LONDON, the United Kingdom — With her stage performances in flowing robes and colorful turbans, Esma Redzepova, also known as “the Queen of the Gypsies,” was one of the most famous Romani singers in the world until her death at 73 in 2016. However, Redzepova’s humanitarian engagement is also well-known.
Who is Esma Redzepova?
Esma Redzepova was a Macedonian Romani singer and songwriter born in Skopje in 1943 as the daughter of a Muslim Roma mother and a father of Catholic Romani and Jewish origin. Her musical endeavors started at the age of 9 when she joined a music group at school.
Redzepova made her first public appearance in 1956 when she performed a traditional Macedonian Romani song, “A bre babi so kerdžan” (Oh Father, What Have You Done) on Radio Skopje. Being a Romani singer and performing Romani music to a wider audience was taboo in Yugoslavia but Redzepova still composed and sang songs in the Romani language. Her performances in various languages, such as Macedonian, Turkish, Greek, Hebrew and Hindi, contributed to the growth of her fame both in Yugoslavia and across the world, which resulted in the diminishment of prejudicial attitudes toward her based on her ethnic Roma identity.
Redzepova was the first Yugoslav artist to give a concert at the Olympia in Paris in 1962. Moreover, in 1976 she performed at the First Romani Music Festival in Chandigarh, India, where she received the title “Queen of the Gypsies.”
In the post-Yugoslav period, Redzepova started to perform as an artist in North Macedonia. Despite facing racism and prejudice throughout her life and career, she always expressed her love for her country and continued performing music.
In 2006, the Borat movie starring Sacha Baron Cohen featured her famous song “Chaje Shukarije” (Beautiful Girl). American National Public Radio announced Redzepova as one of the 50 greatest voices in the world in 2010. Also, Redzepova represented North Macedonia in Eurovision Song Contest 2013. Redzepova passed away in Skopje in 2016 at the age of 73 after years of humanitarian work and a commitment to empowering the Roma.
Who are the Roma?
Brittanica explains, “The Roma are an ethnic group of traditionally itinerant people who originated in northern India and today live worldwide, principally in Europe.” According to the 2021 census from North Macedonia’s State Statistical Office, Romanis constitute 2.53% of North Macedonia’s population, which equals 46,433 individuals.
Despite laws specifically prohibiting discrimination, the stigma lingers and discrimination against the Roma still continues. “Segregation at school and poor quality instruction contribute to high drop-out rates,” Minority Rights Group International reports.
Low levels of education contribute to difficulties securing employment, which leads to a dependence on social benefits and staggering unemployment rates among the Roma. Furthermore, “limited resources oblige many to live in substandard housing conditions; and lack of electricity, safe drinking water and sanitation results in ill health which, coupled with the discrimination in access to public services, ultimately leads to a lower life expectancy,” Minority Rights Group International highlights.
Esma Redzepova’s Humanitarian Engagement
Apart from her success on the musical stage, Redzepova was a pioneer of Romani rights and a humanitarian activist. “If you have a little bit more of something, share it” — this stood as Redzepova’s motto in life as she devoted herself to the help those suffering from disasters, discrimination, poverty and lack of education. Here is a list of Redzepova’s humanitarian engagements and accomplishments:
- Together with her husband, she fostered 47 children during the 1970s and 1980s.
- Redzepova and Ensemble Teodosievski have hosted more than 8,000 concerts, about 2,000 of which had humanitarian causes, in more than 30 countries. She aimed to raise funds for humanitarian purposes beneficial for people from all backgrounds, including the Roma.
- Macedonian Red Cross gave her the role of honorary president due to her extensive work with Romani refugees from Kosovo.
- Due to her passion for advancing women’s rights, in 1995, inspired by Redzepova, the Macedonian Association of Romani Women renamed the association “ESMA.”
- UNICEF honored her in 2002 as the UNICEF Ambassador for Refugees in Macedonia due to her aid concerts, activism against racism and other humanitarian work.
- Redzepova received nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize twice.
Redzepova targeted the Romani community of North Macedonia because she wanted to support this marginalized group with efforts to dissolve prejudices against them and diminish poverty among them by advocating for them and raising funds. However, Redzepova’s humanitarian engagement had never been limited to the Romani people, leading her to become a star among Macedonians from all ethnic backgrounds.
The legacy of “Chaje Shukarije” (Beautiful Girl) lives on through Redzepova’s music and impactful humanitarian work.
– Murathan Arslancan