two nerdy boys in button-down shirts stood at the back. Impressed by the woman who’d just spent the past eight months in custody and was looking tiny next to her three lawyers, with her long hair spilling over her large black coat, they murmured “Wow, look at her,” and hissed “schwesta schwesta.”
Ewa Malanda was born Ewa Müller, but changed her last name to Malanda, perhaps to protect her family from her reputation, or her from theirs. She was born in Poland, but she, her mother, and two siblings moved to Germany when she was very young, after her father was imprisoned for murdering five people.
Malanda recorded her first song, “Schwätza,” a disstrack that makes fun of the swaggering attitude of her past johns, in 2011. Her friend and record producer Xatar (whose real name is Giwar Hajabi) had egged her on, after pointing out that she would soon be too old to go on turning tricks.
The music video shows her strolling around Frankfurt’s red-light district, the Bahnhofviertel, which is crammed with smaller alternative-style brothels (as opposed to the mega-brothels that you find in Berlin and Cologne), junkies and, more recently, young entrepreneurs trying to feed off what they call the area’s anti-bourgeois sentiment.
At first glance, the “Schwätza” video comes off as a sleazy marketing ploy (look, a real hooker!) aiming to seep some authenticity into the German hip hop industry. But a lot of Malanda’s storytelling was not cheaply provocative, it was really depressing. Her songs were about sex workers cooking crack, pimps who fake monogamous romantic relationships with prostitutes only to abuse them and rip them off, and going to work with an electro-shocker in your handbag.
These things, and Malanda has sworn all her stories are true, aren’t supposed to happen in Germany so much anymore. The government promised to reduce the misery of sex work by introducing employment contracts and health insurance when it voted to legalize prostitution in 2002. Too bad that pretty much the only thing that has changed since then is that sex trade is now a taxable $15 billion industry. Malanda, for one, didn’t register for any social benefits when a john barged into her room and hit her over the head with her own weighing scale.
When I spoke to Xatar, Malanda’s recording boss, a week after the verdict, he was determined to stick up for Malanda. He said, “The facts have shown that her friends were working as prostitutes and she was helping them out…. Ewa comes from the streets. What kind of person would she be if she just turned her back on people?”
Three weeks earlier, though, on the first day of the Schwesta Ewa trial, Xatar and two other artists from his record label walked into the courtroom, unsmiling. They were there to show solidarity, and they didn’t want to talk to the press. But right before the testimonies started, Malanda nodded at them to leave. And when the tapes were being played she hid her face in her hands, occasionally shaking her head.
Celine, the 17-year-old who ran away from home after she messaged Malanda’s official page on Facebook to ask if she could come to Frankfurt and “turn tricks“ for the rapper, told her “you don’t have to apologize for anything.“ Malanda had smacked her in the face so hard that her braces broke.
Talin, who was 19 years old when Malanda drove her from city to city to meet up with clients in hotel rooms ranging from cheap to fancy (Malanda would sometimes hide behind the sofa to ensure the girls weren’t giving up a “paradise offer” that the client hadn’t paid for) had told the police that she suffered a laceration to her head after Malanda hit her with a heeled boot, causing her face to turn purple and leaving her unable to open her mouth for the next few days. But when the judges asked her to be more concrete about to what extent their relationship had been abusive, she shut down: “She was my friend. I don’t want to persecute her.“
Another girl who was expected to testify against Malanda in court is a callgirl named Jana. She sat quietly while her lawyer, a lady who has worked on several high profile sexual abuse cases, referred to her as a “simple person“ and attempted to argue that Malanda forced the blonde to meet with an 83-year-old man. When it was her turn to talk, the 21-year-old turned to her favorite rapper and said: “We can still be friends.“
Two years ago, Jana thought that Schwesta Ewa would be the one to “understand” her, she told the judges. That’s why she started going to Malanda’s bar, the Stoltze bar. Malanda’s friends (dealers, prostitutes and the occasional local celebrity) used to hang out there in neon-lit booths, where they were hosted by the Schwesta herself. Tourists from out of town would stand around and take photos. It was “always full, there was always a party,” Xatar tells the Daily Beast. He also runs several shops in his spare time. “The taxes in Germany are so high—before you spend all your money on taxes it’s better to invest it in gold or open a cafe.“
Jana wanted to get Malanda’s attention in the Stoltze bar, Jana said. Once, she even drew marks on her neck and told the other regulars that she’d been mugged. But when she asked Malanda to procure for her, “Ewa was actually against it.” She worried that Jana was too “fragile.” Still, the rapper agreed to help out and put the young woman on her payroll as a waitress.
“Ewa is a very charismatic person— young people admire her,“ Xatar said when I asked what he values most about Malanda as an artist.
The rapper and producer Xatar, grew up in Bonn, a city outside Cologne in the 1980s. His parents had fled to Germany from Iran in 1982. As a teenager, he attended a typical secondary school where the other children ignored him even though he spoke perfect German.
Now, the artist writes texts that omit conjunctions and turns around other grammar rules while mixing in all kinds of foreign words from the streets of Frankfurt (Kurdish, Italian, Arabic). He is credited as the pioneer of this new style in German hiphop. He says he couldn’t care less that a new generation of leather satchel clutching grammar school kids, whose parents will buy them a Mercedes just for deigning to sit their Abitur exams, have started trying to talk a little bit more like him.
But people “who fake around successfully” are not signed to his label, he said.
Xatar and Ewa had been friends for years before he signed her to his label. When he was sitting in prison for hijacking a gold transporter and stealing bullion worth €1.8 million in Ludwigshafen back in 2009, she sent him packages with staples like tuna, tobacco, and pepper—and a cell phone that he could use to record tracks on. (The gold is still missing.)
The German media ate the truck robbery story right up, not least because Xatar then proceeded to flee to Irak via Moscow before the German authorities managed to catch up with him. They started branding Xatar as a “gangster rapper.” In fact, they call him one of the first gangster rappers, but this in a country where the prisons you go to for robbing an armored truck are still relatively okay and the judges are happy to regard procurement as a normal business transaction.
Is Schwesta Ewa also one of the first German “gangster rappers”? One of the phrases she repeated in her first album was “not a joke!” But say it too often and it begins to sound defensive. Instead, in a later music video for her song “Escortflow,“ Ewa Malanda appeared in a fur coat, with her hands placed on top the heads of two women kneeling in front of her, rapping, “Every slut lying in the bordello is dreaming of my fame.” She mocked any rapper who might dare to make similarly bold claims while working from their laptop in Starbucks or living with their parents.
“I don’t think you need to be more romantic about it than that,“ Xatar said. “It’s ridiculous when people claim things that are not true.”