Monday, February 22, 2010

Subculture: Underground Rap Music in Turkmenistan

(The cover art for Zumer Chas' latest album, featuring RuDe. Image courtesy of the Darkroom Posse FaceBook fan club)

In American rap music you can often hear the rapper refer to their city, but you will be hard pressed to find a song entitled after a city and entirely about a city. In contrast, rappers from Turkmenabat, a city about 40 minutes south of my town take great pride on rapping about their city. I first heard the song "City Turkmenabat" at my student's birthday party and all of the guests were up and singing the song which left me the only one still sitting on the floor not knowing a single word in the lyrics. The rapper, Mano Faruh, is from Turkmenabat and raps entirely about the city and about how great it is to live there. One of my students has started recording his own rap songs and I asked him about why Turkmen rappers often rap about their hometowns or cities. He told me that in the underground Turkmen rap world, there are rivalries between different welayats, regions, (click for a map of Turkmenistan and the different welayats) and their regional capitals. He had me listen to a rap song from Mary Welayat that threw insults at the Lebap Welayat rappers and rap culture. The Lebap rappers were already busy with creating a rap song to toss back into their rivals' faces. It reminded me of the East Coast--West Coast hip hop rivalry in the United States.

Despite its isolation, in the past few years a unique Turkmen urban culture has materialized. Western rappers remain popular, but the rise of Turkmen artists has fed the youth subculture that didn't exist a short time ago. The Turkmen government has tried to control the spread of this new form of expression by prohibiting the use of swear words and banning Turkmen artists to leave the country for concerts. This has forced Hip Hop underground. Many aspiring Turkmen rap artists are students abroad and they listen to new songs and distribute their work through online Turkmen rap websites. began in 2005 and was the first music video portal in Ashgabat. They post hundreds of songs and music videos that anyone anywhere in the world can access. Illegal distribution and online downloading are the main ways that Turkmen rap and Hip Hop artists circulate their music because of a lack of record companies and official sponsors. Rap music holds connotations of violence and rebellion, but from what I have seen so far, Turkmen rap music is not nearly as violent as American rap. I offered to help my student write a rap song in English and when I asked him what he would like to sing about, he replied, "mothers." Okay. A rap song about mothers. This isn't exactly what comes to my mind when I think of rap music, but this disparity reflects the differences between the American and the Turkmen rap culture. Someone like AKON who has a past criminal record and who raps about murder and redemption can be idolized in America and around the world, but a Turkmen rapper must still tread carefully and remember that even harmless rap subculture in Turkmenistan can be seen as a threat to overall order by the authorities.

When asked about why rap is popular in Turkmenistan, Zumarchas, one of the most famous Turkmen Hip Hop artists, said:

My aim is to tell about my life and to share my experiences with the people. I think everyone has got a problem somewhere. The more you share those things the more life becomes easier, it helps to foster thinking. By singing about them, we [the rappers] are turning these life experiences into artwork. It’s a different feeling, it’s a kind of self-realization and boosting self-confidence. And the people have got interest in those real life experiences.

To listen to some Turkmen rap and to watch some Turkmen music videos, click on the following links:

City Turkmenabat by Mano Faruh
iStreet by RuDe featuring Arman (Darkroom Posse Music)
Palestine by Zumarchas and Syke (Note: This video contains graphic images of Palestine after bombings)

When speaking about how he created 'Palestine,' Zumarchas explained:

The ‘Palestine’ song came as it came and there was nothing planned about it. My band partner Nazar had sent me some beats to consider for our album ‘1 Galam 1 Deprek EP’ and suddenly dispute and struggle crossed my mind. It was the time when Palestine, a Muslim country, was being bombed. So, I began to write the [lyrics] with Syke.

There are two things about the song. First, Syke and I were not in a good relationship earlier. We were attacking each other with ‘disrespect’ songs publicly. But some time later we decided to give it up and became friends. There was a surprise reaction to ‘Palestine’ with the listeners [in which they asked] ‘What’s happening to these guys?’ when in fact we were trying to send out a message of peace, as I say at the end of the song, ‘with this song we are calling upon the people to peace.’ We intended to show to them the result of a fight in an intelligent way.

Secondly, with this song we wanted to contribute to the end to tribalism [among Turkmens] as people from Teke and Yomut and other tribes in chat forums are attacking each other. We did a lot of work on writing the lyrics of the song and out came a good result. Our listenership increased and we got a lot of attention from Turkmenistan.


I would like to say thank you to Muhammed from who commented on my original blog post and brought up some good points for me to consider further.


Anonymous said... is the BEST :)

Julie said...

for the kid who wants to rap about mothers -- you might want to consider using the tupac song "keep ya head up." even though it's old, it gets played a lot on radio stations in oakland and it makes me happy.