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Burma Rebooted: Part 3 — Young, gifted and Burmese

Burma youth culture pushes the censors' ever-changing invisible line.

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(Illustration by Antler/GlobalPost)

Editor's note: "Burma Rebooted" is a three-part series that looks at the startling reversal of Burma's repression and isolation. Though known for the world's longest running civil war and thousands of political prisoners, Burma is now also a place where pop singers can show a little skin, new cars will soon be seen around town and pushing back against China is suddenly a possibility.

RANGOON, Burma — The wall never stood a chance.

For starters, it was built of planks and crinkle-cut tin sheeting. It stood between a rabble of beer-buzzed Burmese teenagers and one of the year’s biggest outdoor rap concerts. And it was manned by a few security guards, in droopy beige uniforms and Barney Fife hats, each begging the mob to please display their tickets before stampeding inside.

Instead, some kid hurled a plastic chair that grazed a guard’s shoulder. Then came a volley of firecrackers tossed at the guards’ shoes. The boys cackled. Their girlfriends squealed. On stage, about 100 meters away, a tank-topped Burmese rapper broke into an English-language chorus:

This is that real hip-hop / Put your hands up in the sky
If you smoking weed / Put your hands up in the sky
All my dope niggas / Put your hands up in the sky

“Rapping about politics is bad for business.”
~J-Me, 26, one of Burma's most prominent rappers

And with a synchronized heave-ho, the wall came clattering to the ground. In surged hundreds of kids, high on rebellion. None paid the $7 ticket price, roughly one week’s pay for a civil servant in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, one the world’s poorest and least free countries.

One wall down. How many more to go?

Cowed into submission, hushed by paranoia, the Burmese have long suffered authorities’ stranglehold on information and expression. Censors filter out news that isn’t adequately upbeat. G-rated love songs are deemed too Western, and are banned. Outright dissidents can expect torture and decades in prison.

More from Burma Rebooted: Part 1 — Times are changing in Burma

Government propaganda outlets have warned that “alien culture such as scanty dresses” or “behavior that lacks modesty” is verboten. But these days, there is a growing sense that culture hawks inside Burma’s Ministry of Information might be willing to let kids be kids for the first time in decades. With previously out-of-bounds songs and music videos slipping through, it seems last year’s winds of change have blown into the censorship bureau.

In November 2010, an election transitioned Burma from a military dictatorship into a military-supervised civilian government. Western heads of state dismissed the process as rigged, and few expected much from a “democracy” run by military loyalists. Still, the new leadership has recently rolled back some restrictions on artists, journalists and even government critics.

The massive youth population in Burma, where the median age is just 27, is now left to test the new boundaries by trial and error.

Burma’s authoritarianism has driven the United States, the European Union and other nations to outlaw business dealings with the pariah state. One export, however, has proven unstoppable: American pop culture — or at least a derivative facsimile.

More from Burma Rebooted: Part 2 — Reformist government dares to push back against China

Burma’s gatekeepers seem oblivious to teenage psychology 101: If you claim all things America are evil, kids will start mimicking 50 Cent.

But producing music that’s sexy and brash — in other words, alluring to teenagers — has never been easy in Burma. All artists must run their tracks by censors at the state-run Myanmar Music Association, who sniff through and delete undesirable lyrics. Worse yet, they must pay for the privilege. There are no refunds for banned tracks, and distributing unfiltered music risks long prison terms.

“It’s a bummer,” said J-Me, a 26-year-old rapper who’s become one of Burma’s most popular hip-hop acts. “Alcohol, drugs, sex: that’s what they’re looking for.”

Western media outlets, often single-mindedly focused on Burma’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement, have portrayed Burmese hip-hop as freedom music or a force for political change.

“Rapping about politics is bad for business,” said J-Me. “No one will work with you if you’re connected to politics.”

More: Interview with Aung San Suu Kyi

There is, however, a market for songs about the classic teenage male pursuits: girls, ganja and good times. The government’s squeeze only heightens demand for hedonistic rap jams, and rewards the rapper who can sneak them by censors.

J-Me credits his success to a gift for metaphor. “I’ve always passed through a lot of censorship because I’m smarter than these other motherf**kers,” he said.

“But there’s snitches, see?” said J-Me, his lips curling in disgust. “They’ll go to the censor board for their album. And if they got deleted or banned, they point me out like, ‘Yo, J-Me said this s**t too! Why me?’”

There’s hope yet that snitches will soon have no place to run. Tint Swe, deputy head of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, recently told Radio Free Asia that newspapers shouldn’t have to submit articles prior to publication. Rappers, pop groups and producers are hoping for the same deal.

“I actually heard last week that we won’t be heading to the censor board in a year or so,” J-Me said. “That we can say what we want, however we want.”

Girls just wanna have fun

It was less than a year ago that R&B group Me-N-Ma Girls dared not submit a song containing this vanilla lyric: “I made a mistake yesterday, but today I’m going to change.” Their producer was adamant censors would perceive a coded jab at military dictators. (It wasn’t intended as such.)

“Last year, they were also really strict with short skirts and colored hair,” said Htike Htike, one of the group’s five singers and dancers. The Me-N-Ma Girls’ new set of videos features both. “We’re really sure it’ll pass.”

The Me-N-Ma Girls (get it? Myanmar Girls) are among a new wave of pop groups experimenting with censorship’s invisible line. On-stage booty shaking? Probably over the line. A little thigh? Just maybe.

Such experimentation is expensive. If songs or videos are rejected, all copies are destroyed and recording fees are wasted. And the Me-N-Ma Girls — Htike Htike, Ah Moon, Cha Cha, Wai Hnin Khaing and Kimi — are not exactly loaded.

More: Burma's hip-hop revolution

The girls, aged 20-25, were born into what passes for Burma’s middle class. They are the daughters of soup vendors, shrimp sellers and fabric merchants. Though poor by US standards, they are fortunate in Burma, where real poverty means a jungle hut, malnutrition and possibly fleeing army incursions into your village. Cha Cha has scraped by as a model, advertising pills or brake oil. Wai is a receptionist. Kimi gets paid $12 a night to sing in a cafe.

The Me-N-Ma Girls aspire not to the toothache-sweet pop pumped out by milk-skinned girl groups from Seoul or Tokyo. They pursue a style that’s sexier, feistier, less docile.

Yet their lives remain stifled by Burma’s isolation.

With the exception of Kimi, who moved to Rangoon from a region partially controlled by the Chin ethnic army, all live with their parents. They got into Facebook, banned for years in Burma, only about two months ago.

During daily power outages, the girls fire up a generator to keep rehearsals going. “But it’s pointless, because the generator’s louder than the music,” said Nicole May, an Australian vocal and dance coach who manages the group. “We’re practicing really hard, and the girls are choking on diesel.”

Most have endured their families’ suspicion for having pop-star dreams. “My parents and auntie have really scolded me,” said Htike Htike, recalling the night her family caught her on TV singing in a talent show. “They said, ‘If you do that again, I’ll really punish you ... you can’t be stylish like a pop star, wearing pants.”

Their access to the outside world comes in dribs and drabs, via excruciatingly slow internet connections, or through May. She escorted the group to Bangkok to shoot music videos in September. None of the girls had previously left Burma.

May mischievously arranged an evening of sensory overload that ended in one of Bangkok’s “ladyboy” bars, a den of gyrating transgender bikini action. Most giggled. Cha Cha freaked out and puked. But all agreed the ladyboys were “hot.”

Considering American pop’s shock-value arms race — end result: Lady Gaga in a meat dress — the Me-N-Ma Girls seem all the more innocent. Some of that sweetness is worth holding on to, Htike Htike said. One of their verses warns, “Don’t kiss no guys in the disco bar / ‘Cause that don’t fly in Myanmar.”

“I actually like that our country is really polite and gentle,” Htike Htike said. Added Ah Moon: “People think we’re a pitiful country. They think our eyes are shut ... I just want them to know we’re getting happier and will try harder.”

Also, Lady Gaga’s dad has probably never killed a tiger. Kimi’s has.

“What?” Kimi said. “I’m not joking.”