Straight Outta Rangoon
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Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Straight Outta Rangoon

By Shawn L. Nance/Rangoon SEPTEMBER, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.7

Rap music and Hip-Hop have gained a foothold in Rangoon, but many still prefer to step to a different beat. Sai Sai stands waiting backstage wearing his high-top Nike Air Jordans, both hands in the pockets of his oversized shorts that match his loose-fitting hooded sweatshirt. His friend, wearing a bandanna on his head beneath a New York Yankees baseball cap flipped backwards, talks to a fellow band-member sporting her favorite skintight jeans. They are waiting to perform along side some of Burma’s newest and hottest music stars in Rangoon at an outdoor concert—a rarity in a country where public gatherings of more than five people are officially prohibited. As showtime nears, hundreds of Rangoon’s hippest youngsters file into the amphitheater jostling each other for a clear view of the stage. The carnival-like atmosphere is reinforced by scores of young women with dyed hair and mini-skirts that attract the attention of men donning denim jeans and t-shirts, some holding a can of Tiger Beer in one hand and a London cigarette in the other. Burmese longyis are conspicuously absent this evening. Occasionally the pungent odor of marijuana wafts by while some men are doubled over on the grass reeling in the effects of too much alcohol. Dozens of security guards stand watch. Everybody seems to know each other. Welcome to the newest musical scene in Burma: Rap and Hip-Hop. The first artist to take the stage is Myo Kyawt Myaing, Burma’s rap pioneer. At 31, he is nearly a decade older than most of the audience and the other musicians performing this evening. The crowd edges towards the stage as he emerges from behind a fog of dry ice with his mic in hand: My name is Myo Kyawt Myaing I’m from Seven-Mile My father is U Kyawt Myaing and he is a pilot… I have a lot of temporary girlfriends that I used to hang out with As everybody knows, as everybody knows, as everybody knows Like most Rap and Hip-Hop musicians in Burma, Myo Kyawt Myaing recites his lyrics, not to original tunes, but to remakes of famous American rappers such as Dr Dre, Eminem, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and, most surprisingly, NWA (Niggaz With Attitude) whose seminal 1988 single, "F- Tha Police", is often credited for launching the sub-genre, Gangsta Rap. The controversial single’s combination of profane bitterness towards racial inequality with anti-systemic gun-toting bravado elicited complaints from the FBI. Burma’s own syncretic brands of Rap and Hip-Hop are undeniably apolitical by comparison, primarily the result of the artists’ prudent self-censorship. Indeed, the intrusion of Western-style music has long been a contentious issue in Burma. After seizing power in 1962, the military quickly moved to ban clubs featuring Western-style music—along with beauty contests and dance competitions—in order "to preserve the Burmeseness of the culture". The ban was only partially successful, as the emergence of rock music in the late 1960s sparked an irrevocable trend that brought new socio-cultural tensions to the surface, and created rifts, not only between artists and authorities, but also between different generations of music fans. Burma’s newest musical phenomena similarly reflect resentments against imposed discipline and reveal aspirations for cultural freedom. They also possess similar abilities to offend the ears and sensibilities of many, especially the older generation. "I don’t like Hip-Hop because it is copy music and does not reflect a creative spirit," says a Rangoon music instructor in his forties. "I also can’t stand the dancing." Sai Sai, a former model turned Hip-Hopper in his early twenties who broke onto the scene two years ago, understands this generational resistance, "I know my parents don’t like Hip-Hop, but I do it because I like it." A veteran writer in Rangoon who is in his mid-sixties, however, says he likes the music and identifies with the creative impulses of the new artists. "The songs reflect the emotions of the younger generation. Many elder people like Hip-Hop because it expresses freedom better than other forms of music." Burmese Rap and Hip-Hop music is in fact less about overt expressions of political and social discontent than it is an artistic stance. The fresh fashions may make cultural conservatives cringe but the content of the songs have yet to earn much contempt from government censors. Lyrics urge listeners to avoid playing the lottery, or heap scorn upon bad teachers, or confront the challenges of growing up. "I don’t write [political] lyrics," Sai Sai explains. "I prefer to write about love and life. But the music makes me feel free—I can dance and do what I want to do." Don’t Believe the Hype This freedom of expression has fueled strong resentment for some—not because of the challenge posed to accepted cultural norms, but because it is a liberty some feel is granted only to Burma’s elite.

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