Censorship casts a cloud over Burma's hip-hop scene

The country’s colourful music scene is increasingly overshadowed by restrictions on what can and can’t be said

It’s a scene familiar to pop idols around the world: throngs of teenage girls press forward under the neon glow of the stage lights, shrieking in unison as the object of their adulation makes his grand entrance.

But Sai Sai Kham Leng, the pretty-boy standard-bearer for Burma’s mainstream rap scene, doesn’t let the attention go to his head. “I don’t think I’m so popular,” he laughs.

Every month, a 3,000-strong crowd, mostly in their teens and early 20s, packs the Myanmar Convention Centre in Rangoon’s northern suburbs  for daytime shows that provide a rare chance to cut loose in this conservative country. It’s an opportunity to be seen, to dress up in garish clothes and hang out with friends – maybe even sneak in a surreptitious alcoholic drink or two. But at 6,500 kyats (£4.20), the price of admission is steep in a country where most people struggle to get by on less than a pound a day.

Sai Sai’s modesty belies his success, as the strength of his fan base – mostly young, middle-class and female – was enough attract Coca-Cola’s attention last year. He is now the official face of the soft-drink giant’s return to Burma after the easing of US trade sanctions, and he can be seen plastered on its red-and-white billboards around Rangoon.

And he’s not alone: hip-hop has become the de facto soundtrack to conspicuous consumption in a rapidly changing Burma, which is currently undergoing a calculated transition to democracy after five decades of direct military rule.

At 44, Aung Aung Shein is much older than the average Burmese hip-hopper. But his fashion choices – a loud T-shirt and jeans – make him fit in better than he ought to amid the sea of kids half his age milling around the entrance, decked out in torn denim, booty shorts and fake bling.

It’s his daughter’s first time attending a concert, and although he used to promote shows and is a fan of the music, he is sitting this one out, smoking cigarettes next to his Land Cruiser as he waits outside. “Nightlife isn’t part of Burmese culture, and that’s why a lot of parents don’t like their kids going out at night,” he tells me. “It’s more dangerous.”

While recent reforms have made Burma a more open country than it was just two years ago, the headlines paint an ugly picture of a country navigating the uncertain waters of reform. The Kachin War in the north remains locked in a chilly stalemate, Muslims face ongoing repression and segregation, and powerful commercial interests run roughshod over the rights of farmers kicked off their land.

But you’d get little sense of this from listening to mainstream Burmese rap, which shies away from the contentious issues – because, after all, how much fun are poverty and war? 

Ko Aung, 28, is an engineer by day and an aspiring producer by night. While he’s a fan of the mainstream scene, he acknowledges its shortcomings. “About 80 per cent of what they rap about is about love,” he says. “In recent years, we don’t have the censors – before, if you talked about racism, historical things, you would be censored. So most composers turned to love songs.”

A group called Acid is generally credited with introducing hip-hop and rap to the Burmese mainstream at the turn of the millennium, and while their music was never overtly political, references to the hardships of life in military-run Burma drew the ire of the authorities. Zayar Thaw, one of Acid’s four founding members, said:  “When we released our album, we made 16 songs, but the censorship board only passed 11. At the time, we weren’t involved in politics – we sang about our people’s hopes and dreams, and young people’s desires. But the censorship board thought we were criticising the government.”

Nge Nge, 32, has been around since the early days, and collaborated with Acid on their first album. Like all the early stars of Burma’s hip-hop scene, her privileged upbringing afforded her access to a world of music inaccessible to most Burmese. “My dad and mom have a lot of American friends,” she said. “At their houses, we could listen to music and watch MTV. We didn’t have satellite dishes, so we had to go to embassies – they have satellite dishes – and we had to record [songs] on tape to listen to that stuff.”

In 2007, an anti-government uprising led by Buddhist monks – popularly known as the Saffron Revolution – prompted Zayar Thaw to co-found a movement called Generation Wave, which called for an end to military rule and a return to democracy.

Arrested in March 2008 and sentenced to six years in prison for his political activities, he was released in early 2011, coinciding with the start of reforms. He joined the opposition National League for Democracy, led by the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and was elected to Parliament just shy of one year after his release, as part of a by-election that also saw Ms Suu Kyi become a parliamentarian.

But when it comes to politics, most of the big names have made a conscious decision to steer clear. Sai Sai makes no apologies for the fact that there’s little depth to his lyrics. “Our music style, we talk about fun things,” he said. “The young generation, they like fun – the want to [come to] hip-hop shows because it’s a lot of fun.”

Sai Sai is one of the longest-lived acts on the scene – he looks a decade younger than his 33 years, and he’s been rapping for longer than that. But while his more politically inclined compatriots were advocating for change from abroad or languishing in jail cells, his music videos could be found playing on long-distance buses plying the country’s dilapidated highways and on sale at stalls in Burma’s major cities.

Despite its dalliances with social activism, most hip-hop in Burma is far removed in ethos and substance from the genre’s origins in America’s underprivileged inner-city neighbourhoods. “In Burma, most of the hip-hop songs don’t represent the people; they don’t represent the public,” said Zayar Thaw. “They represent the elites or are [an excuse] to show off.”

To be commercially viable and to stay out of prison meant keeping things tame. This aversion to edginess has carried forward – it’s rare to find swear words in Burmese hip-hop – even though the censorship board has been consigned to history. But if some of Burma’s hip-hop stalwarts have their way, it will be the soundtrack to the country’s new-found freedoms – and a forum for addressing the issues left unspoken under the dark days of direct military rule.

One of Zayar Thaw’s former Acid bandmates, Anegga Tweezy is a lanky 34-year-old with a rock-star swagger. He has stayed in the game as a producer, MC and promoter, and is also a vocal advocate for rappers he sees as pushing the political boundaries – something he wishes there was more of in the mainstream.

“This is what I [want] to hear,” he says. Pulling out his iPhone, he puts on a track called “Soldier” by the  Mandalay-based MC Ko Minn. With its stripped-down production, the focus is clearly on the message – a missive against the incessant civil war that has come to define contemporary Burma. “[He’s saying] that each side [the Burmese army and insurgent armies] is fighting against each other, [but] we are brothers.”

Anegga is a big fan of the emerging hip-hop scene in Burma’s second city, which he feels is a world away from Rangoon’s elitism. “They have their own identity of hip-hop. Not copied from America, or whatever,” he said. “They just read books and spit it.”

But making the right kind of controversy marketable will be a tough sell. Even though she has credibility behind her, Nge Nge is happy to follow the crowd, favouring good vibes over social commentary. “I don’t write about flashy stuff and I don’t write about politics. For me, it’s about life that I see,” she explained. But can hip-hop be used as a vehicle for social change? “I think so, if someone wants to,” she said. “That’s not going to be me.”