As Tajik Rap Gets Political, Authorities Resort to Bans and Pressure


Photo from Tajik Rapper Master Ismail's VK (Russian social network) account.

[8 minute read]

The mayor of Dushanbe, Tajikistan banned rap and rock music from the capital's buses, minibuses (marshrutkas), and taxis, suggesting that the genre was “alien to national and universal human values,” earlier this year. The initiative received the full backing from the country's Minister of Education who stated [ru] that tunes which “do not conform to national culture” should be banned. 

Since the late 1990s, rap music has gained popularity among young people in Tajikistan. Some rappers have used the new musical genre to voice political issues. The authorities have responded by imposing limitations on hip-hop and forcing homegrown rappers to censor their lyrics. These restrictions have met with little public resistance, as many people in the country loathe rap.

Tajik rap began among young people influenced by American hip-hop, mainly in the capital, Dushanbe. By the late 2000s, a vibrant rap underground emerged in the country's main urban areas. A number of Tajik rappers held well-attended concerts, recorded albums, and produced music videos. In a country where everyone owns a mobile phone and mobile Internet is affordable, young people shared and listened to homegrown rap on media sharing platforms and social networks.

Three of Tajikistan's most popular rappers (from left to right): Alisho, Bakha 84, and Master Ismail. Screen capture from YouTube video uploaded on October 21, 2012, by TojTV.

Three of Tajikistan's most popular rappers (from left to right): Aslisho, Bakha 84, and Master Ismail. Screen capture from YouTube video uploaded on October 21, 2012, by TojTV.

Bitter lyrics

Compared to other musical genres in Tajikistan, rap has gone much further in its honesty and willingness to tackle thorny subjects. 

For example, the “founder” of Tajik-language rap, Master Ismail (aka M.One), has many compositions that are heavy in political content. In one of his songs, the rapper who now lives in Russia, sings [ru]:

Политиканы с набитыми животами,

не насытятся они банковскими счетами.

А народ все молчит и терпит, тупо верит,

что когда-нибудь на их улице будет праздник.

Я сын этого города и этой бедной страны,

и кто, если не мы, сможем выйти из тьмы?

Вокруг – стройки, отели, модные магазины,

и в то же время нет воды и света, и все без причины.

Почему народ должен быть рабом в чужой стране,

кто-нибудь в этой стране может ответить мне?

Моя родина тихо плачет и ждет, ждет,

пока ее спасет его народ…

Politicians with full stomachs
Never get fed up with money in their bank accounts.
Meanwhile the people remain silent and believe stubbornly
That one day the holiday will come to their streets.
I am the son of this city and this poor country.
If we can't escape this darkness, who can?
We are surrounded by construction projects, hotels, and fashion boutiques,
While our homes have no water or electricity, for no reason.
Can someone in this country tell me
Why our people have to be slaves in a foreign country? [alluding to Tajik migrant workers in Russia]
My motherland is crying silently and waiting
To be liberated by its people…

Another rapper, hiding his name under the alias ‘Tadzhik iz Novosibirska’ [Tajik from Novosibirsk], asks [ru] in a song:

Скажите, пожалуйста, Ваше Величество, где газ, где вода, где электричество? Где экономика, где стратегия, где вами обещанная клятва? Почему Россия должна нас содержать? Где наши права? Где свобода слова? Люди хотят правды, хотят справедливости, но вы их пугаете, они боятся мести.

Хватит пытать народ, мы хотим перемен. Даже вне Родины я остался патриотом своей страны. Наш народ достоин жить лучше

Your Highness [formal greeting to the President], could you please tell me where our natural gas, water, and electricity is? Where is the economy, strategy, or the oath of office you took? Why does Russia have to feed us? Where are our rights? Where is freedom of speech? People want the truth and justice, but you are intimidating them, and they are afraid of revenge.

Stop torturing people. We want to see change. Far from the Motherland I have remained a patriot of my country. Our people deserve a better life.

Some rap performers also infuriated the authorities during the government-led security operation in Khorog, eastern Tajikistan, in summer 2012. Challenging the official narrative, Russia-based rappers who had come from the area affected by violence blamed [ru] events leading to the security operation on injustice, corruption, and arbitrariness in the country's law-enforcement agencies.

Censoring “unpatriotic” content

Such lyrics have made the authorities increasingly suspicious of homegrown hip-hop, particularly because the bitter tunes contrast sharply with the cheeriness of official propaganda. In a recent interview, Master Ismail claimed [ru] that the authorities warned him repeatedly against “crossing the line” in his rap while he lived in Tajikistan.

Aside from issuing bans on hip hop in public places, government officials have also urged rappers to be more “patriotic”. In November 2012, the head of the country's Union of Composers asserted [ru] that American-style rap music posed a threat to “national identity”. He also urged [ru] performers to create an “authentic” and more “patriotic” hip-hop style, while pledging to keep rap off radio and television.

It is not clear whether the authorities would be able to enforce the ban on rap music. While they can put a stop to hip-hop on state-owned buses, they will most likely be unable to monitor music in private taxis and minibuses. However, the informal nationwide restrictions on rap music still seem to be effective in silencing bitter lyrics. Most rappers in Tajikistan choose [ru] to steer clear of political content, self-censoring their lyrics and avoiding the remotest allusions to sensitive issues. In return, the authorities allow them to earn money by holding concerts. Those few rappers who refused to censor their lyrics have mostly left the country.

Although there is no formal music agency in Tajikistan, the authorities have other mechanisms for silencing critical tunes. Singers deemed too controversial are not allowed on state television or radio. Nor do private FM radio stations play their music, for fear of repercussions. Such performers are also denied permits to hold concerts, while underground shows are extremely rare in the country. The authorities have also reportedly begun [ru] to monitor the performances of Tajik singers abroad in an effort to ensure “patriotic” content.

The censorship of rap music appears to be part of a broader pattern in the country. As one observers suggests, “Tajik authorities are trying to stamp out any form of freethinking under the vague pretext of patriotism”.

‘Barking like a dog, behaving like a monkey’

The restrictions on rap seem to enjoy broad popular support. Online reactions to a recent interview [tj] with a popular Tajik rapper Shon MC published on Radio Ozodi's website suggests that hip-hop hits a raw nerve with many people. The interview includes a recent music video [tj] by the rapper.

Young fans greeting Shon MC at a concert in Dushanbe. Screen capture from YouTube video uploaded on November 21, 2013, by 'Made in Tajikistan.

Young fans greeting Shon MC at a concert in Dushanbe. Screen capture from YouTube video uploaded on November 21, 2013, by ‘Made in Tajikistan.

Many social media users found the rapper's performance too hard to square with their opinion of what music should be like:

The young man is barking like a dog and behaving like a monkey. He belongs in a hospital, not on stage.

The western influence is turning Tajik people into monkeys. He should be thrown out of the country and his passport should be taken so that he doesn't come back.

Rap is not Tajik music or an element of Tajik culture. It is an alien thing. It should be banned by all means.

On, ‘Antirepist’ writes [tj]:

Мусикии милли кучо шуд? Илтимос, инхоро бояд табобат кард, беморанд бечорахо…

What has happened to the national music? These people should be treated by doctors; the poor things are ill..

Benom adds [tj]:

Ин “санъатро” хатман” манъ кардан лозим аст дар Точикистон. Ин барои чавонони точик гайр аз зарар чизи дигаре нахохад овард.

This “art” should be banned in Tajikistan. It cannot bring any good to the young Tajiks.

Several other readers carped at the rapper's use of colloquial and dialect Tajik as opposed to the “literary” form of the language. For instance, Ormon claims [tj]:

Агар холи насли хозир хамин бошад, чанозаи забони модариро бояд рузе хонд… Забонро, фархангро мекушанд инхо бо репашон…

If this is what this generation is like, a eulogy for our mother tongue should be read one day… They are killing the language and culture with their rap…

‘True patriot’

At the same time, many young Tajiks enjoy rap music and take pride in the success of local rappers. Hundreds of fans leave positive comments under music videos by Tajik rappers on YouTube. These fans also disagree with the designations of rap as “unpatriotic” or “alien”. On the video [tj] of Shon MC mentioned above, young fans can be seen waving a Tajik flag at his concert.

Fans waving a flag at Shon MC's concert.

Fans waving a flag at Shon MC's concert. Screen capture from YouTube video uploaded on November 21, 2013, by ‘Made in Tajikistan.

Master Ismail, many of whose compositions the authorities would find especially “unpatriotic”, has recently recorded a song titled “Vatani Man” [My Motherland] [tj]. The song speaks about the importance of national unity, patriotism, and the need to love and respect one's home country, even when living abroad. Ironically, these values are no different from those espoused by the authorities in Tajikistan. Commenting on the video, ‘Tojiki Daidu’ wrote [tj]:

Патриоти асли ту, бародар! Айнан ки аз лубой хукумат Ватаната бисёртар дуст медори. Хар як гапат дурустай. Мувафакият ба ту, бародар!

You are a true patriot, brother! It is evident that you love your Motherland more than any government [official]. All that you say is true. I wish you success, brother!

This story was commissioned by Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide, and Global Voices for Artsfreedom.orgThe article may be republished by non-commercial media crediting the author, Freemuse and Global Voices and linking to the origin.


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