PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In the midst of his dissertation fieldwork, Benjamin Teitelbaum found himself in a scary situation. He was headed out of a Stockholm subway station for an interview when he got a text message: “You’re being followed, so don’t try anything.” Teitelbaum was meeting a member of the Swedish nationalist movement, and his interviewee, no stranger to threats from anarchists and other left-wing extremists, had his own safety in mind when he sent out the text. It was a moment that left Teitelbaum, who had been previously undeterred by more overt threats of violence at skinhead rallies and concerts he attended as part of his fieldwork, questioning for the first time whether he should continue with the project.
“The much more calculated, deliberate, cold message that I was being followed by a bunch of people in the middle of Stockholm, that was much more concerning [than the previous incidents]. It was a feeling I never had before,” Teitelbaum said.
Ultimately, Teitelbaum went to the interview. “It was the most tense first meeting I ever had, but it ended up being very productive and we got along quite well actually.”
To Teitelbaum, ethnographic fieldwork was key to the research, and it’s partly that perseverance that won him the 2013 Joukowsky Family Foundation Outstanding Dissertation Award in the Humanities for his study “Come Hear Our Merry Song:” Shifts in the Sound of Contemporary Swedish Radical Nationalism, an examination of how radical nationalists are using music to redefine themselves and the populations they claim to fight for. Teitelbaum will receive his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at Commencement May 26.
In his nomination letter, Marc Perlman, associate professor of music, wrote, “Radical nationalists generate a lot of texts. ... Teitelbaum could have chosen to study them from a distance simply by reading those texts. He chose not to do so, a choice that is all the more impressive when one realizes the practical challenges (and even dangers) of his field research. ... Teitelbaum’s ability to develop the rapport necessary to successful fieldwork, despite his subjects’ prejudices and his own feelings of revulsion and fear, are a model of good ethnographic practice.”
Swedish culture — music specifically — has long been an integral part of Teitelbaum’s life. When he was in middle school, Teitelbaum began to take an interest in his mother’s Swedish background, and started to learn the language and travel to the Scandanavian country to visit with family members. Later, he took up the nyckelharpa, a traditional string instrument, and received postsecondary schooling at the Eric Sahlström Institute for Swedish Folk Music, The Royal College of Music in Stockholm, and Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, sometimes referred to as “Little Sweden, USA.”
When it came time to begin his dissertation at Brown, Teitelbaum was certain that Swedish folk music would be his topic of choice. Those plans began to shift, however, as Teitelbaum sat in his wife’s family farm in western Sweden one evening in September 2010 watching the live results come back from the day’s national election. For the first time in the nation’s history, a nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats, won seats in Parliament. As coverage of the party’s success proliferated, party members used the media attention to declare a platform that would strip funding of programs that, as they described them, promoted multiculturalism and cultural elitism and increase funding for traditional Swedish culture, including Swedish folk music.
What interest, Teitelbaum and many of his fellow folk musicians wondered, does a right-leaning party have in a politically left-leaning music genre? And with that question, Teitelbaum’s dissertation began to take shape, shifting to a focus on all musical practices and discourses in the Swedish nationalist movement.
Radical nationalism has, in the past, been referred to by scholars and journalists as right-wing extremism, organized racism or the race-ideological underground. Participants can include militant neo-Nazis, white nationalists, ethnic separatists, anti-Islam activists, and ultra-social conservatives. Their political stances may differ, as can the definition of the “national people” that they fight for. But among all of them, the ideology is similar: that purity of national culture must be maintained at all costs. Consequently, immigration and globalization are seen as significant threats.
From the height of its popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, music has gone hand-in-hand with the Swedish nationalist movement. In its earlier days, the nationalist movement’s soundtrack skewed largely toward loud, screaming, heavy-metal white-power music that promoted violence and hatred toward minorities, and its image was commonly associated with skinheads.
Fast-forward two decades to the Swedish Democrats’ seemingly incongruous embrace of Swedish folk music: “The nationalists were wanting to change their image from rowdy hooligan skinheads into being more proper people who really just love Sweden and Swedishness,” said Teitelbaum, who spent two years interviewing and spending time with people involved with the movement in order to understand this shift.
Teitelbaum also notes that folk music was not the only genre to be adopted by the radical nationalist movement. At other times in the movement’s history, pop, reggae, and rap have also been brought into the fold. One of the most notable examples of this is the music of Saga, a female pop singer whose music inspired the Norwegian mass murderer and self-identifying nationalist, Anders Behring Breivik. Much of the goal of these types of music, according to Teitelbaum, is to portray nationalists as victims with lyrics that, instead of the violence of white-power music, describe the injustices and assault on their culture that they claim to endure.
“With reggae and rap, the lyrics have to do with equalizing their cause for freedom, as they would put it — freedom from ethnic diversity, freedom from any kind of genocide against whites — and putting that in the same category as black nationalism,” Teitelbaum said. “The use of rap is also how they align themselves with being more oppositional, more broadly speaking. They’re the ones fighting against the status quo, not the leftists.”
The Sweden Democrats’ folk music campaign failed to take off as they had hoped: “There are many indications that the public recognizes the social divide between these people and the practitioners of folk music today,” Teitelbaum said. But music still plays an important part in the broader radical nationalism movement. Many extremists still listen to white-power music, while others continue to identify with the other genres that Teitelbaum analyzes. Still, all of them see music in one form or another as a way to create an identity boundary between them and those they consider outsiders.
Teitelbaum now heads the Nordic studies program at the University of Colorado. While his goal was never to become an activist researcher, Teitelbaum says he wouldn’t have an objection to his work being used to better understand and work with subversive groups like the Swedish nationalists. “These are very marginalized groups that are never going to gain appreciable political power, but the important battle is within the mainstream as they decide how they’re going to respond to (the movement), what parts of the grievances of these groups should be taken seriously and what parts shouldn’t be. A more critical antiracism, a better-informed antiracism, that would be a fine outcome of this.”