Mongolia, like Tibet, is an almost mythical land in the popular imagination. When you imagine Mongolia, you see generations of fierce warriors pillaging their way across the steppes, taking over China and the Central Asian plateau, under the horse-hair banner of Genghis Khan, one of the greatest warlords the world has ever known.
Modern Mongolia, of course, is an entirely different world. A tiny nation of only about three million people in a harsh country that is the 19th largest in the world, it’s been racked by almost a century under socialism, leaving it poor and dependent on its much stronger neighbours. Recent discoveries of gold, copper and coal have made it richer, but mining wealth has been slow to trickle down to the people, a fifth of whom still live on less than HK$10 a day.
Half the population of the country has been forced economically to abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyles to move to the capital, Ulan Bator. But with little available accommodation, over half the city lives in ‘ger districts’, shanty towns that crowd the hills around the capital much like the favelas of Brazil. Unsurprisingly, discontent and frustration mark much of Mongolia’s daily discourse. But, while others have turned to alcohol to shut out the world, one part of Mongolia’s youthful population has turned to music to confront these problems head on.
Music is as inextricably linked to Mongolia as nomadism. Renowned for their ‘long songs’, oral epics that can take days to perform, as well as throat-singing, it’s a cliché that Mongolia is a land of song. And if there’s one genre that’s best suited to invective, to expression, and to venting the frustrations of a generation, it’s hip-hop and rap.
It all started with dance. In the early 90s, after the fall of communism, dance groups such as Black Rose started, breakdancing to the latest hip-hop tracks from the West. Soon, they started incorporating rap into their acts, and a few years later with the release of War & Peace’s Know Your Limits, true Mongolian hip-hop was born.
In ‘Mongolian Bling’ a new documentary about the Mongolian hip-hop scene by Australian director Benj Binks, hip-hop act Black Rose explains that rapping was an easy transition for them. “Traditionally, we have song-fighting games, ode and praise singing, proverbs, fast spelling and other kinds of oral literature.” Learning to rhyme was simply the next step.
By incorporating elements of traditional culture, such as long song and throat singing, rappers learned to make hip-hop Mongolian. According to Bayarmagnai, a 53 year old singer of traditional Mongolian epics, the culture almost seem to have hip-hop in its roots. When a horse wins the a race in the naadam, the traditional summer games, the spectators sing an ode in praise of the horse. “Now add drums and a hip-hop beat to it. Hip-hop originated in Mongolia,” he proudly explains.
For some, hip-hop was a way for modern Mongolians to show pride in their country. After a century of being banned from speaking about their history under socialist rule, it was a type of music that appealed to the youth and taught them about their society. For others, music was even more political. Quiza, one of the hip-hop artists interviewed by Binks, remembers the song Ring the Bells, which, legend has it, brought down the one-party system in one day in 1989. For Quiza, the song was ‘a soundtrack for democracy’.
The female rapper Gennie’s lyrics are about modern Mongolia, such as the country’s bitter gender inequality. Singer Gee’s songs are rooted in the ger districts in which he was brought up. His song Care About is addressed to the politicians, “You’re selling the future of Mongolia purely for your own benefit today. Stop telling lies,” he raps, tapping into a pervasive suspicion of their government. “In the ocean of globalisation, Mongolia is like a boat without paddles. You better start to care before we all f*cking drown.”
Hip-hop for Mongolians has become a means of expressing their discontent, as well as a means for the younger generation to feel pride in the rich history of their country. This method of combining ancient techniques with Western genres has also given rise to a strong Mongolian folk rock movement, where bands such as Altan Urag and Domog throat-sing over rock basslines. Of course, there is also the influx of Mongopop, styled after the bland overproduced pop that has characterized Asian contemporary music for so long. But it seems clear that Mongolians are proud of their musical heritage, and wish to foster their unique styles, even with the advent of modern musical production.
It’s a strength of the film that hip-hop is presented in a historical context. Binks explains that he was first exposed to the Mongolian hip-hop scene when he travelled through the country a few years ago. After numerous trips, he slowly got to know many of the main players in the scene as well as traditional musicians, and convinced them to take part in the documentary. “The hip-hop scene is a small network, so once you get to know some of the main people, you get introduced to the whole crowd over time.”
To many, Mongolia is a closed world, but thanks to Binks, this vital part of modern Mongolian culture is finally being shown to the world. It’s fascinating as an example of East meets West, but it’s an even better example of how music is one of humanity’s greatest forms of self-expression, something that is all too easily forgotten in a world of manufactured bands and auto-tuned stars.
Monglian Hip Hop Bands
1. Black rose
4. Ice Top
Mongolian Folk Rock Bands
1. Altan Urag