On December 17, 2007, just two months before declaring its independence, Kosovo had an international musician perform in its capital for the very first time: 50 Cent. Still haunted by the ghosts of their troubled past, the evening became a deeply poignant moment in the story of their soon-to-be nation. Thomas Andrei and Tom Hale take a look back at the event through the eyes of the people who lived it.
Backstage, Petrit Selimi is more excited than nervous. In a few minutes, 50 Cent will take the stage at Pristina’s city stadium. For over an hour, 25,000 Kosovars have been waiting in an open-air stadium amidst freezing -15° C weather, not quite believing the biggest hip-hop star of the moment is about to show up. As a cascade of black cars approaches the dilapidated stadium, news spread that 50 is actually here. Selimi sees him before the gig starts. He high-fives 50 and takes a look at the crowd. “Their faces were shining,” he remembers. “When  got on stage, the stadium roared. I [know] that the whole city could hear it. I still have shivers when I talk about it.”
If Selimi was shivering, it was not just because 50 Cent was the first international artist to ever play in his hometown. Two months, to the day, later, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, eight years after an exhausting war. “There was a very noticeable expectation of an historic time coming. A palpable expectation of statehood made the atmospherics very special that winter,” Selimi says. Today, the 38-year-old is the head of a development fund in Kosovo. He was also the Minister of Foreign Affairs of this young nation for six months. Back in 2007, Selimi worked as the head of PR for an new phone company, IPKO, which just had entered the local market and was looking to generate interest.
“The director was an old friend of mine,” he says. “They just sold themselves to a Slovenian company which had millions of euros to spend for media-buying or advertising.” Selimi gave them a bold idea. “I told them, bring something or somebody big to Kosovo,” he says. “We are in 2007, approaching independence, and people in Kosovo need a sign that they’re part of the global scene.” He also struck up a plan to charge just €5 for a ticket with a free SIM card attached. IPKO went for it.
In September of that year, Selimi started to book the event. He first tried Beyoncé, but her busy schedule made getting her to Kosovo impossible. 50 Cent, on the other hand, was amenable and available to perform six weeks later. It’s tight, but Selimi convinces 50’s management that Kosovo is a safe place. The deal is sealed.
When the show is announced, few people in Pristina believe it. The Italian pop star Eros Ramazzotti was rumored to perform there a few years earlier but never showed up. The war might be over, but Kosovo was far from being a “normal” western country. Yet Pristina had already become a concrete jungle, far from the small town it was before the war between Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia and the Kosovo Liberation Army, which took 13,000 casualties.
“Everywhere in the world, you have big artists coming to do big concerts. We never saw that in Kosovo.”
The stadium in Pristina was lights years away of the usual glitz expected for international performers. From the early 1990s, the stadium was prohibited to the ethnic Albanians, the largest ethnic group in Kosovo. During the war, a former Serbian police station used to stockpile weapons just next to the stadium; it was later bombed by Tomahawk missiles launched by NATO in 1999. Even more tragically, the nearest train station was used to take Albanians to Macedonia for ethnic cleansing. “There was a heavy symbolism to set up a concert where war crimes were happening not so long before,” Selimi says.
The day of 50 Cent’s arrival, the train station was still in ruins and the stadium was far from ready. “It was in very bad shape,” Selimi continues. “The stadium had not been renovated for 20 or 30 years… We paved the roads around the stadium so cars could get in and out safely. There weren’t even any toilets.” The city had no luxury hotels, either, so Selimi had to renovate the very unassuming Hotel Pristina, on top of painting a whole suite in red, as requested by 50 himself.
Local rapper BimBimma recalls 50’s rock star demands: “Come on! That is quite something to ask, for a room to be painted red. How important is that to your mood? It’s just unnecessary.” Born and raised in Pristina, BimBimma was one of the rappers who opened for 50 Cent. (He also helped 50 find a weed plug before the gig.) To him, the support spot wasn’t such a big deal. “My dream came true when I opened for Method Man and Redman, years later,” he says. Nevertheless, the wider significance of the concert was not lost on him. “We had a feeling [like we were] being integrated into the normal world,” he says. “Everywhere in the world, you have big artists coming to do big concerts. We never saw that in Kosovo. It was a new step for our culture.”
50 Cent has just hit the tarmac in a private jet with Tony Yayo, Lloyd Banks and an entourage of 12 other people. Selimi, the show’s other organizers and a stream of security drive the guests to the hotel where they sip champagne together, eat pizza alongside local Kosovar food and chat about the city.
Elsewhere, BimBimma is getting ready to perform. He walks out onto the stage and gazes at a crowd so packed there is barely room for anyone to move. The collective warmth is a plus for everyone who has come to witness the mid-December spectacle. (“Because it was winter, it was too slippery, 50 slipped and almost broke his neck!” BimBimma remembers. “He was about to cancel the show. He must have been wearing trainers in Pristina in December.”) But the city is not thinking about about the weather, nor are they particularly experienced at going to open-air concerts, and women show up in mini-skirts while men only wear T-shirts.
Buzzing from his performance, BimBimma and his crew bury themselves into the crowd. 50 Cent bounces onto the stage and lands straight into his hit songs: ‘Candy Shop’, ‘In Da Club’, ‘21 Questions’ – tracks that were once only heard by Kosovars on the radio and grainy streamed videos. His platinum microphones fail twice from the cold but it hardly ruins the night’s momentum. Most of the crowd can barely speak English, but an overwhelming number can rap along to 50’s songs.
“He was a messenger of a new chapter being open in Kosovo.”
Dren Ukaj, a medical student and a rapper, who was just 12 years old at the time, laughs as he looks back on the evening: “50 cent asked the crowd, ‘How many of you smoke weed?’ Everyone raised their hands, even though they didn’t know he was talking about.”
In the years running up to independence, almost a quarter of people in Kosovo were unemployed. Although rap’s themes of poverty and oppression deeply resonated with them, the decadence was something totally alien. “I remember 50 Cent took his jacket off and threw it in the crowd,” Ukaj says. “It was expensive. I heard he also threw money [out of his car window] when he was leaving. Everyone went to take the money. It was not a lot of money, but it was a privilege to take it from 50!”
Ten years on, 50 Cent’s appearance in Kosovo is still talked about. Many young Kosovar artists who attended, or just felt the buzz elsewhere in the country, have come to see it as their pivotal creative spark. Ukaj calls it “a big inspiration, like a push,” but it is still much larger than an anecdote to pass around at parties. The concert put Kosovo on screens across the world – it was reported by MTV and it found the country back on the BBC and CNN, this time for positive reasons. “It puts Kosovo on the global stage for reasons which were not political, but actually musical,” Selimi says. “It’s very important in the nation-building process and even for the membership in UN.” More important than politics, though, Selimi says 50 Cent helped the citizens find hope: “He brought normality to the lives of young people. He was a messenger of a new chapter being open in Kosovo.”
Thomas Andrei is a Corsican journalist based in London. He writes about music, football, separatism and people. Find him on Twitter.
Tom Hale is a London-based journalist who writes about culture, science, history, the future and anything in between. He’s also on Twitter.