Pop-Kultur 2023: redefining pop music

5 Minute Read
Art & Culture
Written by Anna Grubauer

A reflection on the festival just gone in Berlin.

As a resident of Berlin’s district of matcha latte mummys and cargo bike daddys also known as Prenzlauer Berg, I appreciate its quieter atmosphere. Sure, you get nice bars and bougie restaurants, but not the buzzing nightlife of Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg.

That may only change once a year in late summer: when it is time for Pop-Kultur.

However, Pop-Kultur is not your average festival. Be prepared to be disappointed if you expect sunburned blokes playing flunky ball or overcrowded stages turning into mosh pits. Pop-Kultur is more of a grown-up version, with lots of industry people and chilled beer fresh from the tap. The curators pride themselves on having an eclectic, forward-thinking programme, with a sneak peek at the next big artists.


And rightly so: while many festivals have line-ups so similar you might think some DJs exist twice, Berlin’s alternative pop festival surprises with an out-of-the-box line-up. With all stages located in one beautiful brick complex that used to be a brewery, it’s easy to just rove around. If you take anything away from this article, don’t be overwhelmed by the extensive line-up, just go and let yourself be surprised by artists you might not have discovered otherwise.

Pop-Kultur is the perfect comeback to anyone still stuck in the “I’d book them, but there aren’t any” mindset when it comes to diversity and inclusivity – an argument still made by too many promoters and bookers. With an all-embracing, intersectional spirit, Pop-Kultur invites artists of all genders, from various backgrounds and with and without disabilities. The festival programme stands out for its emphasis on queer and post-migrant viewpoints, incorporating a segment that aims to bridge the gap between Africa and its diaspora. Additionally, it featured multiple artist residencies promoting international artistic collaboration, such as Accra-Berlin, Tel Aviv-Berlin, Kampala-Berlin and Detroit-Berlin. In its nine years, the festival has built a reputation for its diverse line-up and distinctive curatorial approach, which goes beyond the typical music festival experience to include commissioned performances by notable artists and thought-provoking discussions. With panels on transparent artist fees, representation of African women in music and ethics in pop culture, they’re not afraid to tackle the industry’s thorniest issues. By translating parts of the programme into German sign language, covering the cobbled Kulturbrauerei grounds with wheelchair-friendly ramps and employing awareness teams, the quest for inclusivity extends beyond the stages. Sure, the festival gets good bucks from government funding, which provides resources to act upon these issues and reduces the pressure to sell tickets. This makes it all the more important to keep a close eye on how its values are put into practice, and to question its function as a role model for more commercial events.


But let’s get back to the most important part: the music. Pop-Kultur claims not to chase headliners, but to highlight emerging talent and predict the next big sounds in pop and beyond. And judging by their line-up, that could be anything from amapiano to synth-pop. The opening night started off with A Song For You, a fully-fledged choir, accompanied by a live band, performing soulful and heart- warming neo-soul and RnB songs. The recently formed collective has already taken Berlin by storm and is set to strengthen the scene beyond the city’s limits. Their fully choreographed performance showcases local emerging and hidden talents and highlights underrepresented voices. Next up were two prime examples of German rap: Behind Nashi44’s humorous punchlines and energetic beats lie meaningful political messages. With her first hit ‘Aus der Pussy’ (From the Pussy), she gives a universal comeback to the question “Where are you from?” and raises awareness of anti-Asian racism in the form of a vibrant, room-filling club banger. BRKN’s latest project touches on heavy topics such as mental health and toxic masculinity. Despite this, he put on one of the most fun and danceable live shows of the evening.

In between I had a peek into the immersive audiovisual work of Portrait XO, who is taking electronic music to a whole new level by working with AI and exploring the tension between human and machine co-creation. I rounded off my Wednesday night with headliner Empress Of, whose sound is somewhere between dream pop, RnB and electronica, but doesn’t really fit into any of these genre definitions. A woman next to me tapped me on the shoulder and asked with wide eyes: “Who is that girl performing?” and there it was: a pure Pop-Kultur moment.

In the midst of it all was Krista Papista, who performed three sets as part of the Commissioned Works programme. The programme is designed to give artists complete freedom to express themselves and experiment without the pressure of commercial success, while providing support and guidance throughout the production process. Krista Papistas’ work “FUCKLORE” blends traditional forms and aesthetics of conventional folklore into a challenging, queer, political “shit- show”, as the Cyprus-born, Berlin-based artist calls it herself. Combining deliberately disharmonic sounds with musical allusions, she creates dizzying tensions between Balkan and Greek folklore and her computerised punk. All of this is staged as a theatrical performance, complete with bells being smashed on metal plates. “I create my version of my culture’s folklore, ‘queer it’ and present it in a fresh way. I invited three performers for this. And basically, the whole concept is that we’re all these folkloric heroines,” Krista told me when I called her two days after the performance. “I have to say that the Pop-Kultur team were really helpful with everything I asked for. Like the little room I was dragged out of with the trumpet. I said ‘Ohh I want a little room’ and they just built it,” she added. Participating in the Commissioned Works programme gave her all the resources she needed to bring her performance vision to life. With her experimental intersection of music and art, her name isn’t usually on the same poster as indie pop bands. Another example of the festival’s ability to connect the dots between different scenes.

Thursday’s headline act is South African mega-pop star Sho Madjozi, known for her vibrant mix of gqom, Afro-pop, amapiano and hip-hop. The curatorial team has set out to showcase the diversity of African artists beyond Burna Boy and Wizkid, with an emphasis on female talent. “I miss being the underdog,” Sho Madjozi told me after her performance. That’s what she likes about performing in Europe, where she still has to win over the audience, as opposed to South Africa, where she’s already an established pop star. “I feel like I’m showcasing something when I’m here, like an ambassador. Whereas when I’m at home I feel like I’m just partaking in enjoyment. Here I feel I have to prove myself. I have to make a point.” Still, Sho Madjozi doesn’t worry too much about our Eurocentric views: “A lot of people want Africans to have this agenda that we’re going to change the way the West sees us. I don’t care how the West sees us. I care about how a young black girl in South Africa sees herself.” Earlier, Nigerian artist Fave brought her dazzling energy and poetic
lyrics to the same stage. Another highlight of the evening was Madanii, whose sonic journey transcends future pop, R&B and electro, seamlessly integrating influences from her Iranian background. She was followed by Mulay, who performed a similar sensual and mystical set. At times gloomy and dramatic, at others light and ethereal, her sounds were perfectly suited to the dark and intimate setting of the Maschienenhaus stage.

The proximity of all the venues is both a blessing and a curse. Instead of running around like a headless chicken for the first two nights, I decided to commit to full sets on the final night. I started my festival Friday with the beautiful performance by FAAM Studio, another commissioned work that combined music, dance and fashion into a truly immersive audio-visual experience. The ambient sounds of vocalist Astan Ka and multi-instrumentalist Kechou were perfectly matched by the mesmerising movements of two dancers. For a counterbalance, I then went to see Augustus Williams & Souci, a producer-DJ duo born out of the Detroit-Berlin residency programme, organised by Musicboard Berlin in collaboration with Detroit-Berlin Connection, which aims to foster a connection between the birthplace of techno and the city of clubs. Two weeks prior to the festival, I met Detroit producer Augustus Williams, who had only been in Berlin for a fortnight, but was already brimming with enthusiasm for the city: “I’ve never seen people appreciate electronic music as much as they do out here, more than anywhere else I’ve been.” While I have the feeling that the awareness of techno’s origins is slowly growing here in Berlin, Augustus tells me about the many artists who have little opportunities back home in Detroit, let alone outside of it: “There’s a lot of talent in Detroit that nobody really knows about. When they go to Detroit, they want the big three [editor’s note: Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins]. And they’re great artists. I have nothing to take away from them. I think they’re great, but I want to be the person that gives the new generation, or the current generation, a new voice.” He performed at the festival with Souci, a Berlin-based DJ who had come to Detroit for her part of the residency. His goal, he told me, was to bring his local sound to Berlin and showcase the richness and amount of talent in the Detroit scene: “Back at home is a lot of competition, you know, like it’s Detroit, you know, the Techno City. So to be nominated to represent my city is a very big honour for me.”

“I’ve never seen people appreciate electronic music as much as they do out here, more than anywhere else I’ve been.”


My evening was capped off by two German-based rap artists who proved the diversity within the scene with their respective shows. ALBI X draws on his upbringing with complex identities and is now a master at breaking down boundaries. He mixes Lingala, French and English, combines drill with Afrobeats and switches between rapping over a live band and a DJ. He was followed by Kwam.E, who heated up the room one last time with his mix of contemporary and old-school hip – hop.

This festival isn’t just about bringing new acts to the stage; it’s a powerful reminder that our musical choices carry a political punch. In an age where algorithms keep us in our musical comfort zones, Pop-Kultur disrupts the conventional curatorial cycle and has certainly challenged my expectations. It reshapes our perception of pop music, pushing the boundaries of the genre and even critiquing the entire music industry, all while delivering an electrifying performance. If you were in the crowd, you were likely to find yourself wedged between a label owner, an artist post-show and a random passer-by filling the gap. Probably not the easiest of audiences – or as Sho Madjozi put it: “I felt they needed a bit of convincing. But then I felt that afterwards we got them.”

Photography courtesy of Camille Blake and Dominique Brewing.