Belgium’s national soccer association ended a collaboration with rapper Damso on Friday after protests from women’s groups, politicians and corporate sponsors that his lyrics were sexist. Damso was to create the country’s official song for the World Cup, which begins in June in Russia.
But the choice of Damso, whose songs feature threats of violence against women and crude references to the female anatomy, has instead inflamed tensions between fighting sexism and freedom of expression.
The Royal Belgian Football Association said Tuesday that it would not be “taken hostage” by the controversy. But in the early hours of Friday, it announced that it had ended the collaboration with Damso “by mutual agreement,” according to a statement.
The association went on to say, “We especially wish to apologize to all those who felt offended, discriminated against or diminished by the choice of the artist in question.”
Gendered insults and sexist intimidation were outlawed in Belgium in 2014, partly in response to a 2012 video taken with a hidden camera by Sofie Peeters, a film student, that showed her being showered with harassment and insults as she walked through Brussels.
Bianca Debaets, a local politician in Brussels, told the website Euronews that Peeters’ film should be screened for Damso and the national soccer team.
Zuhal Demir, minister for equal opportunities in the Belgian government, also criticized the choice, pointing out in a statement on Facebook that if Damso’s lyrics were directed at women in public, they would be illegal.
Damso has also attracted criticism from Muslims for a line in a 2015 song, “Pinocchio,” in which he describes performing a certain sex act on a woman and says, “and yet you wear a headscarf.”
In an email Thursday, Demir said that she recognized Damso’s “artistic right to make these songs” but that the question was whether “we want to promote Damso and the way he views women.” Others saw a free-speech issue.
An editorial Thursday in the Dutch-language paper Het Laatste Nieuws in Belgium said that replacing Damso would amount to a “festival of censorship.”
Damso did not respond to requests from The New York Times for comment. In interviews in the Belgian news media, he denied charges of sexism and laughed off criticism, saying he viewed the controversy as free advertising. He told the Belgian website Alohanews that his critics were lazy and had not taken the time to understand the codes of rap music.
In its initial statement, the Belgian soccer association had defended Damso as the “proud father of a young girl,” as an “immigrant artist who grew up in the streets of Kinshasa,” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and as “an example of integration.”
Demir said that using the rapper’s immigrant status to defend sexism was “way out of line and insulting to immigrants.”
Women’s groups have worked to influence the soccer association by targeting its corporate sponsors over the last few days: An open letter to the chief executives of those companies asked them to drop their backing for the Belgian team because of the lyrics, which were said to “express hate, abuse and violence toward women to a degree that is frankly stupefying.”
In the statement Friday reversing course, the Belgian soccer association said, “Unfortunately, this implies that there will be no official song for the 2018 World Cup.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.