The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Rapping the Regime

Young activists turn a musical trend into a  political weapon

Hip-hop, rap and politics make strange bedfellows, but the young people of Burma have found ways of using their favorite musical styles to get their political message across.

Generation Wave co-founder Zay Yar Thaw

Unlike conventional pop music, the recitative nature of hip-hop and rap allows performers to change the lyrics at will, discarding anodyne romantic lines and substituting their own.

The popularity of hip-hop and rap has reached the point where some young Burmese say the two pop music styles are edging out the country’s traditional satirical vehicle—Thangyat, a mix of poetry, dance and music, performed on festive occasions to the beat of a traditional drum. 

Thangyat certainly has a hard task to retain a youthful following. It is only performed during the annual “water festival” and is monitored closely by the authorities, who are relatively powerless to stop the uncontrolled spread of hip-hop and rap.

In the wake of the 2007 street demonstrations, activists used hip-hop and rap to air political news and views and to satirize the regime and its sham Constitution. Popular performers were added to the junta’s hit-list of trouble makers and malcontents.

The junta mounted a campaign of intimidation to counter the spread of hip-hop and rap, warning young people to reject “Western decadent costumes and use of language incompatible with Myanmar [Burmese] customs and behaviors.”

The warning failed to silence the rappers. A number of defiant young activists formed a group called Generation Wave (GW), which secretly records and distributes anti-government music albums across Burma.

It’s a risky undertaking—GW’s co-founder, Zay Yar Thaw, a member of the group ACID which introduced hip-hop to Burma, was arrested and is serving a long jail term. About 30 other GW members have also been imprisoned.

The regime intimidation has failed to disrupt GW recruiting, however. “We welcome young people to participate in our movement against the regime,” said one GW performer and songwriter who is known only by the initials YG.

One of the numbers on a CD issued by GW in 2009 to commemorate the second anniversary of the 2007 demonstrations is titled “Wake Up!” and appeals to young people to join in the pro-democracy movement.

Another of the seven numbers on the CD, “Khwin Pyu Dot May May,” (“Please excuse me”) is a request for a mother’s permission to join the struggle.

COT, one of the singers performing on GW’s next album, said: “Our songs honor mothers and revolutionists. We want young people to be active and interested in politics. Every youngster can be an activist.

“I wrote a song which carries the message to my girlfriend who is away from me that truth will come one day. At first, I feared being an activist, but by being one I could overcome that fear.”

Just to make sure the authorities are aware of the CD’s authorship, GW gave it the title “Myoe Sett Hline,” which translates as “Generation Wave.”

GW owes allegiance to no political party or movement, although its members have one thing in common—a deep respect for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. 

GW’s recordings are made surreptitiously, often in makeshift studios constructed in members’ homes. The CD quality sometimes suffers as a result, but the enthusiasm and conviction still shine through.

A recording costs about 150,000 kyat (US $150) to make, but sales are brisk. GW distributed 5,000 of their CDS in Burma last year, 2,000 of them in Rangoon. Attempts have also been made to sell the CDs in Thailand.

“We secretly drop the CDs at tea shops,” said one group member.  GW also has a Web site where its albums and individual numbers can be downloaded:

The Burmese services of the BBC and VOA, Radio Free Asia and the Democratic Voice of Burma have all broadcast GW music, which can also be heard on various Internet sites. Hip-hop from Burma has won a wide following in Burmese communities throughout the world.

“We can share our ideas among ourselves through music, ” said  Kyaw Oo, a group member.

“Songs activate and strengthen our movement. I am proud to be an activist,” said another member, Phoe Kyaw.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |