Azis was born in Bulgaria’s only women’s prison – ever since then the flamboyant musician has risen to the top and enjoyed an endlessly taboo-breaking career in his home country
“Gypsy music makes you feel things that you wouldn’t have expected that kind of music to make you feel. You know the saying ‘if you’ve never made love to a Gypsy, you’ve never made love?’” Bulgaria’s biggest musical star, Azis, is talking about his taboo-breaking career. Today, the word “gypsy” is heard less and less. Yet, Azis is fiercely proud of his heritage and he refers to himself as such throughout this interview.
His popularity has reached dizzying heights; he was the most Googled name in Bulgaria in 2015 and the YouTube video of his latest release ‘Habibi’ has reached over 27 million views. Back in March the New York Times’ put “Habibi” alongside tracks from musical giants like David Bowie and Justin Bieber on its list of “25 songs that tell us where music is going”.
As recently as five years ago it would’ve been unlikely that an artist from Eastern Europe presenting a very specific musical genre, as Azis does, would have gained recognition from a major international publication. But things have changed. “The publicity around me and my song ‘Habibi’ gave me wings that no other singer in Europe has been given,” he says. “That’s a fact, because the only non-English speaking performer on that list is me,” the singer states.
Perhaps best known for his outrageous style, his cross-dressing and his flamboyant persona (as well as his hugely popular music), Azis’ story isn’t a typical one and his path to stardom hasn’t exactly been conventional. Why? Because he’s a Gypsy. And he’s gay. These are two things that might not matter in more liberal western societies today, but in a conservative country like Bulgaria, where gay men and people of Roma origin have traditionally been ostracised and kept out of the limelight, Azis’ story is pretty exceptional.
Born in 1978 as Vasil Troyanov Boyanov, the star came into the world in trying circumstances, when his mother gave birth to him in Bulgaria’s only women’s prison at the foot of the Balkan mountains in Sliven, central Bulgaria, after she was incarcerated under the communist regime for selling imported clothes, a crime in those days. In theory, Azis’ beginnings should have disadvantaged him from day one.
“When I was a child, I wasn’t treated very well. Children can be cruel. They teased me and I was avoided because of the colour of my skin and also because I was quite feminine,” he explains. And yet, the star has managed, against all the odds, to come out on top. When I put that idea to him, his answer is surprising. “If I told you that my success was unexpected, I’d be lying. I was just eight years old when my teacher asked me ‘when you grow up, what are you going to be?’ I answered ‘I’m going to be a star’".
“If I told you that my success was unexpected, I’d be lying. I was just eight years old when my teacher asked me ‘when you grow up, what are you going to be?’ I answered ‘I’m going to be a star’" – Azis
Azis has emerged from post-communist Bulgaria’s most popular musical genre, Chalga. It’s a blend of Roma, Turkish and Bulgarian folk with a sprinkling of Arabic influence all wrapped up in an oversexed Bulgarian pop parcel. Chalga emerged in the mid-1980s, an explosion coming out of a suppressed subculture. Under communism, every aspect of Bulgarian cultural life was controlled by the state. The ruling communist party’s message was clear: with hard work and clean living you could achieve a workers’ paradise. Everything was state owned and controlled rigorously. Private enterprise didn’t exist. Radio, TV, recording companies, shops, even bars and restaurants were all state-controlled and no spontaneous musical creativity was allowed to flourish without the blessing of the state because anything not contributing towards a socialist ideal was seen as ‘subversive’.
This included folk music, which was sanitised before being broadcast. But people did still listen to non-state music behind closed doors, with neighbouring Serbian and Greek folk music trickling through along with some Western pop. When Bulgaria left communism behind in 1991, Bulgaria’s own form of pop-folk – Chalga – burst onto the scene. A product of the working classes and the disempowered, Chalga proved immediately popular and created its own culture. Much in the same way as grime in the UK has been demonised for its lyrics referencing sex, drug-dealing, violence and gang-related crime, Bulgarian politicians and the mainstream press also condemn Chalga as a dangerous subculture. Like all subcultures, Chalga is seen as subversive because it challenges the middle-class self-righteousness of decent living that many Bulgarians espouse, but really it’s just about the music and people turning their backs on the prescriptions of the status quo.
Bulgaria is exactly placed between East and West. For 500 years it was part of the Ottoman Empire, leaving Bulgaria with a rich heritage of minority ethnic groups all with their own cultural traditions. Azis and his music is a product of that. His most recent song “Habibi”, meaning sweetheart in Arabic, is sexed up Gypsy music which will sound familiar to anyone who’s heard Turkish or Bulgarian folk music before. The introductory riffs of the song are also reminiscent of Spanish flamenco, itself with Arabic roots.
Azis rode on the wave of Chalga’s popularity and is still the genre’s darling, but his upbringing also exposed him to American pop influences. As a young boy growing up in the immediate aftermath of communism’s fall, the singer was able to watch and listen to American pop. “My inspirations were Madonna and Michael Jackson, they were the only ones that kept me up all night,” he says. While his music has stuck to its traditional Chalga roots, the performance styles of those Western artists certainly influenced the young Azis’ style. Watching Madonna, “I imagined myself in fishnet tights and with ribbons in my hair,” he recalls.
“My inspirations were Madonna and Michael Jackson, they were the only ones that kept me up all night. I imagined myself in fishnet tights and with ribbons in my hair” – Azis
The singer is just as famous for his outrageous style as for his music. Openly gay, he’s endlessly daring and inventive with his appearance, which has been changing constantly ever since he arrived on the scene over 15 years ago. “I thought up every one of my different images. Sometimes I was fat, sometimes I was thin, sometimes I had blue eyes, sometimes I had dark eyes. I’ve been a woman and man. In my life, what haven’t I been?” he says.
Visually, Chalga is extreme. Women look like pornstars and the men masquerade as pimps and gangsters. Until quite recently, Azis adopted some of the more extreme Chalga styles. In every music video and performance the singer takes on a different persona, sometimes in sequins and stilettos as a Chalga diva, sometimes in extreme drag, and sometimes referencing sado-masochism.
“I live for the moment, perhaps today I feel right with long, blonde hair, tomorrow I’ll have black hair and after that a shaven head. Over the years I’ve never borrowed my style from anybody,” he explains. Watch the artist’s music videos and it’s easy to get carried away by this hypnotising human chameleon. But close your eyes and you’ll notice that the melodies are complex.
“My music touches people in a very different way – first it makes you feel sad, then it makes you explode. It makes you jump on a table, drunk with emotion and passion,” the singer explains. If you speak Bulgarian, though, you’ll notice a difference between some of the artist’s more hardcore lyrics, which have outraged conservative Bulgarians, and more tender love songs full of longing and romance. “My image has nothing to do with my music. My music is tender and melting. The images of myself that I created over the years have ranged from wicked to soft and gentle. My image has never dictated my music or the lyrics,” he says.
Azis’ courage in not hiding his sexuality and referencing gay sex and relationships has seen the singer become an icon for queer people in Bulgaria, perhaps to his own surprise. “At the beginning, when I presented myself with the appearance and styling of a woman I never thought that I was liberating so many gay people. I never hoped that I would come to represent the symbol of an ultimately free person in Bulgaria!” he exclaims. Since starting his career, huge numbers of people have written to the singer, telling him how difficult it was for them before he arrived on the scene he tells us. He is one of the only performing artists across Eastern Europe to be brazenly and unashamedly gay.
“Maybe the reason I’m here on this planet is to help people not to be afraid to be different? To not hide themselves away and to walk with their heads held high,” he reflects. However, as popular as he is, Azis has certainly had his fair share of controversy. In 2007, billboards of the artist and his partner Niki Kitaetsa kissing shirtless were censored by then mayor of Sofia, Boiko Borisov (now the country’s Prime Minister), with the rest of Bulgaria following suit shortly thereafter. The images were taken down on the grounds that they were too graphic in nature. These same billboards were stuck up alongside hyper-sexed adverts featuring half-naked young women selling cigarettes, booze, cars and even central heating. The message? Sex sells, but only straight sex is allowed.
“Maybe the reason I’m here on this planet is to help people not to be afraid to be different? To not hide themselves away and to walk with their heads held high” – Azis
In 2011, his video for “Hop” saw the artist placed alongside an entourage of muscular young men semi-naked in a traditional Russian banya. The tub they’re in is labelled “Russia” and they cavort in the steam to some pretty explicit lyrics referencing gay sex. In 2012, Azis’s video for “Mrazish” (Hate) was used by unidentified hackers linked to Anonymous who took over the website of Moscow’s Khamovnichesky Courthouse when it sentenced Pussy Riot to jail time. While it has to be said that Azis didn’t have anything to do with the hackers’ use of his video, the lyrics of his song, which talk about the destructive nature of vanity and self-aggrandisement, was a clear ‘fuck you’ to the Russian authorities.
These days Azis doesn’t dress so controversially. “My current style is probably the most acceptable to the public – jeans, t-shirt and I’m ready, ” he explains, acknowledging how shocking his earlier looks were to a conservative Bulgarian public, “Before, I wore 20cm stilettoes, dresses with open backs, tiaras…. now I don’t need them, people have seen enough”. Contemporary Bulgaria is very different to the one of the early noughties when the artist first emerged – Bulgarian youth today is far more engaged with the outside world than before. Ten years ago, the previously poverty stricken, ex-communist state started to experience a flood of Western influences, with Western stores and satellite TV with US channels like MTV becoming available. At the same time more and more young people have left to study abroad, and so the new generation has had its eyes opened to different ways of living and to different cultures. Being gay is no longer such a huge taboo and certainly since Azis’ advent on the scene, gay people and others who are different aren’t so reviled by society. As Azis puts it, “I don’t think it’s as bad now as it used to be. I think that people who are different can be seen on the streets of Bulgaria and they’re able to breathe a bit more freely.”
The musical traditions of his homeland have allowed him to create an individual musical style that he’s now taking to New York. “These are a people who have suffered a lot but nevertheless have the most beautiful music in the world. Bulgarian folk music is the most beautiful thing on this planet, you need to listen to it,” he says. Coming from a Roma background, Azis was already part of a subculture that refuses to compromise its way of life to please the mainstream. As Azis puts it, “I myself am a Gypsy and I know how to handle my culture and the way I live my life”.
While it might be easy to look at him as an anomaly and as someone who’s simply made shockwaves in Bulgaria through being different, putting Azis’ life under a microscope just highlights how he embodies so many things that are at the forefront of society’s thinking right now; gay rights, race issues, the New Europe, the influence of Russia. With all of this in mind, it’s little wonder that Azis, Bulgaria’s Gypsy folk-pop sensation, was featured on a high-profile list of where music is headed.