How did Tina Turner become an unlikely icon in Albania?

“Tina Turner, the ‘Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ passed away peacefully today at the age of 83 after a long illness at her home in Kusnacht near Zurich, Switzerland,” her publicist said in a statement Wednesday.

News of the American-born soul legend’s passing sparked an outpouring of tributes from around the world with countless music fans, singers, athletes and politicians taking to social media to celebrate her life and many achievements.

With her powerful ballads and catchy dance hits playing non-stop on the radio and her music videos dominating TV screens, I was also reminded of all the times Turner and her music had touched my life. And my memories of her immediately took me to what may seem an unlikely place – the Albanian port city of Durrës.

As a socio-cultural anthropologist who studies race and belonging, I have long conducted research in Albania and Eastern Europe on questions of identity formation, cultural practices and globalization.

In 2018, while visiting Durrës, I came across a life-sized bronze statue of Turner in a café-lined square not far from the beach. Alongside statues of Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Bob Dylan, Turner’s figure holding a microphone in a minidress and high heels was a clear sign of her global influence.

I have visited the country regularly since 2006 and even lived there for a while. I was not surprised that Turner was honored in this way in an Albanian city.

During my time there, I often heard American rock music in cafes, bars and lounges. On windy roads from north to south, I sat next to bus and van drivers who continuously played rock music—and often Turner’s music—on their radio and sang along with all the lyrics. “We Albanians like rock ‘n’ roll”, people would exclaim. “For us, this music is the best!”

I remember sitting in a cafe near my apartment in central Albania once while the owner played songs from Turner’s Private Dancer album. I started singing along and when our eyes met he put his thumb up and said, “Kjoështë më e mira [She is the best]!”

Turner never gave a single concert in Albania, but she is an icon of freedom and power in the eyes of many Albanians.

There are several reasons for Turner’s extensive appreciation in Albania and other parts of Eastern Europe.

For nearly 47 years, Albania experienced what many believe was the most restrictive communist regime in Eastern Europe. The country’s dictator, Enver Hoxha, ruled the country with a iron fist and worked to sever all contact between Albanians and the Western world. Movement outside the country was very limited and internal movement was also tightly controlled. The state-run radio and television stations broadcast little other than state propaganda. Access to music and media from other countries was severely restricted, and while some residents made surreptitious attempts to access Western popular culture, many did not because the consequences of breaking the law were severe.

Hoxha died in 1985. In the years following his death, communism in Albania, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, slowly began to disintegrate and the country began to open up to the West. The early 1990s, the era when Albanians were regularly exposed to Western music, coincided with the pinnacle of Tina Turner’s long and illustrious career.

As the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Turner represented the freedoms of the West in Eastern Europe during a period marked by optimism and anticipation of a brighter future. Albania was the last country to officially overthrow its communist regime in 1991, and many of these efforts have been led by young people eager to connect with and participate in the global community. Despite the fall of the regime, leaving Albania was not necessarily easy, and many people faced challenges as they tried to break into new territory. But the spread of music was an outlet that allowed Albanians to travel and imagine themselves in new ways.

Turner’s personal story of perseverance and strength, surviving years of domestic violence to become a superstar, also resonated with the people of Eastern Europe, who endured several deadly conflicts and waves of violence in the decades following the fall of state socialism. experienced displacement. Turner’s life story and music gave hope to millions across the region.

In a 2021 episode of The Voice from Australia, for example, the British-Albanian singer Rita Ora was moved to tears after a contestant’s performance of Turner’s cover of Proud Mary. Ora talked about her childhood struggles growing up in the UK and feeling so different from the people around her. She said Turner was her inspiration and idol during this difficult time.

Despite never reaching Albania to see her statue, Turner has visited Eastern Europe several times during her long career. In 1975 she gave a concert in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia. In the 1980s she also performed in Bulgaria and Poland. Her performance in Poland in 1981 was particularly well received for providing a brief escape from stifling political and economic crises.

The Turner statue in Durrës was reportedly removed during a reconstruction project in 2022 and is still awaiting relocation. Despite the temporary removal of the statue – which had become a tourist attraction in its own right as many tourists flocked to Durrës Promenade to take pictures with her – Turner’s legacy lives on in Albania.

Popular Albanian music artists such as Russian era have released covers of Turner’s songs, such as The Best. Even younger generations of Albanians, unfamiliar with the role she played in uplifting people in the 1980s and 1990s, seem equally fond of the American singer. In 2019, a contestant performed Turner’s Proud Mary on The Voice Kids in Albania to an enthusiastic audience. And people across the country have listened and danced to Turner’s music at weddings and family gatherings. Her music videos also continue to be streamed regularly by many in the region.

Turner was a legend – a giant. How did a black American woman born in the South in the 1930s achieve this kind of fame in Eastern Europe? Her popularity speaks to her talent and the power of her voice. But it also speaks to her tenacity, her passion and the appeal of her message of strength, freedom and perseverance.

This week, Turner’s fans are mourning her death, but despite her physical absence, her legacy will undoubtedly live on in Albania and around the world.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author himself and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.