Hip-hop in politics

With hip-hop culture being often highly saturated with political and social commentaries, so far I have mostly concentrated on the presence of nationalist discourse within the Mongolian hip-hop scene. There are loads of material for research and much that still needs to be said about nationalism in pop culture but in this post I’d like to concentrate not on the presence of politics within hip-hop but rather on hip-hop’s presence in Mongolian politics. Despite a rather commercial (as opposed to anti-consumerist) character of Ulaanbaatar’s urban culture, to many hip-hop still remains a territory seemingly uncontaminated by political and economical influences of Mongolia’s ruling class.

In an attempt to question such an assumption this post focuses specifically on two music videos: Урагшаа Улаанбаатар by Tsetse and MekhZakhQ and Бүгд Нэг by NMN. By comparing these recent examples of hip-hop MVs utilized in political campaigns this post hopes to shed light on a possible trend of unexpected convergence in interests of political parties and hip-hop artists. Pushing through utopian visions of progress and a unified communal identity both fashioned as expressions of urban youth culture becomes an opportunity to suffice hungers generated by Mongolia’s present socio-political system – a hunger for poll gains on the side of the political parties and a hunger for more immediate monetary gains on the side of hip-hop artists.

These two songs have been commissioned by members of Mongolia’s two main political parties – (accordingly) the Democratic Party and the Mongolian People’s Party as parts of their political campaigns. Урагшаа Улаанбаатар dates back to 2016 and was part of the Нийслэлийн Ардчилсан Нам (the Ulaanbaatar or rather capital city fraction of the party)’s parliamentary campaign and Бүгд Нэг was part of Miyegombiin Enkhbold’s 2017 presidential campaign. Below I compare these two music videos. First I look into their symmetries (both similarities as well differences) and then concentrate on specific elements of the two MVs’ narratives and means used to produce them.

Both MVs:

  • are works commissioned for political campaigns,
  • are visually and rhetorically embedded in the style of the according campaign,
  • make (more or less) subtle use of campaign slogans,
  • are works by commercially established artists,
  • feature dance performances,
  • are set against very concrete scenographic backdrops,
  • have subtitles embedded within the MV.

Урагшаа Улаанбаатар:

  • Democratic Party (Нийслэлийн Ардчилсан Нам, hereafter shortened as UBDP)
  • parliamentary elections (2016)
  • two male rappers (Tsetse, MekhZakhQ)
  • music heavily relying on synthesized/modulated electronic sounds and dynamic percussions
  • Tempo: 95/190 BPM (beats per minute) – rather regular hip-hop tempo
  • lyrics concentrate on personal growth and market struggle (forward trajectory)
  • on an overall level aims to cause the viewer to associate the DP with progress
  • set in the city, nature is nearly absent
  • multiple reference to modern themes
  • uploaded to the UBDP’s Youtube profile
  • over 248 thousand views since June 2016

Бүгд нэг:

  • Mongolian People’s Party (Миеэгомбын Энхболд)
  • presidential elections (2017)
  • one female rapper (NMN)
  • music heavily relies on a traditional instrument (yatga) which despite rather chopped samples and percussions manages to secure a calm and soothing vibe
  • Tempo: 60/120 BPM (beats per minute) – a rather downtempo hip-hop beat
  • lyrics concentrate on communal values and identity (community)
  • on an overall level aims to cause the viewer to associate Enkhbold with traditional values and community building
  • set in nature, city is nearly absent
  • multiple reference to traditional themes
  • uploaded to the artist’s (NMN not Enkhbold) Youtube profile
  • over 141 thousand views since June 2017

Slogans of both campaigns are rather gently incorporated into the MVs both visually as well as verbally obviously in order to to brand the pieces and impact the viewers on a semi-conscious level (still too overt to call it subconscious). The whole idea of including hip-hop in political campaigns speaks to several issues. One is acknowledging the wide-spread impact of hip-hop as an influential element of popular culture. It the context of a degree of neglectedness experienced by hip-hop artists this sends a powerful message about the position (as well as subversive potential) of hip-hop in society but also about a very instrumental approach from the side of the ruling class. One still needs to keep in mind that hip-hop remains one of the main outlets of popular criticism directed towards the political establishment. From this stems another aspect – the politicians’ will to use all necessary means to portray themselves as up-to-date and cosmopolitan, progressive and open to innovation, cultural reinterpretation and reidentification, as lending an ear to the streets (thus the society) or even cool. On a plain level this obviously boils down to utilizing the youth’s idols’ as well as (to an extent) women bodies’ images in an attempt to secure the electorate. From the lyrical and musical point of view both songs are potentially quite catchy (although in quite different ways).

One additional interesting dynamic to be noticed here is the fact that Урагшаа Улаанбаатар (being part of the Democratic Party’s attempt to take seat in the parliament) evokes the notion of personal success within the free market system whereas Бүгд Нэг which was part of the Enkhbold cum People’s Party’s presidential campaign is mostly about a sense of community and shared values. When considered separately this might make sense but when compared seeing the rhetoric of singular/private identity in parliamentary elections and a communal one in the presidential elections seem somewhat unintuitive, at least to me.

The above-mentioned values of trajectory and community come from a working classification developed to categorize hip-hop lyrics describing the urban where (based on their main underlying themes) most of the them fall into at least one of the following general categories: space, values, community, trajectories. Урагшаа Улаанбаатар is a prime example of a ‘trajectorial‘ urban song and Бүгд Нэг happened to fall very neatly into the ‘communal‘ category and so I decided to include these as additional features in the comparison.

Урагшаа Улаанбаатар

At first sight Урагшаа Улаанбаатар seems quite like a regular, almost canonical hip-hop song – featuring rappers and their peers traversing the urban environment (a very specific one to be exact),  set against concrete architectural backdrops (mostly shiny glass and metal constructions and rather well preserved residential sections of the city with the Blue Sky Hotel building serving almost as an axis mundi for the video) with elements of urban culture and lifestyle enlivening the scenes – sports, music, arts, dance, fashion etc. When considered on a near-surface level, the whole song seems a  self-made (hip-hop) men’s “becoming of” story most likely intended to inspire and serve as a motivational anthem for Mongolian youths struggling with breaking into the market. It is only when we consider that which remains to be shown and spoken of (especially in the context of the occasion for the song’s creation) that we can grasp the bigger picture and decode the dreadful messages the artists simultaneously and  to an extent also unconsciously managed to produce. Many  uncomfortable elements of the post-socialist, free market reality of Ulaanbaatar are intentionally or unintentionally omitted in the process of the UBDP’s construction of a vision of forward progress.

And so, rhetorically “Ulaanbaatar forward”  plays on notions of capitalist mantras of progress and success implying that one’s life situation is solely the outcome of their own efforts (a very bald statement to make in today’s Mongolia) swiftly interweaving them with the UBDP’s slogans. And so already the title references the main slogan of the UBDP’s campaign (Урагшлах уу? Ухрах уу? [Will you/we] Forward or reverse?) and reference to forward as well as reverse movement are abundant throughout the song, zenithing in the song’s hook:

Байнга бид урагшаа !
Алив урагшаа ухрахгүй арагшаа !
Байнга бид урагшаа !
Толгой дээшээ гшигэнэ урагшаа !

In the same vein a very uneasy (and possibly not fully intentional) metaphor appears in Tsetse’s verse with the words:

Ухарвал траншэи*
Зогсолтгүй урагшаа

If you reverse – manhole
Non-stop forward

[*spelling according to subtitles embedded in the Youtube version of the MV ]

In these two verses forming almost a deterring “BEWARE” sign reference to the problematic realities of free-market Ulaanbaatar presents itself on a few levels:

immediate: the often uncovered manholes (resulting from metal covers being sold by junk collectors) posing a threat to automobiles in reverse gear (street-level manholes being poorly visible in the car’s rear mirror);

social: the sad reality of the homeless population inhabiting Ulaanbaatar’s manholes especially during harsh winters;

systemic: the question of (relative) establishing oneself within the market (e.g. securing a long-term work contract) being not enough to attain sufficient material security, further hinting that only constant progress prevents one from being sucked in by the backward currents of market forces i.e. as maintaining position = regress, progress = market motionlessness.

Not surprisingly despite extensive use of aerial filming the panorama of the city is rather narrow-angled – the ger districts tightly surrounding the city and sprawling outwards in most directions (note that almost none of the shots are directed southward or урагшаа – the only direction mostly void of vast ger district areas) are hardly seen. This of course is no coincidence. Despite making much effort to better the infrastructural and esthetic standards of Ulaanbaatar,  Bat-Uul’s municipal administration failed to address many issues concerning the residents and areas of the ger khoroolol.  They remain systemically excluded area non grata and do not occupy any space whatsoever in the vision of progress offered by the UBDP – a rather shocking approach when thought of in the context of the attempt to secure a wide-flung electorate base.

ger khoroolol cameo
Half second-long ger district cameo

Бүгд Нэг

The lyrics of “All one” speak mostly about the environmental, cultural and historical affinity of Mongolian people and a need and desire to unite with an affirmative outlook in mind. Themes like joy and national (or rather cultural) pride,  heritage, cultivating customs recur throughout the text. In terms of other values promoted those of equality, diversity, mutual support, building and nourishing a harmonious community (гэхдээ бүгд нэг тэнгэр доор, эв нэгдэл) are mentioned much in tune with the traditional view on society. Not surprisingly woven into the communal narrative blood politics also enjoy a cameo in the song’s bridge (бүгд нэг, нэг амьтай, нэг цустай).
In order to supplement such and auspicious narrative the MV is set in a scenery of khangai-ish landscape with and abundance of water and forest vegetation and the lyrics are additionally sprinkled with reference to close ties with Nature, Tenger, the local fauna and flora etc. In terms of more directly anchoring the MV in the campaigns visual narrative, towards the end of the video the dancers filmed from below combine extended arms to form a circular shape resembling a toono viewed from within the ger – an image that then fades into the picture. When coupled with the metaphor of the ger’s uni as representing the country’s people (in the MV not surprisingly composed only of young individuals) the connection between the visual and rhetorical aspects of the campaign become clear:

Thus it can be inferred that the main ‘message’ of the song is essentially – all Mongolians are one and thus unequivocally they support raising the Enkhbold as the toono of the country. In order to be sure that no one misses this crucial point a logo with Enkhbold’s slogan is clearly visible throughout the whole video in the right top corner baldly reminding the viewers:
Эвтэй Монгол
Ээлтэй төр

Hip-hop’s involvement in politics

Despite hip-hop’s frequent political outspokenness on a grass-root level it is also natural for hip-hop artist to be confronted about their involvement in big politics. In its Mongolian context best exemplified by apolitical rapper Gee’s approach is THE model outlook rappers are usually expected to represent – openly critical towards the establishment yet vary of any attempts of its encroachment on their art and freedom of expression. In the song Би ганцаараа биш NMN makes brief reference to the work she was commissioned with stating it was not she who got the idea to get involved in the presidential campaign and that she agreed to cooperate simply because she was interested in the money:

At the same time the song makes numerous statements on NMN (portraying herself almost as a self-made woman)’s firm position in both the hip-hop scene and music market in general. It this way following the steps of Tsetse and MekhZakhQ NMN fits into the narrative presented in the UBDP’s song Урагшаа Улаанбаатар contributing to its lyrics’ becoming a kind of local meta-narrative about hip-hop’s involvement with politics (or more broadly with the market) creating an alternative to the previously dominating apolitical narrative represented by artists such as Gee and Ice Top. And so to an extent it can be understood that despite hip-hop’s cautious approach to financial gains from involvement in politics can become the community’s mode of moving forward i.e. remaining in position within the market. Further following on this thread raises questions on not only the rappers’ but also the dancers’, music producers’ and generally speaking the whole hip-hop community’s morally questionable (from an insider’s point of view) involvement with the political establishment – unfortunately an unsurprising development in today’s Mongolia.

This post is cross-posted with Mongolia Focus.

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