Fresh Generation are a street dance crew from Sarajevo, formed in 2009 by a group of high schoolers who loved to dance hip-hop. Tarik Osmanagić and Dženita Hasečić are the founding figures of the group although many of the advanced dancers in the crew have been alongside their journey from the start. Since their conception, they have grown a great deal, from dancing on the street to pass time to: providing dance classes for local youth; competing and judging in state dance competitions across the Balkan region; organising events; performing in national TV campaigns and advertisements; and even getting involved with thought-provoking, humanitarian international projects. As a registered organisation, one of their explicit objectives as listed in their ‘Status’ (in BiH, a registered organisation has a list of legal objectives called their ‘Status’) is to get kids out of trouble, off the streets, and bring them into a place where they can find community. They champion building together and learning socially through experience. On a deeper, more personal level, they believe that the power of self-expression through dance – for them, hip-hop freestyle – can facilitate a healing journey that can benefit anyone who is drawn to the style. They carry with them a philosophy of humanity that is always being reviewed through experience, thought, and time and is expressed through the dimension of hip-hop dance.
The Origins of Hip-Hop
The origins of hip-hop culture itself is something that Fresh Generation holds in high regard and strives to honour. Although the details can be dissected and discussed in great depth, hip-hop is generally known to have emerged from the Bronx, New York around the 1970-80s. Hip-hop culture is defined by a creative and collective struggle against racism, extreme poverty, crime and excessive, racially-motivated incarceration. It is loosely defined by four main pillars: DJing, MCing, b-boying (otherwise known as breakdancing), and graffiti art. What is so interesting and unique about hip-hop culture is that since its early days of creation, it has grown exponentially both at home in the USA as well as across the world. So, although hip-hop originates from the socio-political struggle of African-American, and to a lesser extent Latino, people (a context which prevails today – although this is a topic for a different article), it has been absorbed by cultures across the world, many of which have little to no personal connection with the struggle that created it. There are many key elements of hip-hop culture that allow it to resonate with different people despite this: in particular, the process of building a multi-dimensional piece in a creative and expressive way as a response and resistance to social discord and oppression. Systems of power and discrimination are sadly found in various forms across our globe. This essence of shared pain being processed and overcome collectively and artistically – whether as an artist or a consumer – can be felt and understood by people of all backgrounds.
Contextualising Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)
In order to appreciate Fresh Generation’s story, it is necessary to introduce Sarajevo and BiH more generally as the rich cultural hub it is and to recap the unfortunate events of the 90s. BiH has a long and rather unique history, from standing as the autonomous Medieval Kingdom of Bosnia, to being under Ottoman rule for over four hundred years until the early 1900s. In the century to follow, BiH was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian empire before comprising one of the six republics of the Former Yugoslavia, which itself took on a number of forms. Following the dissolution of the south Slavic state, BiH declared independence in 1992. It is a geographical and cultural crossroads, where for hundreds of years followers of the Muslim, Christian Eastern Orthodox and Catholic faiths – among other notable ethnic groups including Jews and Roma – have lived together in relative harmony. This was especially true in Sarajevo: inter-religious friendships and families were and still are common, and you can still find mosques, Orthodox and Catholic churches, and synagogues in the same neighbourhood. This characteristic mixing of faiths led to Sarajevo’s nickname as the ‘Jerusalem of Europe’.
During the violent Bosnian War – during which Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks found themselves in a shockingly brutal conflict – Sarajevo went from being a space of relative tolerance to one engulfed by war. In 1992, Bosnian Serb forces besieged the capital, which endured near-constant shelling from the hills for 1,425 days (the longest-lasting siege of a capital city in modern warfare)[i]. When the forces finally withdrew on the 29th of April 1996, Sarajevo had been reduced to a shell of its former self. Key cultural buildings were partly or totally destroyed, including structures such as the Vijećnica (the city hall) and National Library (home to two million books and many rare manuscripts, all set on fire), hospitals, residential homes, and government buildings. The World Health Organization announced as early as 1993 that an estimated 60% of housing had been damaged already.[ii] By the end, a majority of Sarajevo’s buildings had been damaged to some extent.
The Dayton Agreement, signed in December 1995, marked the official end to the war. The political system it established is, however, far from satisfactory – for everyone involved. As a result, BiH has the most complex political system in Europe, and perhaps even the world, where regions and presidencies are divided along ethno-religious lines. There are two separate entities (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which only the Croat and Bosniak president can be voted for and run in; and Republika Srpska (RS), which is the same for the Serb president – meaning Serbs living in the Federation cannot vote for the Serb leader nor run for the position, and vice-versa for Croats and Bosniaks in RS. Furthermore, many towns within RS were notoriously ethnically cleansed of the non-Serb population during the wars, including Prijedor[iii] and Srebrenica[iv]. Many other instances of ethnic cleansing took place across the entire country, further complicating state politics, an example being a small condominium (the Brčko District) with the three aforementioned presidents serving on a rotation basis. Not only is the government, as a concept, extremely confusing, but practically it is very difficult to get progress in motion as politicians struggle to come to agreements and corruption is rife. Developments are only just starting to be made in recent years and the funding coming from outside the country is often underscored by conflicting political ties. Unemployment rates have been and still are enormous, whilst wages are low. BiH has unfortunately remained in a sorry post-war state for the last 25 years.
This socio-political context of poverty, violence, collective trauma, and lack of opportunity is relevant to Fresh Generation’s story on a number of levels. One of the first things that came up in my conversation with Dženita was the importance of providing the youth with a sense of community that exists independently to and above the ethno-religious divisions that persist in BiH.
“Identity is something we all struggle with in the Balkans ever since the collapse of Yugoslavia. As well as this, the options available to us are very specific and very limiting – you have to pick from the options you are given. Hip-hop dance culture allows us to create something that’s above all that, which is not just an external Western influence being imposed on us, because we choose it. And for that reason it gives another texture to our society. There is that artistic note in it and through dance – especially freestyle where you can really express yourself – our kids come to that moment of self-realisation.”
She went on to explain how the students go through processes that can, over time, be applied to daily life. At the first level, students learn the technicalities – the steps and routines – whilst simultaneously learning how to relax. As they master both their moves and their nerves, the movement and the music begin to work together and to flow through the body more naturally. Dženita points out that this is a process that does not come easily, nor in a linear fashion. Through their training the students learn to be vulnerable in front of one another, and so build a deep sense of community. This same process relates to anything in life: things must be gone through, learned, and felt in order to experience development. Lessons like these are useful for anyone, but their impact on a young person growing up in a post-war society such as BiH cannot be understated. Being raised by a generation that survived war and siege is a complex identity to navigate, not to mention the general lack of access to opportunities we take for granted in the West. Learning to handle the self, gain confidence and connect with others is invaluable in aiding the individual and has real potential to influence the country as a whole. It is, after all, the younger generation who will one day grow to lead the country.
Fresh Generation and their Regional Reach
In 2011, individuals from Fresh Generation’s advanced dance group began to partake in state competitions across the Balkans, visiting regional cities such as Zagreb, Ljubljana, Belgrade and Novi Sad. They have won awards in their specific categories many times over the years, as both individual dancers and adult formations. Several senior dancers – including co-founder Tarik – eventually became part of the judges’ panel for the hip-hop divisions in some of these contests, even influencing the axes on which the dance battles were being judged to better fit the hip-hop style as previous methods for judging more classical styles were being used ineffectively. As well as this, Fresh Generation helped to organise competitions and events themselves, including the first JAM session in Sarajevo. They have appeared on national TV advertisements (Ultra Dobra Svima, a commercial by BHTelecom- one of BiH’s main telecommunication providers) and have also enrolled their students in performances and children’s competitions. These initiatives comprised a massive part of Fresh Generation’s contribution to the local community, beyond just running dance classes. Dženita made the comparison of participating in a competition to public speaking, pointing out that a special kind of self-confidence comes from both, and that the experience is valuable irrespective of what the kids go on to do later in life. Moreover, the opportunity to travel to different cities across the Balkan region allows the children to experience a cultural exchange with their neighbours. Although much of the new generation living in the former Yugoslavia do not hold the same ethno-religious hatred that is more prominent amongst older generations, it cannot be dismissed as an unimportant issue. These dynamics permeate Balkan societies to this day. On discussing travelling across the region and visiting different cities, Dženita shares that:
“Even though we had some feelings that things might be different, we never felt something negative from fellow dancers – if anything all of them have always tried to approach us and talk about regular things and find a way to connect with us. I would say this is even natural among people that engage in a particular activity – whether it be sport, music, or something else artistic. I don’t think people will ever consciously infiltrate politics in that way, instead they will always try to find another mode of understanding one another.”
Exchanging ideas, ways of moving, experiences, and perspectives enriches the life path of everyone involved. These cultural exchanges add a new dimension to their understanding of life that will stay with them and inform the way they navigate their journeys outside of the dance floor. In the Balkan context this is even more important, helping rebuild bridges that the dissolution of Yugoslavia so violently burned down.
International Projects and Underlying Philosophies
In 2014, Fresh Generation’s founding members were approached with an opportunity to take on an organisational role in an international project. This project was called Post-14, focusing on 100 years of war and peace in BiH. In 1914, the Austo-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, which is often regarded as the event that triggered World War I; later followed by the Second World War; and, of course, the events in the 90s during the collapse of Yugoslavia. The goal was to create a theatre piece in collaboration with hip-hop dancers from Germany, France and Romania, and it began with all the dancers staying together in a school dormitory in Sarajevo. From there, they visited a number of sites relevant to the theme, including part of the border between France and Germany that was particularly violent during WW2. They then visited Srebrenica together, the biggest wound of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where in the summer of 1995 Serb forces exterminated over 8,000 Bosniak boys and men over the course of eleven days. Srebrenica had prior to this atrocity been declared a UN safe zone. In regards to this trip, Dženita comments:
“I still get chills when I think about it. It was beautiful, we were in a bus singing songs all together, and then we witnessed this place of senseless horror. Many kids from Germany shared that, in their education system, they have to visit some of the Nazi concentration camps to learn, and yet even today we still do not have something like this in our country at all. We do not even have history books that are truthful. The books stop, but the history teachers – this is a common thing, at least in the Federation of BiH – the teachers will say ‘the book stops, but kids, I will now tell you a story’. And this is one that everyone knows to some extent, either from their parents or from life in general, because you do not have a child today that has not been influenced by what happened.”
Post-14 is one of many rolling two-year projects funded by the diocese of Trier, Heiner Buchen. Each project is structured so that in the first year the dancers stay in a country of relevance to the theme, and in the second they perform their theatre pieces in festivals across Germany. Fresh Generation contributed to all the projects following Post-14, including Ohne Stimme (‘Without a Voice’, 2016/7) which focused on the Roma people and their struggles across Europe. Next, in 2018/19, the project theme was ‘Passages’, which drew inspiration partly from the thinking of Jewish-German philosopher Benjamin Walter, reflecting on migration and the refugee crisis that was taking place at the time. Another touching story Dženita shared with me was in relation to Passages: a teacher from Syria brought some of her Syrian students, many of whom had lost their parents in the ongoing Syrian war, to watch one of the premieres. After the performance, the children and dancers had a chance to speak to one another and Dženita shared with me that the children thanked the dancers for sharing their stories.
“Sixty of us who were performing were all crying. But I think there is a certain poetic, higher goal in our taking part […] We learnt so much from it, and it’s amazing how such troubles among human kind are so consistent, this thinking that someone is better than another – discrimination of any kind, something that is very connected to hip-hop culture and its creation, and that brought us to this project.”
Although Fresh Generation, being a hip-hop dance crew and school, may seem at first glance just like a bit of fun and exercise, it is clear to me from following their journey that their purpose is much deeper. There is a driving force behind this passion project, unmistakably borne from the pain and suffering endured by the people of Sarajevo. What I find particularly touching is the way in which this group, coming from a somewhat disconnected place, have interwoven humanitarian issues of power and discrimination in various parts of the word into their thinking. As mentioned, the style of dance itself, to begin with, comes from the Black American struggle. The focus of their international projects shift continuously. The most recent project, ‘Fragile’, explored the effects of COVID-19 through the lens of capitalism, the environment, and how our current exploitative human systems lay exposed in the wake of a global pandemic.
Fresh Generation are activists in their own right. They recognise that, across our planet, there is an interconnecting web of pain caused by oppression, and that none of these instances are entirely mutually exclusive. Through teaching, reflection and movement, Dženita, Tarik and the others comment on global stories, and encourage their students to do the same. This type of work is of deep value. Fresh Generation involves a dimension of teaching that is missed out on in Bosnian schools (due to national and partisan politics) with the goal of aiding self-expression, therapy and working towards realising humanitarian causes in a creative way. Abandoning borders, they try to make sense of the senseless whilst helping individuals in their city consolidate the difficulties of growing in a post-war context.
You can follow Fresh Generation on Facebook by their name, or on Instagram by searching the handle @freshgenerationsarajevo.
[i]K. Morrison, P Lowe, Reporting the Siege of Sarajevo, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.
[ii]United Nations, ‘Study of the battle and siege of Sarajevo – part 1/10’, 1992, Final report of the United Nations Commission of Experts established pursuant to security council resolution 780 (1992)
[iii] United Nations, ‘Prosecutor vs Du[ko Tadi]’, 1999, International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia since 1991. https://www.icty.org/x/cases/tadic/acjug/en/tad-aj990715e.pdf
[iv] United Nations, ‘UN court upholds Ratko Mladić convictions and life sentence’, 8 June 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/06/1093582