People who want fame will do anything for publicity, right? Not always. The Mitrovica Rock School’s 110 students have shunned the media for the past two years, declining interview requests from dozens of reporters. When we did allow press inside the school, all but three students asked to stay unrecognizable. So what is this balancing act between fame and anonymity?
When lead singer Jelena was filmed by the BBC walking down the street on her way to the Rock School with a guitar strapped to her back, the glances of passers-by made her visibly uncomfortable. “Don’t worry,” I said, “they probably just think you’re shooting a music video.” “I wish…” she sighed.
In Europe’s most rigidly divided city, it’s not hard to get press attention. The frozen conflict that has persisted in Mitrovica between ethnic Serbs and Albanians since the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999 keeps journalists coming, to cover the latest demonstration or outburst of violence and – yes – to write feel-good stories about young people brave enough to form a band with people from the other side.
But in Europe’s most divided city, having a mixed band is not something that gets you ahead. With ethnic nationalism as the mainstream culture on both sides, many consider having friends across the divide tantamount to treason. So understandably, talking on camera about being part of an inter-ethnic project is not high on most students’ wish lists.
This means that dealing with the press is a constant balancing act. Without publicity, we wouldn’t be able to raise the funds we need to keep the Rock School open. And without visibility, our impact would be limited to “just” those 700 youth who have gone through the school since we started in 2008. But too much press attention wears our students out. What self-respecting band gets asked “What do your parents think about you playing with people of a different ethnic group?” or “What do you think about the Brussels Agreement?” all the time, but never about their music? And a press report read by the wrong person is a real security risk.
Still, a few of our students see a shared interest in talking with the press: the Rock School gets publicity, the reporter gets his story, and they gain experience giving interviews, a skill they will need to get ahead as musicians. These students make it possible for us to agree to few reports per year with reporters who are willing to respect their limits.
As someone who has never had to consider her own safety beyond which route to take home at night, I respect these young people no end. Choosing your own path takes guts, and a thousand times so when this means breaking taboos and challenging the status quo.
Wendy Hassler-Forest co-founded the Mitrovica Rock School in 2008, working with local musicians and partners to gain community support. Wendy lived in Mitrovica for two years and now works from Belgrade, Serbia, as MwB’s Rock School Program Manager and Regional Representative.