Charlie Artingstoll argues Myanmar’s vibrant hip hop scene is a microcosm of the national political sphere.
This piece looks at the history of Myanmar’s hip-hop scene in a historical and international context and tries to determine to what extent it can be considered political. It also places the debate in the wider legal-economic context of the music industry in Myanmar as a whole.
An unintentional side effect of a half-century of isolation is that, in Myanmar, unlike most other countries in the world, local language music is much more popular than international (i.e. English language) music. This is refreshing, given the homogenization of music tastes and omnipresence of Justin Bieber and One Direction elsewhere globally. To contrast, in France, for example, in order to protect from what is seen as a “Anglo-Saxon cultural invasion”, the law states that 35% of songs played on French radio stations must be in French, otherwise the stations will lose their licenses. No such problem exists here with Burmese language songs remaining more popular than English ones.
One of the most vibrant and interesting genres of Myanmar music over the past 20 years has been hip-hop. Hip-hop in Myanmar is divided into three ‘generations’, depending on when the artist/group first came to the scene. The First Generation began with Acid, a group who are known as the founding fathers of Myanmar hip-hop and are credited with releasing the first hip-hop album in Burma, written during one of the darkest times in this country’s political history.
In 2000, the group released their first album, Sa Tin Chin (Start), and despite being ridiculed by the ‘pop-heavy’ Burmese music industry at the time as being doomed to fail, the album was a huge success. Interestingly, many songs of the First Generation are familiar to western audience because the music was often taken from western songs. This was simply because they were not able to write their own hip-hop beats yet.
Take this song, Kyi Nay Ya by Acid featuring Sai Sai— a young rapper who we’ll get back to later— the beat is taken from an Eminem song. While songs like this might seem bizarre – these copy songs, known in Burmese as ‘Copy Thachin‘ were commonplace in the Myanmar music industry until recently. Dr Ferguson, a Research Fellow at The University of Sydney, argues that the rise of the copy songs in the 1960s is in part a result of the Burmese authorities realizing that allowing copy songs (with government approved lyrics) would prevent international catchy rock and roll tunes (with potentially subversive lyrics) from reaching the public.
The Second Generation fought against these copies, wanting songs with more Burmese beats rather than those taken from elsewhere. They also wanted a harder sound, and artists such as J-Me, Bigg-Y, G-Tone, Kyak Pha, YaTha pushed back against the censorship status quo. Originally releasing tracks from 2003 onwards, these are the musicians who are still around today, with J-ME currently topping the Myanmar charts with his new album, Inheritance.
The Third Generation were Soundcloud rappers before Soundcloud was invented— that is to say, they are characterized by the mass spread of clandestine (and often explicit) mixtapes online. The technological advances that started to reach Myanmar from 2005 onwards, namely personal computers with CD writing, and later, online capabilities, allowed for the distribution of music faster, and, more importantly, in a less traceable manner than ever before.
Whereas being a singer before required a studio and a distributor— both very tangible entities that could be held responsible for any lyrics that were inflammatory; the Third Generation was centered around underground home recorded mixtapes that would gain a wide following, all whilst remaining outside the purview of the censorship board. Bypassing the censorship board allowed these songs to be much more explicit in lyrical content— though artists were still living in a police state and still faced arrest if they pushed the boundaries too far.
Fight the Power – Is it political though?
Much of the online literature on Myanmar’s hip hop centers on it being political and its primary role is viewed as a medium for social and political critique. Ethnological journal articles have even been written on the subject.
On one hand, the idea of Burmese hip-hop being a political tool fits quite well into a romanticized narrative in which a brutal military dictatorship oppresses people to the edge of submission, wherein people employ hip-hop as an outlet for political resistance, and harness the genre as some kind of Zeitgeist to mobilize the people to democracy and freedom. On the other hand, this is not really the case primarily because all music that was released in Myanmar had to be approved by a government censorship board. Anyone who tried to circumvent this was simply thrown in prison.
The opposing view is that the genre is simply about bling and babes and bravado— an ethnographic study on the subject argues that the content of Burmese rap is less about the political, and more focused on ‘reflecting a libertarian ideology in keeping with its emphasis on the autonomy of individuals and widespread anxieties of and about young males in particular. This is true to an extent, in that most Burmese rap has never been explicitly political in content in a traditional sense. However, this view misses the point. It’s not so much about what these songs say, but more about the fact that these songs are saying anything at all— pushing against censorship boards and the social status quo or bypassing them entirely— and that, in itself is a political act.
Going back to the First Generation, Acid’s music is unavoidably political— not necessarily because of content (the lyrics of this album would be considered quite politically tame by western standards), but simply because releasing an avant-garde angry hip-hop album in a brutally conservative military dictatorship in itself is a political act. Releasing the album understandably put them into dangerous territory (one of the members was imprisoned for 6 years for his political activism, the other for holding $20 in foreign currency— back then it was a crime).
Furthermore, releasing a hip-hop album at the time was problematic as the government censorship board demanded manuscripts of songs and insisted on changing anything that was overtly political, in any way inflammatory, or just abnormal. They developed their own subtle, tongue-in-cheek slang terms which allowed them to criticize what was happening at the time, simply because the board would not understand what they were rapping about.
Every single lyric was an uphill battle. An example that the band likes to give is when they were questioned over the use of ‘old school’ in their lyrics. They managed to pass by the committee by convincing them that they were actually just saying ‘old screw’. Eventually the songs got through the process but the group says that the censorship reviewing and editing process was repeated ‘thousands of times’.
However, an irrefutable example of the political nature of Myanmar hip-hop can be found in the election song of Aung San Su Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
Anyone living in Yangon in 2015 will recognize this song, which was played on repeat by trucks driving around the city during the election campaign. Three famous rappers performed in the song, two members of Acid (first generation), and G-tone (second generation). You can’t really get more political than rapping in an election video in support of a political party— though another member of Acid who is now an MP, proves otherwise.
Let’s take the definition of political to mean ‘the activities, actions, and policies that are used to gain and hold power in a government or to influence a government’— or in other words, politics as it pertains to the relationship between those in power, and those under that power. If those in power are trying to prevent those they control from doing something, in this example releasing hiphop music— then releasing hip-hop music is, by definition, political.
Given the socio-political context in the decades leading up to the election— in a time of censorship boards, and secret police, it would have been hard for Myanmar hiphop not to be political. Its mere existence was political. Even from the Third generation onwards, when technology meant that songs didn’t have to pass through the board directly, there still existed a very real threat of arrest if anything too controversial was said. Today, while censorship still exists for films and print, it is no longer present for music – meaning, much more is permitted compared to 17 years ago. As an example, in 2013, a song named “F*** the Police” was released. It is hard to imagine even the word ‘police’ getting through the censorship board, let alone any allusion to doing anything like that to them.
The extent to which the censorship board can be held responsible for the lack of political content in lyrics can be assessed by looking at the artist output from the Third Generation onwards, when the censorship board played less of a role in the hip-hop scene. Some of it is political, and some of it isn’t. In terms of explicit political content of lyrics, it’s difficult to assess. I’m sure you could catalogue every song that has been released in the past 20 years and clock how often the words ‘police’ ‘freedom’ and ‘change’ come up and compare it to hip-hop songs from other countries. It’s not so much about the lyrics as it is about the act of releasing these songs and embracing this culture represented.
Furthermore, as the NLD election song shows, unfettered by censorship and the threat of arrest, these artists are in a position to let it rip politically— and they do. Equally, some rappers just choose to sing about pretty girls, fast cars and stacks of kyats (not that hard when 1,000,000 kyat is equivalent to $700). In a way though, even this music is political in the sense that it’s pushing against something.
Ultimately, Burmese hip hop music can be political in terms of what it is, and what it does— it can be political in terms of content (i.e. the lyrics). It can also be political in terms of existence (i.e. what Burmese hip-hop was doing in a wider social sense). Is it truly political in terms of content? To an extent, but not really. Is it political in terms of existence? As an act of resistance, undeniably.
My view is that Myanmar’s hip-hop was political in a reactionary sense, that it is the result of pushing against an oppressive socio-political force. Once that oppressive force reduces, so does the political nature of the genre. Freedom means that you take away the oppression that inspired them to rebel in the first place— once the machine has been overcome, there’s nothing much to rage against.
An interesting analogy here to this view is that of the ‘tortured artist’— essentially the idea that all great art comes from pain:
‘Van Gogh painted The Starry Night while in emotional torment; Lennon and McCartney forged their creative partnership following the death of their respective mothers; Milton penned Paradise Lost after losing his wife, his daughter, and his eyesight’
This idea can be applied to hip-hop. It is when hardship and repression is the strongest that the best counter culture content is created— may that be hip-hop or punk or any counter culture.
How is this relevant? Let’s look at America. The Golden Age of American hip-hop (late 1980s and early 1990s), when the genre was most political and energetic — coincided with a period of acute social upheaval and distress; Along with focusing on black nationalism, [golden-age] hip-hop artists often talked about urban poverty. This brought a great deal of listeners to the genre who were struggling with poverty and were coping with the scourge of alcohol, drugs, and gangs in their communities.
The result was gold. Ice Cube’s early songs attacked white racism; Ice-T sang a song about a cop killer; Public Enemy challenged listeners to “fight the power”. More recent tracks such as “This is America”, or Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer winning “Damn” non-withstanding – it is fair to say that American hip-hop has lacked the same cutting political edge over the past 25 years since then. As a general trend, American hip-hop artists have tended to internalize their creative direction – focusing more on what’s going on in their own individual lives rather than what’s going on in their communities. It’s gone from ‘F*** the Police’, to ‘F***, why ain’t this girl texting me back’. I’m in no position to talk with any authority whatsoever, but perhaps a reason for this change in artistic direction could be the decline of the oppressive political forces that inspired/infuriated the ‘golden age’ artists. Since the 2016 election of Trump, social commentators have noted that rap is getting more political again.
This paradigm can be applied to the scene in Myanmar as well. The mellifluously named Roadmap to Discipline-flourishing Democracy announced on August 30th, 2003 provided a seven-step process in restoring democracy in the country, and while not everything changed overnight, it can be seen as somewhat of a watershed moment for the country in terms of where the country was heading.
One could argue that Burmese hip-hop post-democratization is less political now than it used to be because the societal forces that were previously repressing these counter cultures simply aren’t as strong anymore. Being the counterculture that it is, hip-hop needs something to be counter against for inspiration. While the internal political situation in Myanmar is far from perfect, the political environment has certainly ameliorated. Myanmar has moved towards democracy, the once omnipotent censorship board has a reduced remit, the freedom of expression situation is better, so perhaps hip-hop artists here have less to push back against.
Dollar Dollar Bills yo – commercialization and living as an artist
What does matter to artists, whether they like to admit it or not, is money. Money, and more specifically, the commercialization of artistic output, play interesting roles in Myanmar’s music scene – especially for hip-hop artists who are faced with the dilemma between ‘keeping it real’ and ‘selling out’. They can stay true to their roots, and create something that they truly feel, or create music that is more commercially viable to the general public and focus more on making money.
I’m sure there are more articulate descriptions of the pop-hip-hop dichotomy out there, but to me, pop has far less of a connection to culture than hip-hop. Hip-hop has principles, it’s real, whereas pop is simply what everyone likes. Hip-hop is therefore inherently cooler, and as a result, even the most baby-faced pop-rapper wants to avoid the ‘pop star label’.
The flip side of this is that, due to its inherent commercialism and its draw towards what is popular, pop music makes money. That’s not to say that hip-hop cannot be commercially successful and make money – indeed money, and how much they have of it, has been a ubiquitous theme in American hip-hop music for decades.
This is not the case in Myanmar. Ultimately, hip-hop is even less commercially viable in Myanmar than it is in other places— the revenue streams simply don’t exist, and despite its popularity, there isn’t a big enough market to sustain most hip-hop artists. Basically, being a musician in Myanmar— even a famous one— is not easy, and only those at the top can afford to live off music alone. The reality is that Myanmar is still in a very early stage of economic development, meaning that disposable income— income that would be spent on say, fans buying CDs— remains scant.
A recent Citi group report stated that musicians in the US only got 12% of the $43 billion the music industry generated in 2017, and it mostly came from touring. While the Myanmar music industry is very different to the international music industry in many ways, it seems the global narrative of musicians getting a raw deal is depressingly similar. While figures are unavailable for Myanmar, speaking to musicians here, reveals that shows are also their main source of income. If an artist is commercially viable— i.e. palatable and famous enough (i.e. not hip-hop)— they can also get good money from brand endorsements. Releasing albums, as we shall see, tends to lose money. Most worryingly, revenues from licensing and rights are beset by non-existent laws, shady companies and legal problems.
Artists tell me that there is a company that organizes revenues from radio plays, but the payments are sporadic at best. Other potential revenue streams are equally shady. The organization that sells the rights to ring tones is extremely opaque, with artists getting seemingly random payments to their bank accounts each month. Many of the artists that I spoke to can’t remember signing any contracts permitting the use of their songs in this way, and often it’s a case of— ‘oh I didn’t release my song is being played there, I hope they pay me fairly for that’.
In a country where intellectual property is primarily governed by a colonial-era law written in 1911 (!), recent attempts to update the law have yet to come to fruition, it is easy for organizations to operate in a grey area, misuse, and furthermore, profit illegally from content that they don’t legally own. Ultimately, in the absence of any effective legal framework, artists can easily be, and most of the time are, paid unfairly for the use of their content. When I asked why they don’t try and insist on a more transparent and fair system, the artists replied that they are too busy, or too ‘ar na tal’. In other words, they did not want to cause any problems. While these revenue streams are not as big as from shows or brand endorsements, they are critical in sustaining less commercially lucrative artists and genres.
Understandably, distrust of institutions is rife in Myanmar, especially when it comes to matters of money. Perhaps because of this, many artists either manage themselves, or get family members to do it for them— which is great for issues of trust, but not so great for negotiating. Artists are often too busy or too shy to question issues pertaining to the rights and royalties from their music.
Regarding CDs, most, if not all albums that are released in Myanmar don’t make money. A high selling album will, if lucky, sell 10,000 copies. Based on my discussions with artists, the market rate for a CD is 3,000 Kyat— approximately $2— of which around $1.50 gets to the artist if they’re lucky. Take away the endless hours of work, the cost for studio time, buying beats, artist fees, well you do the math. The only real reason that they are released is so that the artists involved become ‘kit’ (trending), in the hope that they get called to shows – like an elaborate calling card.
As an interesting side note, because of the importance of shows and the role of albums, the release dates of albums in Myanmar depend on the weather. Weirdly, there is album season and show season. During rainy season, when the rains prevent any shows from happening, this is the time when artists stay inside and work on their albums.
Due to the infancy of the music industry in Myanmar and the difficulties concerning copyright, artists in Myanmar are therefore very dependent on shows for their income. When the monsoon rains stop, in October, until they start again in March, a pop artist – if they are in demand – can do as many as 60 or 70 shows/events in this 6 month period. They can expect to get paid, on an average between $500-$2,000 each time, depending on the event and how famous they are. Sexual discrimination also plays a role here, with male singers getting paid more than female singers.
While these figures may seem like a lot, the reality is that only around 10-15 pop artists can be at the top at any one time, and those below them are set to earn far less from shows, if anything at all. Furthermore, once one factors in how precarious it is at the top, there is no guarantee that being on the show circuit one year will mean that one will be there the next year too. Ultimately, it’s really not that attractive as a career.
Myanmar has undergone a digital mobile revolution in the past couple of years— just six years ago, only North Korea had fewer mobile phones than Myanmar. Now, almost everyone in Southeast Asia’s poorest country is connected. In just two years, mobile penetration rate has soared from 10% to above 80%, or 43 million users, with the vast majority of these phones being smart phones. With this, a number of digital streaming platforms have entered Myanmar hoping to monetize the relationship between artists and online content. However, despite a large degree of mobile digitalization, particularly in rural areas, many people cannot afford to spend much on data, let alone download apps. Furthermore, even those able to download apps are not used to paying to listen to music as they can normally listen for free. This means that these streaming apps are currently unable to pay much to the artists— only a nominal amount per song, per year.
Changing people’s behavior is key to making streaming a viable source of revenue. However, consumption habits will not change overnight. Piracy is rife here. Usually once an album is released, it will be pirated and distributed globally (not because Burmese music has a cult following, but more because of the spread of Myanmar people around the world. According to the UN, over 4 million Myanmar people live outside of Myanmar, making it one of the biggest diasporas per capita in the world) almost instantly – and hence the low album sales. Things however, are starting to change. Following the release of J-ME’s latest album, there was a backlash on Facebook against anyone who tried to offer free download links, and stating the importance of supporting artists through album sales. While social pressures like this will obviously not stop piracy completely, it is a promising sign of change.
Until music streaming gains popularity and people have more disposable income, the situation for hip-hop artists, and musicians more broadly, is unlikely to change. For the super famous pop stars, they can make enough from shows and brand endorsements to get by, but are definitely not as wealthy as pop stars in other countries. However, with the exception of one or two of the most famous, hip-hop artists have stayed underground. The reality is that most singers have to work in other jobs. Thus, sadly, being an artist remains a hobby rather than a profession for many extremely talented artists.
To prove this point regarding the diversity of incomes— going back to the original Acid video— one of the rappers was recently a judge on Myanmar’s first series of The Voice. Another, Sai Sai, is now a very successful popular musician and businessman; he has his own businesses, including a cosmetic brand and his face is plastered on billboards all over the city, advertising everything from Samsung, to medication. His latest album ‘Sai Sai is Sai Sai’ is now on iTunes under the hip-hop/rap category— again showing the cultural capital that the hip hop label has— though many other hip hop artists would dispute this categorization.
The curtain falls – looking forward
As others have argued, hip-hop is transgressive and rebellious, and therefore inherently political. This political sense only holds true however if there is something to transgress and rebel against which exists a lot less than it did 20 years ago. In other words: was it political then? Yes, but more in terms of existential existence rather than actual content. Is it political now? Not so much, but mainly because it doesn’t need to be as much as it used to.
Furthermore, politics doesn’t matter so much to Myanmar hip-hop anymore. What does, unfortunately matter, is money. It can be hard enough for the pop artists, let alone the underground rappers, and ultimately, a vibrant and talented scene needs financial support.
A new copyright law, set to be released this year will help. Providing a clearer understanding of artist rights and royalty payments will enable a fairer system, hopefully allow for those at the bottom to pursue their dreams more easily. As Kanye said, ‘having money ain’t everything, but not having it is.’
 Westlife, which is used to teach English in schools being an exception. https://coconuts.co/yangon/lifestyle/westlife-popular-myanmar/
Image Credit: Charlie Artingstoll
Charlie Artingstoll graduated in Politics and Economics from the University of Cambridge in 2014. He couldn’t hack it living in London, so moved to Yangon to start an internship at the UN Office for Drugs and Crime. After winning the war on drugs, he started working at BRAC, a Bangladeshi poverty/microfinance NGO. During this time – partly in response to the realization he didn’t like working for NGOs that much after all, and also the mind-numbingly boring nightlife scene Yangon had to offer at the time – he started running events part time. Fast-forward 2 years, he is now running Burmese hip hop parties full time, working extensively with artists, and is about to start a record label. He doesn’t really know why, or how he ended up doing this, but he’s enjoying it very much.
He has previously written eloquently on Microfinance and the Ultra poor, on the role of alternative development in the War on drugs, and before it all got really bad, why Suu Kyi should be doing more to fight Islamophobia.