Rap music – for European listeners – is mainly associated with boasting and hedonistic motifs. But the rap heard every day on the streets of Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek has a very different sound. In Kyrgyzstan, rap lyrics are mainly about patriotism, morality and love, wrapped up in contemporary beats and promoted with highly-produced video clips.
But hip hop culture does not just mean rap: it also includes DJing, dance and graffiti. It has been a worldwide phenomenon for a very long time: from its roots at block parties in New York’s Afro-American districts, rap music has evolved into a mainstream genre, especially nowadays, in the era of online streaming. The latest rap songs from the US and Russia are chart-toppers in Kyrgyzstan, just as they are elsewhere, but locally produced rap now increasingly features on listeners’ playlists as well.
Rap as “Estrada”
For the second time in Kyrgyzstan’s musical history, rap is reaching a wide local audience. Hip hop experienced its first surge in popularity here in the mid 2000s, when mainly Russian-speaking crews like Acapella, AP Clan and Kiggaz regularly performed to capacity audiences across the country. In 2004, Kiggaz released what was surely the first-ever rap hit in the Kyrgyz language: Derzskii (Russian slang meaning “bold”), a remake of 50 Cent’s Wanksta. This young Kyrgyz band meant business – and saw Kyrgyz as the key to a new target audience.
More than 10 years on, rap music is once again one of the most popular music genres in Kyrgyzstan. Russian rap still accounts for most local production but is mainly targeted at fans in the CIS states; by contrast, the Kyrgyz language segment is reaching mass audiences in Kyrgyzstan itself. A small number of rap artists regularly appear on radio and TV and are invited to perform at private events – weddings, for example. Through their collaboration with stars like Mirbek Atabekov and Nurlan Nasip, rappers Begish and Bayastan in particular are sometimes regarded as part of the Estrada – the local pop music scene.
Begish and Bayastan were the performers behind Zamanbap (a Kyrgyz word meaning “modern”), the first rap album ever produced entirely in the Kyrgyz language, released in late 2015. In an review on Kloop.kg, the album was instantly hailed as a new gold standard for Kyrgyz music: “In Kyrgyzstan, there is a growing demand for national self-identification. In a positive sense. […] And that’s the main theme of Zamanbap. On the album, the Kyrgyz language is not used at random: every track is crafted so that the sonority of the language shines through.”
Making Kyrgyz cool
In fact, the use of Kyrgyz is not only about the rappers wanting to show off their language skills. It is about bringing Kyrgyz rap to an international audience, as the artists themselves often emphasise in interviews. Zamanbap’s name and logo – which are based on traditional decorative motifs – are part of this strategy: like contemporary musicians in neighbouring Kazakhstan, the rappers want to show that there is no conflict between “Kyrgyz” and “modern”. They use teen slang – words like teke and zynk (both mean “cool” in Kyrgyz) – and align their rap with worldwide trends.
Russian is Kyrgystan’s second official language besides Kyrgyz, the language of government. In practice, however, Russian is mainly spoken in the north of the country and poor Russian language skills are seen as a negative social marker. It is against this background that rappers are keen to improve the status of the Kyrgyz language. “I wanna hear Kyrgyz spoken in my capital” say the lyrics of Ene Til (Mother Tongue), one of the tracks on Zamanbap. Or more bluntly, as Bishkek’s Street Cred BPM said in a rap battle (a head-to-head that gives rappers the chance to showcase their rhythmic and lyrical skills): “If someone says he knows Kyrgyz but can’t speak it, that’s kinda like my dog.”
Taboos and toy business
Kyrgyzstan’s best-known rappers may pose as local popstars, but they still have to conform to a set of unspoken rules, often summed up in conversation as “the Kyrgyz mentality”. This explains why, surprisingly, their lyrics are so restrained: their patriotic and moralising motifs give rappers the popular profile they need to survive on the small-scale local music market, also known as “toy business”. “Toys” – in other words, elaborate family celebrations, mainly weddings – are many musicians’ main source of income.
In contrast to the situation in neighbouring countries, the state rarely involves itself in cultural life in Kyrgyzstan. Even so, very few rap songs voice any overt political or social criticism: on the contrary, social pressure keeps the content of Kyrgyz pop culture within very narrow confines and topics such as sex, drugs and religion are taboo. However, these red lines are flexible and subject to renegotiation. For example, the song Zher Ay is banned from radio because of its supposedly offensive lyrics: “She doesn’t sleep with boys / […] She wants to stay a virgin”, but the ban does not seem to be having much of an impact on its popularity.
This contrasts starkly with local Russian-language rap, which does not depend on support from conservative sectors of society or shy away from taboo subjects. Indeed, some Kyrgyz rappers are also critical of their fellow artists’ overly soft content, although they refrain from being overtly provocative: “Our guys should not forget that Kyrgyz rap can sound very different from what we are used to from our Estrada hip hop performers” is the message conveyed with recent tracks by rapper Deka Djaydi. His rap songs are darker in tone and he writes more “rap about rap” than the mainstream does. But in the absence of any major music companies, the demarcation lines between “commercial” and “underground” are far more blurred than we are accustomed to in Europe.
Young people in Kyrgyzstan can potentially listen to everything simply by accessing the Internet, but Kyrgyz rap is a genre with which they can identify. Together with sketch shows such as El emne deyt (What will people say?) and art projects like Manifest, young rappers are showing that Kyrgyz culture does not need to be as backward-looking as the cultural offer promoted by government and tourism might suggest.
Florian Coppenrath is a PhD student at the Central Asian Seminar, Humboldt University, and the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. His research focuses on hip hop in Kyrgyzstan.