Living in Berlin

You Ain’t No Berliner

Another nasty sticker pasted around Berlin telling you to go home.

Of so you think.

Is it meant––yet again, in default hipster fashion––to be ironic?

The motto is actually a promotion for the clothing label of the hip hop label Hoodrich (which represents the Kreuzberg rapper Said, and Kalusha and Elle, who wear the clothing). ‘Du! Bist kein Berliner’ (You! ain’t no Berliner) of course, plays off the famous JFK quote, but locally it has more compelling and recent meanings.

First, we get into the world of cultural borrowing. Hoodrich’s clothing is urban ghetto fashion: hoodies, ‘Free Kotti’ t-shirts, and… ‘Du! Bist kein Berliner’ bags and shirts. The motto markets the German version of black American hip-hop vestimentary and musical culture, appropriated by immigrant youth in the gentrifying neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Neukölln.

The label is also a statement about belonging. Said’s family comes from Syria, Kalusha was born in Ghana, and so they represent the immigrant groups who are most suffering from the rising rents in these parts of Berlin. The ‘You! ain’t no Berliner’ is a retort to those ethnic German Berliners who think of Turks and Arabs as just unwanted visitors. In response, the motto claims that these so-called outsiders are in fact Ur-Berliners. But the message is also profoundly negative: telling newer newcomers, those arty young people coming with cash, that they aren’t welcome, and the individual gets blamed rather than the policy choices that are making rent rises possible.

So it’s about money. ‘Hood rich’ is ghetto slang for someone from the hood who eats out at expensive restaurants and drives a luxury car. Maybe some German rappers have made it big, but most immigrant groups (Turkish, Arabic, African) are being pushed out by the gentrifiers. What’s most ironic about this label, of course, is that it is consumed by the very people who are doing the gentrifying and can afford a 20 EUR t-shirt. The young people consuming these shirts, I suspect, are drawn to its negative message the way teenagers are drawn to ‘Fuck You’ t-shirts, but here insecurely claiming their belonging to the authentic ‘in’ group.  The turning around of the language of protest to the purposes of marketing and the music industry to sell items to the gentrifiers themselves seems just a little sick to me.

A couple months ago I came across another clothing label, developed by Kiezkollegen. This isn’t big business like Hoodrich, and may turn out to be a faux label (it’s since disappeared: any news of these people?).  Their t-shirts read ‘Gentrifikation’ (‘GentriFUCKation’) and they were doing a photo shoot in Kotti, the centre of a rising rents protest, where I interviewed their creator Martin Strauch (you can click on the link below to listen to the [sorry… choppy]  interview and read the loose translation that follows):


(It’s a clothing label that thematises gentrification. It’s under the motto: ‘We are a neighbourhood, we support one another. It’s not meant to be a brilliant clothing line, but rather to say we wish to stay in our neighbourhood. I was born in Kreuzberg and grew up here [and with the changes in the housing market] we have to do something. I modelled ‘Gentrification’ into ‘Gentrifuckation’. This is ‘Berliner Schnauze’ [Berlin’s famously caustic wit]. It’s a little vulgar, sure, but it’s an honest reaction, but behind it is a reaction that has been reflected upon…)

I’m not sure how clever the message is, but it’s less alienating to the individual, and less cynical, than what Hoodrich has come up with. Without contextualisation (read on about another sticker, about Nazis, that also needs some), Hoodrich’s ‘You! Ain’t No Berliner’ simply aggravates the nasty feeling in a city that is struggling with its identity as it internationalises out of the isolation of Cold War division. One of the most wonderful things about this city is the flood of young people recently coming from other places. They are what are making the Berlin Renaissance possible, making it alive. The city needs to follow through with some of the policy recommendations of the renters union gathering at Kottbusser Tor, and stop taking it out on individuals who move have recently moved here from abroad.

Here’s my Christmas wish. I look forward to the day when Berlin truly becomes a world metropolis and, like in New York, anyone who’s just moved here, regardless of what language they speak, their culture, or race, can say with pride, ‘I am a Berliner’.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

6 thoughts on “You Ain’t No Berliner

  • Great post. Berlin, and for that matter Germany, needs more immigrants; both poor and better off. Too many people want Berlin to go back to the 1980s. That’s not a future anyone should want.

  • Berlin has lost much of it’s vibe lately, this happened very quickly and many people don’t realize. Leipzig and Hamburg are much more interesting and authentic. The former hyped places like Kreuzberg or Neukölln are just a playground for tourists nowadays.

    • What exactly does ‘authentic’ mean? Isn’t this desire for pure, imaginary ‘authenticity’ one of the sources for intolerance?

  • because berlin, with its new tourists, hipsters yuppies, has a new conspicuous consumption society that actually contradicts the AUTHENTIC values of the real berliners. we don’t need your start-ups, and your apps and expensive phones, and fashionable clothes and trends and bars. we don’t need all these wrong values that have been fought so hardly all these time, by its berlin people. luckly, berliners have theirs values on the right place and will always fight against yuppie gentrification.

  • May I remind you that Berlin is the capital of a very wealthy country that makes many of these trendy aps, clothes, etc. Surely no ‘authentic’ Berliner has ever sullied himself/herself with such things?

    But more seriously, the argument that ‘foreign people are coming to the city ruining the authentic cultural life’ is really just a right-wing xenophobic and demonising argument dressed up in pseudo-leftist Kulturkritik. I don’t really see the difference. (Many of these evil foreigners are young people looking for work, coming from countries which, unlike Germany, have not benefited from the relatively cheap Euro. They are not all brutal capitalist gentrifiers.)

  • I moved to Berlin for a summer a few years back and as incredible as I found the city, I couldn’t help but on many occasions beware of this gloom and guilt that surrounded my “ausländer” title. Every time I would be at a party (or any kind of introductory event would occur) I would find people clinging on to their Berlin title and compete against who was more of a Berliner than who… And actually the funny thing is, many of these people that complained, were not interested in speaking in German to me – which got tedious to say the least… anyway this year I got the opportunity to work again in Germany, but this time I decided to go to Leipzig. I have to say that it was, for sure, the best decision! Myself and my bad German was welcomed with both arms, and by the end of the summer I wasn’t far from speaking fluent!

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