Burmese Music: Hip Hop on Trial

by    /  July 26, 2010  / No comments

In February, Burmese musician and activist Zayar Thaw turned 29 behind the walls of Kawthaung Prison in southern Burma. He was two years into a six-year sentence for “dealings in foreign currency and membership in an illegal organization” according to Burma’s leading online independent news source The Irrawaddy.

The illegal organization is Generation Wave, a group focused on promoting democracy and civil rights to Burma’s youth through music, poetry, and graffiti. Zayar Thaw and three others founded the organization in 2007, during Saffron Revolution. The Saffron Revolution began as peaceful protests, but turned violent on September 26th when governmental security forces killed three Buddhist monks and one female civilian in response to the thousands of protesters marching the streets of Rangoon, the country’s capital.

In 2008 Zayar Thaw was arrested with five other Generation Wave collaborators in a governmental crackdown. Just before his sentencing, Zayar Thaw wrote to Generation Wave members: “Tell the people to have the courage to reject the things they don’t like, and even if they don’t dare to openly support the right thing, tell them not to support the wrong thing.”

Before his arrest, Zayar Thaw was relatively unknown outside of Burma’s borders. Within his country, however, Zayar Thaw is famous for his participation in ACID, the country’s first hip-hop group. A group so popular that their first album, Beginning (2000), stayed at number one on the Burmese music chart for two months. The group is important for starting the first wave of hip-hop in the country, a movement known for re-appropriating mid-1990s American gangsta rap beats and styles.

First wave acts such as ACID or Sai Sai Kham Hlaing are essentially pop-rap and sound like a hybrid of the charged sweetness of TuPac’s “Changes” and the raw intensity of DMX’s “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem.” (ACID even borrows a sample from “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem.”)  Since the release of Beginning, however, underground hip-hop in Burma has grown increasingly confrontational and political. The latest offering from Generation Wave sounds like club-hop from the United States, if it were mixed with the spirit and social consciousness of rappers Talib Kwali and Mos Def. With this combination, Generation Wave’s new track is certainly unique. The accompanying video, with its images of interrogations, prison cells, and stock electoral footage, packs a hefty political punch.

But, for a government already concerned with its popular opinion, the contagious nature of revolutionary pop music is reason enough to persecute these musicians. Yan Yan Chan, another member of ACID, was arrested two months after Thaw. In May The Irrawaddy reported that rapper G-Tone was arrested, then released, with a one-year ban from performing, because of the religious tattoos he displayed on stage. The government saw his tattoos as support of the monks’ who were jailed for their participation in the Saffron Revolution.

In 2002, Irrawaddy published an article about the freedoms—English cigarettes and Tiger Beer—wealthy Burmese youth indulged in at hip-hop concerts (under the watchful eye of public security). Such “liberties” of 2002 seem unimaginable now. Since the 2007 crackdown following the Saffron Revolution, the government has ratcheted up their surveillance and regulation of the population. The repression is expected to worsen in the lead-up to the October elections scheduled. Both the BBC and Irrawaddy report that the commanding military junta is prepared to retain power at all costs—a power growing increasingly paranoid and desperate in its attempts to regulate Burmese culture and freedom of speech. Plus, the former leader of the recently disbanded National League for Democracy—Aung Saan Suu Kyi—has urged citizens to boycott the upcoming elections.

Two legal organizations—the Thailand-based Burmese Lawyers Council and the Global Justice Center in New York—are calling into question the practices of the country’s judicial system.

Unfortunately, it will most likely be another four years before Zayar Thaw is released—and who knows how long until he’ll be safe to make and perform his music again.

To read more about Burma’s history, current conditions, and the experiences of Burmese immigrants in Pittsburgh, look for our upcoming issue on Burma. Subscribe here to be notified when the magazine is published.

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