Myanmar: Hip-hop's revolution

MAE SOT, Thailand — Behind the rusty prison bars, two men lie on the floor in light blue fatigues. A stream of light pours in through a small window near the top of their cell. All is still.

Suddenly, loud music begins to blare. The men leap up and clang their iron shackles as smoke drifts into their cell. They start singing against a heavy beat: “Never turn back, never give up.”

Despite appearances, these men are not criminals and they are not in prison — at least not in a literal sense.

9KT and MK are famous Myanmar hip-hop artists on the set of their latest music video, "Never Give Up." Donning black masks and using pseudonyms, these musicians aim to keep their political tunes under the radar of a dictatorship as oppressive as Myanmar, formerly called Burma.

“We wanted to film in a prison cell in order to represent for all our members and friends who are now behind bars,” said 9KT, arranging his mask on the set of the music video. “We are trying to tell the government, even if they imprison us they cannot stop us fighting for freedom; we will always carry on.”

“We are telling the people that they shouldn’t give up,” he said. “Burmese youth can’t be afraid of the Burmese junta, they need to fight for freedom in our country.”

Watch a draft of the "Never Give Up" music video:

Already a prominent hip-hop artist in Myanmar, 9KT grew inspired to make more subversive songs when he heard the political hip-hop of refugees from his country in Australia. He wanted to similarly address the extreme suffering he saw around him.

He traveled to Mae Sot, Thailand, near the Myanmar border, more than a year ago. The area has for more than two decades played host to an array of organizations opposing the Myanmar junta.

There, he joined up with an underground political group called Generation Wave (GW). He later met MK through GW, and they immediately found common ground in their love for music and the desire to “wake up the youth.” In Mae Sot, they can produce their music with relative safety, away from the police presence in Yangon, Myanmar's capital.

GW itself was formed after the "Saffron Revolution" in September 2007 when rising fuel prices provoked thousands of monks to take to the streets in protest. Civilians joined the movement, but the military junta cracked down, leaving hundreds dead and thousands imprisoned.

Following the crackdown, a group of protesters, who had been friends since high school, started GW as a way to inspire new activists inside Myanmar. Having analyzed revolutions worldwide and the opposition movement in their country they decided to focus on non-violent resistance.

In two and half years, the group has carried out what they call “action campaigns” almost every week. Their main activities include anti-government graffiti in busy places, handing out pamphlets and writing and distributing political music.

“The youth of Burma have seen so many activists thrown behind bars, they have seen monks killed in the streets, so many are turning their back to the struggle for human rights,” said Min Yan Naing, founder of GW. “Our job and aim is to bring them back and make them feel the responsibility to change our country and better the lives for all Burmese people.”

Just association with GW risks a hefty prison sentence. Thirty GW members have been arrested. Nyie Chan was handed the longest sentence, 32 years, and is said to be suffering from severe stomach problems in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison near Yangon.

Zayar Thaw, another famous hip-hop artist, was arrested and sentenced to six years. Minutes before Zayar Thaw was sentenced, he wrote a statement, which was leaked to GW members. “Tell the people to have the courage to reject the things they don’t like, and even if they don’t dare to openly support the right thing, tell them not to support the wrong thing,” he said in his statement.

The young musician pioneered the hip-hop industry in Myanmar, releasing the first-ever rap album in the country in 2003. The rock ‘n’ roll music fans of Myanmar’s crumbling cities found a new passion overnight.

Zayar Thaw's thirst for hip-hop was married to his desire to further democracy in Myanmar. The most prolific of GW campaigns, which saw the phrase “Change New Government” being applied to Change Nitric Gas stickers, was his brainchild. This motto is also spray-painted across the gate of GW’s safe house in Mae Sot.

All the walls of the GW safe house are covered in graffiti. One wall has “Freedom” splattered across it. Another has "Generation Wave" stenciled in red, with a large clenched fist giving a thumbs up — GW’s logo.

9KT’s latest album, “Never Give Up,” is a direct message to youth. Eleven tracks, to be released in October in time with Myanmar's elections, mix rock and hip-hop. One song called “If We All Unite,” talks about coming together to topple the government; while another, “Negative Thinking,” is a comic song that mocks the generals for their bad intentions.

“Music can change everything. Popular music can change a lot,” he said. “When I was young and heard celebrities singing happy songs, it made me happy, if they sang angrily, it made me angry — so I hope if the people hear political songs from familiar voices they will become interested in politics.”

The cameraman at the music video shoot takes an aerial position. 9KT shakes a can of spray paint and skillfully tags "2010," to represent the upcoming elections, on the concrete floor. Without delay he whips out his second can and aggressively paints a white cross over the digits.

Angrily, he stamps on it and walks off. With a bit of luck a dog walks over the graffiti. Since dogs are considered lowly creatures, cheers arise from the group which believes the upcoming election will be a sham — a belief furthered by new election laws that for the first time allow the junta to legally arrest opposition politicians who did not register.

As the camera and lights get packed up GW members sit around a table with guitars discussing their upcoming furtive campaigns.

“We have to do as many as possible during the elections,” Min Yan Naing told the group. “A revolution is evolving, it might not happen over night but at least the people will soon realize they have the right to be free.”