Dua Lipa, Rita Ora, Ava Max, Bebe Rexha....
UNTIL RECENTLY the most famous ethnic Albanians were Mother Teresa (a nun who cared for orphans and lepers in India) and Enver Hoxha (a homicidal communist despot). Now to the saint and the sinner must be added the singers.
They are everywhere. Dua Lipa has 55m monthly listeners on Spotify, a music-streaming platform. Bebe Rexha has 24m. Rita Ora (pictured) has had five British number one singles and has been a judge on “the X Factor”. Era Istrefi sang at the football World Cup in 2018. Njomza Vitia, a singer-songwriter, and Labinot Gashi, a rapper, have global followings. Ava Max’s sexy single “Sweet but Psycho” is universally considered more fun than Hoxha’s literary offering, “Albania Challenges Khrushchev Revisionism”.
All these megastars of Albanian heritage except Ms Istrefi grew up in the diaspora. Ms Lipa, Ms Max, Ms Rexha and Ms Vitia were born, respectively, in London, Milwaukee, Brooklyn and near Stuttgart. Only Ms Max has roots in Albania itself; the rest are of Kosovar descent, save Ms Rexha, whose family come from North Macedonia.
Throughout history, says Dukagjin Lipa, Ms Lipa’s father, Albanians have been squashed, but the success of this generation of musicians shows that “given the chance, we excel.” The stars of the diaspora often perform back home, wrapping themselves in Kosovar or Albanian flags.
Besa Luci, editor of Kosovo 2.0, a magazine, says they clearly feel a need to represent the nation and in return earn an outpouring of love. “My heart bleeds Albanian blood,” said Ms Rexha on a visit to Albania. In July Ms Lipa courted controversy by tweeting a map associated with extreme Albanian nationalists showing a vast Greater Albania. She later said her post had been “misinterpreted”.
The parents of the stars who grew up abroad left the Balkans in the turbulent early 1990s. But it was not always a story of refugee rags to riches. The Ora and Lipa families were part of Kosovo’s elite. Both girls attended a top performing-arts school in London.
The pop stars, along with a clutch of Albanian footballers in top teams across Europe, play an “incredibly important role” in helping to change Albanians’ image from one of conflict, says Petrit Selimi, a former foreign minister of Kosovo. In 2016 an unusually demure Ms Ora performed in Rome to celebrate Mother Teresa’s canonisation.