Lepa Brena was the most famous Yugoslav singer of the 1980s. Today she continues to personify Yugoslavia to many.

Iris Andrić & Vladimir Arsenijević (ur.) Leksikon YU Mitologije, Zagreb: Postcriptum, 2005.

Lepa Brena’s name would mark the final decade of our country. Critics and small-town people were amazed and the masses flocked to her as if in a daze, like to no one else ever before.

A mere year after her arrival on the scene, she’s breaking all records. She goes from a caricature of an entry to the scene to mainstream superstardom (Brenomania), becoming both a one-of-us and a larger-than-life figure, using Western-style promotion tactics.

When at a stadium in Sofia, she, like Mick Jagger, walks to the stage on the hands of the audience and sings “Živela Jugoslavija,” 100,000 people explode in ecstasy. When she intones “Tu je rođen maršal Tito, naše ime ponosito, k’o heroja ceo svet ga zna…,” the applause is so loud we’ve never heard it before. We all understood the message from the TV screen: slaves in the neighboring darkness experienced our country as freedom, and Tito’s name as its symbol. Without coercion, without anyone else’s prompting, they thought it on their own.

Later, at home, she sang, a little bit out of conviction, a little bit out of calculation, and quite a bit out of desperation, “I am a Yugoslav”, but believing in the song less and less.

Brena was at her peak when the country she belonged to with her own substance collapsed. Lepa Brena—the greatest estrada star of the SFRY history.

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In 1985, for the first time the chant, “Mi smo Brenini, Brena je naša” is heard (in Mostar, at a Veleža stadium concert attended by 25-30 thousand people) in an echo of the slogan, “Mi smo Titovi, Tito je naš.”

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Ana Hofman, “Lepa Brena: Repolitization of musical memories on Yugoslavia,” Glasnik Etnografskog instituta, Vol. 60 (2012): 21-32 [pdf]

The association of Lepa Brena with Yugoslavia is more than explicit. She represented a Yugoslav mainstream culture policy project and was in fact the biggest Yugoslav and the first big Balkan star. Her public persona embodied multicultural Yugoslavia in all aspects of her public appearances.

Her repertoire was mainly based on newly-composed folk music but also included elements of different genres of the so-called “entertainment music, rock, samba, and tango. Her discography includes several patriotic songs, which became extremely popular, including “Živela Jugoslavija” (1985) and “Jugoslovenka” (1988) – she was the first newly-composed folk music performer who introduced a patriotic content in her songs. Lepa Brena managed to mobilize wider audience that consisted of people who did not particularly consume such music before.

In contrast to the other folk performers, who were widely popular but who mainly performed in the smaller concert halls and clubs (particularly in Slovenia and Croatia), she held concerts in the biggest arenas across Yugoslavia, as no performer of this genre has ever done before. During her career, she recorded 18 albums, shot 5 movies and 2 TV shows, and became the most popular public figure in Yugoslavia and the first one having a Barbie Doll made after her. As a symbol of socialist Yugoslavia, she opened the Winter Olympic games in Sarajevo in 1984.

She was also extremely popular in other Balkan countries where she served as a specific “window” to the West and a sign of the level of liberalization and democratization. She was one of the most important Yugoslavian entertainment industry export product in the East, and a mark of success of the Yugoslav liberal-socialist project, being the first Yugoslav star who performed successfully in concerts abroad.

In that way, intersection of Brena’s public persona, her musical (self)representations and (class, ethic, gender and other) subjectifications, as well as active public utilization of all these aspects unravels a complex relationship between emotional, social and political attachments with the Yugoslav past.

Original English
Odakle si lijepa djevojko Where are you from, beautiful girl
Ko ti rodi oko plavetno Who gave you the blue eye
Ko ti dade kosu zlačanu Who gave you the golden hair
Ko te stvori tako vatrenu Who created you so fiery
Oči su mi more Jadransko My eyes are the Adriatic Sea
Kose su mi klasje Panonsko My hair is Pannonian grain ears
Sestra mi je dusa Slovenska My sister is a Slavic soul
Ja sam Jugoslovenka I am a Yugoslav (woman)
Odakle si lijepa djevojko Where are you from, beautiful girl
Gdje si rasla cvijece proljetno Where did you grow up, spring flower
Gdje te grije sunce slobodno Where did the free sun warm you
Kada pleses tako zanosno When you dance so seductively
Odakle si lijepa neznanko Where are you from, beautiful stranger
Gdje si krala sunca bjelilo Where did you outshine king sun (?)
Gdje si pila vino medeno Where did you drink copper wine
Kada ljubis tako sladjano When you kiss so sweetly
Lepa Brena Jugoslovenka Video

Screenshot from the “Ja sam Jugoslovenka” video

The website TekstoviPesama.net describes the song thusly:

“It is an unofficial anthem of the former SFRY and Lepa Brena’s greatest hit. It brings us back to more better times, so in many people it evokes nostalgia. The lyrics are about a girl of innocent and strange beauty who is in fact Yugoslav. The song is often played and sung today, which speaks to its success and great popularity. Although Yugoslavia no longer exists, the continues to live and will remain for a long time one of the biggest music hits in this region.”

The Serbo-Croatian-language Wikipedia page: “Today’s commentators and analysts consider [the song] Brena’s contribution to the preservation of the fragile and ill but liberal ideas of Yugoslavia and the common Yugoslav state.”

The Serbian-language Wikipedia pages: “Lepa Brena was proud of the country where she lived and she really reflected the spirit of Yugoslavia.”

The Croatian Wikipedia contains no descriptions of the song.

Lepa Brena Jugoslovenka Video

Screenshot from the “Ja sam Jugoslovenka” video

Lepa Brena in the Media

Ana Hofman, “Lepa Brena: Repolitization of musical memories on Yugoslavia,” Glasnik Etnografskog instituta, Vol. 60 (2012): 21-32 [pdf]

As she promoted her comeback, in 2008 and 2009, she tried to escape her image of the Yugoslav star and rarely expressed any kind of longing for the past. In her interviews to different media, reference to Yugoslavia was always indirect.

She usually avoided conversation about socialism and avoided terms such as socialist or Yugoslav, instead using more neutral phrases such as “former/old times.” She was particularly careful not to give any reason her statements to be interpreted as Yugonostalgic and also tried to distance herself from expressing any political or engaged stance, particularly explicit patriotism or nationalism: “I loved Yugoslavia like a German loves Germany or a Japanese loves Japan. That was the love, which everyone should have for their own country. This kind of love I have for Yugoslavia.”

Being recognized as one of the main symbols of Yugoslavia, she attempted to reclaim her association with the political system. Comparing Yugoslavia with the EU enabled her to legitimize her stance on Yugoslavia as a good project.

When asked what the lyrics of “Jugoslovenka” meant to her today she replied: “This is a love song and it is not important if you sing it to the country in which you, your mother or your pet lives. The most important thing is that ‘pure emotion.’ That is what people miss.”

She avoided exposing a nostalgic attitude which she obviously saw as inappropriate and (maybe) potentially harmful for public perception of her and her career in general. In this respect she stressed that her career was independent from any political system; she never mentioned Yugoslavia as a political entity, Tito or “the socialist past” but rather referred to it just as a shared geographical and cultural space. She presented her attitude toward the Yugoslav past as longing for the time marked by peacefulness, stability, and traveling in light of the current post-socialist insecurity, volatile social climate and restriction in mobility. She tried hard to avoid any politicization of her words and any connection with the socialist past that can have political connotations.

The reactions of people discussing and attending her concerts opened a space for mediation between various (and contested) interpretations of the past, particularly for the narratives potentially subversive in the mainstream discourses. Her music was predominantly used as a strategy of reconciliation and mediation in the post-Yugoslav conflict. Namely, many people expressed the stance that the painful memories of the war should be left behind as a kind of victory of the future over the past. Narratives of the tolerance, “good old values,” and free travel as the benefits of the socialist era were put in the framework of universal democratic values.

Yugoslav musical production was generally perceived as being of better quality both in terms of music and production. Its multicultural character was emphasized as extremely important attribute, which made it more creative and artistic in comparison to the current national music productions.

Discourses of Yugoslav transnationalism/multiculturality and mobility were thus placed in the broader frame of Europeanization discourses, which also revealed the intentions to legitimize new links with the past and Yugoslav legacy.

The discourses of transnationality of Yugoslav musical scene and its strong market potential were predominantly built on the genre of Yugoslav “entertainment music” and particularly Yugoslav rock. Folk music production was not seen a part of Yugoslav legacy, but more as an “eastern product” of the so-called “Yugoslav orient” (Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia). In “eastern” republics it was very often perceived as a foreign imposition of the oriental, Balkan part of the socialist Yugoslavia.

In Brena’s case, the fact that her music was associated with the Yugoslav past assigned an additional potential to newly-composed folk music to be used as a cosmopolitan and multicultural genre in rebellion against national culture politics. The audience perceived it as a shared musical form, a practice that embodied their everyday cultural consumption in Yugoslavia.

“Poslednja Jugoslovenka” (The Last Yugoslav (woman)), Vreme, 6/19/2008 [pdf]

She was the greatest and unprecedented star of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

That the end of Yugoslavia coincided with the end of Brena’s popularity is another proof that this woman was for many one of the symbols of Yugoslavia.

She was the first estrada star to translate the newly-composed folk music from the village into the urban environment, and is the first to apply marketing tactics typical of rock bands.

Men liked her because was a prototype of a Balkan beauty, tall, with long legs. Women identified with the “gentle woman,” whose beauty rested in her heart “and not in her body or her hair.” The working class who migrated from villages to cities recognized “the accordion plays disco” aesthetic. Kids liked Brena for the cheerful hits. Little girls saw in her what they wanted in their Barbie dolls: long-haired blonde with nice clothes.

Today, everybody loves Brena because she is a symbol of a time that wasn’t so long ago or that great but remembered as the last moments before the catastrophe when we were all happy, care-free, tall and blonde. Just like she was.

[An appended interview with Lepa Brena]

Q: For many people when they recall Yugoslavia the first association are Tito and Brena. How do you see this country from today’s perspective, in the sentimental as well as in the market sense?

A: I was very familiar with the former Yugoslavia, in a both sentimental and market sense. My career lasted nine years: from 1982 to 1991. (…) I liked that we had six republics and two provinces, a stable currency, and a president who led a phenomenal foreign policy. We had open borders, passports, and no one asked us for a visa. (…) I know it was much more peaceful, though maybe I was too young to understand the circumstances at that time.

Similar to the former Yugoslavia, today we have a united Europe. (…) We are still focusing on the past while the world has taken great strides forward.

When Yugoslavia broke up, I could not work anymore here so I went abroad. But now I have invitations from every former republic and I plan to unify them with tour with my new album.

“Lepa Brena: Nisam ni Hrvatica ni Srpkinja, ja sam Jugoslavenka!” Indeks, 12/8/2008

Lepa Brena: “If someone has the right to declare themselves as a Croat or a Serb, I have the right to declare myself a Yugoslav. Yugoslavia was special in many things. I admit, I am Yugonostalgic. ”

“Lepa Brena: The Last Icon of Brotherhood and Unity,” Elevate, November 2013 [pdf]

Lepa Brena and her band Sweet Sin were the best-selling and most sought-after performers in the history of former Yugoslav music back in the 1980s. They were the subject of social analysis, as they represented a unique social phenomenon, but also the last icon of Yugoslavism, memories of happy days in the socialist country that it was prior its collapse and which was home to a working class with a desire for joy.

She was the first to sense the arrival of the era of consumerism – a consumer society to replace one made of workers.

[S]he brought the newly reworked folk music to urban environments, to halls and stadiums, and magnetically attracted the masses of the wider public that were unaccustomed to seeing scantily-clad singers in live interaction with the audience.

No one anywhere in Yugoslavia prior to her, nor later, managed just a year later, in 1982, to sell [as many albums]. Nor had any previous singer been discussed at a session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Serbia. Brena’s popularity was discussed in 1983 primarily because of the fear that her overnight popularity threatened the treatment of reports on the work of the party and functionaries in public media outlets, in terms of both allocated space and time.

No one prior to her had been so in-demand and so present in the media. Nobody in the entertainment world of Yugoslavia had previously made such smart business moves. [S]he is also the only living singer to actually have a street named after her while she was still alive, in the village of Donja Rača near Kragujevac. She (…) sang in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sarajevo.

After Tito, her likeness became the most powerful embodiment of the idea of Yugoslav and a carefree life.

[In 2013] she released her 20th album, celebrated 35 years of her career, delighted the public with two more spectacles where – just like at all of her concerts – the spirit of togetherness could be felt. That’s because it was never important to her or those who love her where people come from, and Brena actually says that in the lyrics of one of her latest tracks, when she asks “is it important that I sing (peva) or sing (pjeva)?” And that’s how that is still done by one of the most beloved Yugoslav ladies of all time.

“Lepa Brena: Jugoslavija je bile EU prije EU,” Moj Kotor Varoš, 10/25/2016

Lepa Brena: “I loved Yugoslavia.”

“LEPA BRENA ISKRENO: «Posle raspada Jugoslavije nisam bila dobra u Srbiji, Bosni, Hrvatskoj… jer sam bila Jugoslovenka»,” Slobodna Bosna, 12/7/2016

Lepa Brena: “[In 1991] Lepa Brena was expelled from this area. No one needed me anymore, and I wasn’t any good for anyone. I was targeted as the biggest Balkan star, which was as popular as Tito. Everyone wanted to drag me through the mud and erase my name. I was no good in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia because I was a Yugoslav. For me Yugoslavia was a cosmopolitan country whose president was worshiped by the whole world.”

“Lepa Brena: Nisam Jugoslovenka, te zemlje više nema,” Večernje Novosti, 2/27/2017

The celebrity singer who never concealed being Yugonostalgic and yearning for those times, said that between 1991 and 1995 she realized how many people loved to throw in the mud of someone who was successful.

LB: “I won’t say I’m a Yugoslav because that country no longer exists. All of us who lived in Yugoslavia loved each other and we were delighted to go to Ohrid, Montenegro, Bled, Croatia to the sea. I like this area, this people and customs. I was afraid during the period of nationalism and chauvinism because I’m a pacifist and a cosmopolitan and I always liked and respected everyone’s religious and national affiliation.”

“Lepa Brena: U Jugoslaviji smo imali manje para, ali smo bili sretniji i mirnije spavali,” Klix, 4/26/2017

Lepa Brena is an icon of Yugoslavia, a brand and a symbol of a time.

The star and the symbol of the former Yugoslavia with a light smile on her lips and spark in her eyes speaks of the “golden age” of socialist Yugoslavia in which he grew up.

LB: “In the country we called Yugoslavia we slept more peacefully, we had less money and we wanted a lot, but it was nice and we were happy. For most people who lived in Yugoslavia those times were happier. People today lost their soul, nobody looks no one else in the eye. Everything has lost some charm because it’s all available now, and quickly.”

With the breakup of Yugoslavia, LB lost her market. “From 1991 to 1996 I was banned in our entire area because I liked being a Yugoslav, even though they were all so proud of the same thing up until that time. Suddenly they all began to declare themselves along religious and national lines, and I could not change. I am what I was in the sixties when I was born.”

“LEPA BRENA ŠIRI BRATSTVO I JEDINSTVO: Folk diva na turneji po Americi raširila zastavu SFRJ i zapevala Jugoslovenku!” Kurir, 4/15/2018

At a concert in Toronto, Lepa Brena grabbed a Yugoslavia flag from an audience member in the front and displayed it on the stage, to the delight of the arena.

“Brena tvrdi da je kolateralna šteta raspada Jugoslavije” CDM, 10/17/18

Lepa Brena: “There are several moments that were really disastrous for all of us, and for me, personally, it was the breakup of Yugoslavia, because Lepa Brena was collateral damage.”

“Zastava SFRJ osvanula u krcatoj Areni: Kada je Brena zagrmela sa “Jugoslovenkom”, svi su pali u trans!” Telegraf, 10/20/18

During the “Jugoslovenka” song she performed at the Zagreb Arena, a flag of Yugoslavia appeared in the audience.