MTV // 2014
The below feature on the punk and hip hop scene in Yangon was written for MTV's Rebel Music series, to accompany the release of a documentary.
"It looks like it’s heading toward democracy, but I don’t know..."
To be young today in Myanmar is to live in a whiplash state of excitement at how far the country has come and anxiety about where it’s headed.
ON the surface, no country in the world seems to have changed as fast, in the last few years, as Myanmar – the Southeast Asian nation of some 53 million, formerly known as Burma.
Just ten years ago, this was a reclusive dictatorship that the U.S. government called an “outpost of tyranny.” Now it’s a magnet for investment, with foreign companies rushing in to extract minerals and sell consumer goods. Barack Obama has visited twice.
Looking around Yangon, the country’s metropolis, the rock guitarist Eaiddhi, 25, says he’s as confused as anyone else about what’s really happening in his country.
“It looks like it’s heading toward democracy, but I don’t know,” says Eaiddhi, who plays in the band Side Effect and promotes underground concerts in Yangon. “There’s a lack of change in the health system, the education system… the government really doesn’t care.”
Myanmar has a lot of problems to fix. Five decades of isolation under brutal, corrupt brutal military regimes leaves damage. Not to mention ongoing conflicts with separatist militias, and persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority. Myanmar is also the world’s second-largest producer of opium poppies, after Afghanistan.
In 2010, the regime held elections. The vote wasn’t free and fair. The internationally celebrated opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, refused to take part. Still, in a sign of progress, she was released from long-running house arrest after the pro-military party was declared the winner.
In 2011, the military handed power to hand-picked civilians led by President U Thein Sein. More barriers came down. Pre-publication censorship of the media ended. By now, thousands of political prisoners have been released. Still, many remain behind bars.
New elections are due soon – in late 2015. But Aung San Suu Kyi cannot run for president. A clause in the constitution, penned by the military in 2008, disqualifies her.
Still, all this change has been enough to lift international sanctions on Myanmar and let avid investors rush in to what was the last closed society in the region. The result has been fancy malls, the tourists arriving in droves, and round-the-clock construction sites all over the city, overshadowing the crumbling, moss-covered colonial architecture.
“The changes are a lot of investors, all these hotels and cars and shit,” says Eaiddhi. “There's no more space for football fields in your neighborhood.”
To be young today in Myanmar is to live in a whiplash state of excitement at how far the country has come and anxiety about where it’s headed. It presents a dilemma: Hit the mall and play the game, or stand up and demand real change?
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
IN 2012, the fedora-wearing songbird Jason Mraz played to a big crowd at the base of Yangon's most famous Buddhist landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda. He was the first real foreign star to play Myanmar in perhaps 50 years.
Under military rule, foreign acts weren’t welcome in Myanmar. An obscure US indie band, the Handsome Furs, pulled off an illegal gig in 2010, narrowly averting deportation. Earlier, a Dutch duo called Who Made Who filmed a clip with members of Generation Wave, a Myanmar hip-hop activist group who wore masks to hide their identity.
Decades of isolation, with hard-to-get official licences needed to import anything from outside, produced a sheltered cultural scene with scarce resources. Musical instruments, recording equipment, LPs and magazines were all black-market rarities.
Books that made it through the censors often criticized Western music and culture. “I even read an novel where The Beatles’ were described as noisy and embarrassing,” says bassist and engineer Lone Kavan.
The climate wasn’t conducive to innovation. Most local music consisted of soft-rock ballads about love and heartbreak. Lyrics of substance could land an artist in prison.
Sticking on the safe side, many local artists produced instead so-called “best of the best” albums, in which they cherry-picked the top tracks from different foreign artists and made compilations of Myanmar-language covers.
A distinct local phenomenon called “copy tracks” emerged as well. These were made from mashing together foreign songs taped off state-owned radio. Eaiddhi’s father made copy tracks, and also wrote compositions for the few singers the regime tolerated.
As the climate has opened, bringing access to foreign media and the Internet, the appetite for derivative music has declined, says Lone Kavan.
“Many bands that used to copy are not doing so anymore,” he says. “Some admit that when they look back, they feel ashamed of it. But there are still artists who ate other people's brains and won't admit that they did.”
WATCH YOUR MOUTH
UNDER military rule, censors would look at newspapers and magazines before they came out and make “suggestions.” Musicians faced the same process: officials would scrutinize lyrics before allowing a song to be played.
Eaiddhi’s first band, No U Turn, ran into this problem when they tried to release their debut album in 2009.
“One song about children from a difficult family, with bad parents and stuff like that, when we sent it to the censors they censored the whole song,” Eaiddhi says. “They said: You can’t say anything bad about parents, parents are supposed to be respected.”
Censorship complicated the songwriting process, to say the least.
“First you had to send the lyrics, then once you had the recording, you had to send that in too. To record an album took like a week, but we had to wait at least three months [for approval]. If you could bribe them, it would be faster.”
Musicians found ways to express ideas without explicitly saying them. One songwriter, U Khan Lay, became famous for the double meanings in his songs.
Sometimes the censors would miss controversial material completely, Eaiddhi says. right by. Others times, they would read too much between the lines.
“It became kind of ridiculous,” he says. “Once, a guy wrote a song about his girlfriend. The song title was the date of some important memory with his girlfriend. They thought it was related to political prisoners or something like that, and they made him change it.”
Eaiddhi says the rules printed on the censorship forms were vague, leaving decisions to censors’ whim. “They said you could not write stuff that could have a ‘negative influence’ on other people, or affect the reputation of the country. The meaning was really wide.”
Now, films and albums for mass-market release still have to get official approval, but Eaiddhi says the censors have mostly eased up on musicians. He doesn’t miss censorship, but he says now there’s a new layer of risk.
“With censorship, sure, you couldn't write anything, but it was sort of like a filter. Now there is no filter so if you've fucked up, you've fucked up – if you've written something that is against the government you could still get in shit.”
“With censorship, sure, you couldn't write anything, but it was sort of like a filter.
Now there is no filter so if you've fucked up, you've fucked up –
if you've written something that is against the government you could still
get in shit.”
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
SKUM, Myanmar's original punk, grew up on the fringes of Yangon. He got hooked on music when he was eight or nine, after his older cousin let him loose on a suitcase full of bootlegged cassettes.
“They were pirate tapes smuggled from Thailand. After I'd listened to a few, I knew that was what I was looking for, and it was going to be my way of life from that time on,” Skum says.
In 2004, Skum was a vocalist in a hardcore band, almost certainly Myanmar’s first. Not long after their first performance (a small-scale affair because, as he explains, they had “a limited fanbase”), he was arrested for possession of marijuana.
It was to be the first of several stints in Myanmar’s notorious prisons. The longest lasted almost six years, including time in a hard labor camp. There, he says, he was able to cope because he’d managed to smuggle in an MP3 player.
Now 28, Skum is a fixture on the Yangon scene and the lead vocalist of hardcore outfit Kultureshock. He’s also fought a battle with addiction that continues today. He picked up his heroin habit in prison.
Incarceration shaped Skum in other ways. From the stories of fellow inmates, he learned how arbitrarily the regime enforced its laws and how effectively it terrorized the people.
“I saw a poor kid who was sentenced 25 years for possession of a handful of minor tranquilizer tabs that were widely used by ordinary people all over our country,” he says.
The military regime was notorious for jailing anyone who showed dissent. Skum remembers the case of convicts sentenced for attempting to copy a CD that included a brief biography of General Aung San, a national hero and Aung San Suu Kyi’s father.
“There was no law against doing something like that, so they had to make one up to put those people behind bars,” Skum says.
Still, people rebelled. In 1988, after the ruling general declared the currency valueless (he replaced it with banknotes divisible by 9, his lucky number), students and activists took to the streets. At least 350 people were killed in the repression that followed.
And in 2007, it was an increase in fuel prices that triggered protests. This time Buddhist monks took the lead in what became known as the Saffron Revolution. An underground network of video journalists smuggled out footage of soldiers opening fire in the streets.
After the Saffron Revolution, a coalition of activists appeared calling themselves Generation Wave. One, Zayar Thaw, was a founder of ACID, Myanmar’s pioneering hip-hop band. He went to prison after the protests, emerging in 2011. Now, he’s in politics: a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, and an opposition member of parliament.
The recent steps toward freedom of speech and political pluralism are encouraging to many observers of Myanmar. But Skum says fear is still deeply ingrained in the culture.
“People are still afraid to express what they truly believe,” Skum says. “I can understand their fear, but I'm not going to sit here and wait for the safe time to express my ideas.”
“People are still afraid
to express what they
truly believe ...
I can understand their fear, but I'm not going
to sit here and wait for the safe time to express my ideas.”
MYANMAR'S Ministry of Religious Affairs publishes a book of behavioral guidance for the benefit of the people. Its title is: “Some Teachings of the Buddha for A Cultured Mind.”
The book condemns “roaming about at the untimely hour,” which it calls “the foregoing sign of poverty, or failure in life.” This anti-roaming advice is aimed particularly at men. The idea of a young woman going out at night wouldn’t fly in the first place.
Some 80 per cent of Myanmar’s population practices Theravada Buddhism. There are populations of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and animists, but Buddhism is the state religion, and traditional roles are still very much the norm.
Traditional dress – the htamein for women and longgyi for men – still dominates. Some youth have adopted Western garb, but beyond Yangon’s nightclubs and more expensive restaurants, a set of knees is a rare sight.
This limits the space for women, in particular – even in the underground music scene.
Rappers Thazin and Aye Aye Aung (a.k.a. Triple A) of the duo YAK found this out when they first tried to break into the hip-hop scene.
“We often faced attacks as our style put us in competition with men,” says Thazin.
Thazin says she’s always swum against the stream.
She first heard the band ACID around the time she finished high school. That was when she decided she wanted to pursue music.
“My lifestyle and attitudes have not been like a girl’s most of the time,” she says. “I like baggy dresses, and when I started doing hip hop, I dressed like a boy.”
Thazin shrugs off the suggestion that YAK’s music is political, saying they’re not trying to drive a particular agenda, though one of their songs, “Myanmar Women,” has a strong message about gender equality.
But in a pop landscape dominated by singers and actresses influenced by K-Pop who primp, bleach and even go under the knife, YAK challenges mainstream expectations.
“People who believe the talent of a vocalist is linked to her beauty advised us to dress more like women,” Thazin says. “But we want to present our talent, not women’s beauty. We want to pass on the true beauty of hip hop, so we turned their advice down.”
YANGON is the kind of town where metal gigs take place upstairs from a suburban Chinese restaurant, and punk shows resemble a flash mob held in the shadows of an overpass.
Jam It!, Eaiddhi’s party, launched in November 2012 in a park. “There were like 20 people there,” he says. From that humble beginning, the event has grown into a bridge between the punk and hip hop scenes.
“Underground hip hop has been around longer than the punk scene,” Eaiddhi says. “It started with ACID, and others came up after that. The two scenes didn't really get along. At every concert with hip hop and punk, there would be fights. Other promoters didn't dare to organize shows like that. But we've done it.”
In 2013, one Jam It! night attracted over 300 people, overwhelming the small restaurant they had lined up as a venue as the crowd spilled into the parking lot. They attracted a similar number in a decrepit suburban bowling alley.
One memorable Jam It! gig took place in mid-2014 in the center of Yangon, between the golden Sule Pagoda and the Independence Monument, revealing the scene to the general public. Staging a show there meant compromising with the authorities. “We had to promise that we wouldn't have any political music,” Eaiddhi says.
Extending the scene outside Yangon is a challenge. Jam It! held one event in Mandalay, the second-largest city, but Eaiddhi says the costs and logistics were prohibitive. Beyond the big cities, traditional culture prevails. With poor access to schools, roads or electricity, the urban underground is a long distance away.
Eaiddhi says he tries to steer clear of politics. His goal is to build a platform for young artists and musicians to have an outlet for their voice. “When I see that the underground scene is growing I feel really happy, because it's about the people,” he says.
“I don't think we'll return to censorship, but
I can’t be so sure. Anything can happen here...
We’ve passed the darkest time, but it's too soon to know anything.”
YAK's Thazin hopes Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to run for president, although the chances look slim. She says she’s willing to speak up for genuine democracy.
“Myanmar people want a working democratic system and we hope that we will enjoy it in the near future,” Thazin says. “We artists are actively participating in the movement.”
Skum – at 28, the scene’s battle-scarred elder – isn’t ready to make any predictions. “I try to see things as they really are,” Skum says. “I don't think we'll return to censorship, but I can’t be so sure, because anything can happen here.”
“We’ve passed the darkest time, but it's too soon to know anything.”