Dutch contestant Joost Klein booted from Eurovision hours before tension-plagued final

MALMO, Sweden (AP) — The Netherlands’ contestant in the Eurovision Song Contest was dramatically expelled from competition hours before Saturday’s final of the pan-continental pop competition, which has been rattled by protests over the participation of Israel.

Competition organizer the European Broadcasting Union said Swedish police were investigating “a complaint made by a female member of the production crew” against Dutch performer Joost Klein. The organizer said it wouldn’t be appropriate for Klein to participate at the event in Malmo while the legal process was underway.

Though Eurovision’s motto is “united by music,” this year’s event has proven exceptionally divisive. Israel’s participation has attracted large pro-Palestinian demonstrations, with protesters saying the country should be excluded because of its conduct in the war in the Gaza Strip.

READ MORE: Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters march against Israel’s participation in Eurovision

Klein, a 26-year-old Dutch singer and rapper, had been a favorite of both bookmakers and fans with his song “Europapa.”

He failed to perform at two dress rehearsals on Friday, and the EBU had said it was investigating an “incident.” Though rumors had been flying that the incident was connected to Israel’s delegation, organizers said that it “did not involve any other performer or delegation member.”

Dutch broadcaster AVROTROS, one of dozens of public broadcasters that collectively fund and broadcast the contest, said that it “finds the disqualification disproportionate and is shocked by the decision.”

“We deeply regret this and will come back to this later,” AVROTROS said in a statement.

It all makes for a messy climax to an event that draws both adoration and derision with its campy, kitschy ethos and passion for pop.

Thousands of people gathered in central Malmo on Saturday to march for the second time this week through Sweden’s third-largest city, which has a large Muslim population, to demand a boycott of Israel and a cease-fire in the seven-month war.

In Finland, a group of about 40 protesters stormed the headquarters of public broadcaster YLE on Saturday morning, demanding it withdraw from the song contest because of Israel’s participation.

Several kilometers from the city center at the Malmo Arena, 25 acts — narrowed from 37 entrants by two semifinal runoffs — are due to perform three-minute songs in front of a live audience of thousands and an estimated 180 million viewers around the world.

Tensions and nerves were palpable in the hours before the final. Several artists were absent from the Olympics-style artists’ entrance at the start of the final dress rehearsal, though all but Ireland’s Bambie Thug went on to perform.

The Irish performer issued a statement saying the absence was due to a situation “which I felt needed urgent attention from the EBU” and telling fans: “I hope to see you on the stage later.”

French singer Slimane cut short his song “Mon Amour” at the dress rehearsal to give a speech urging people to be “united by music, yes — but with love, for peace.”

This year’s Eurovision entries range from emotional to eccentric. They include the goofy 1990s nostalgia of Finland’s Windows95man, who emerges from a giant onstage egg wearing very little clothing. Bambie Thug summons witchy spirits onstage and has brought a scream coach to Malmo, while Spain’s Nebulossa boldly reclaims a term used as a slur on women in “Zorra.”

The favorites include Swiss singer Nemo — who would be the first nonbinary Eurovision winner if their operatic song “The Code” tops the voting — and Croatia’s Baby Lasagna. His song “Rim Tim Tagi Dim” is a rollicking rock number that tackles the issue of young Croatians leaving the country in search of a better life.

Dean Vuletic, an expert on the history of the contest, said that despite the contest’s reputation for disposable bubblegum pop, Eurovision often tackles “political and social issues such as feminism, European integration, gender identity.”

“And I think they’re the very interesting songs to look out for, especially because they’re the most highly ranked by the bookies,” he said.

Sometimes, though, songs run afoul of the contest’s ban on openly “political” statements. Eurovision organizers told Israel to change the original title of its song, “October Rain” — an apparent reference to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed about 1,200 people in Israel and triggered the war in Gaza.

Israeli singer Eden Golan has shot up the odds since performing the power ballad, now titled “Hurricane,” in Thursday’s semifinal. Golan faced some booing at dress rehearsals, but was voted into the final by viewers around the world.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised 20-year-old Golan for performing despite “contending with an ugly wave of antisemitism.”

Protesters argue that Israel shouldn’t be allowed to take part amid a war that has killed almost 35,000 Palestinians, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

“I don’t think they should be a part of it at all because they are committing crimes against humanity,” local resident Lorenzo Mayr said.

A few Palestinian flags were waved in the auditorium during Saturday’s dress rehearsal, in defiance of a ban on flags other than those of competing nations.

The competing musicians are feeling the pressure, inundated with messages and abuse on social media and unable to speak out because of the contest rules. Italy’s contestant, Angelina Mango, made a statement by walking into the Eurovision media center on Friday and performing John Lennon’s “Imagine” as dozens of journalists gathered around her.

Swedish singer Loreen, last year’s Eurovision champion — and one of only two performers to win the contest twice — urged people not to shut down the “community of love” that is Eurovision.

“What is happening in the world today and in different places is distorting and traumatizing all of us,” she told The Associated Press.

“What heals trauma … Does trauma heal trauma? Does negativity heal negativity? It doesn’t work like that. The only thing that heals trauma for real — this is science — is love.”

Associated Press writers Hilary Fox in Malmo, Sweden, Jari Tanner in Helsinki, and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

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