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Burma youth culture pushes the censors' ever-changing invisible line.
The fame machine
The road to Burmese stardom leads through the high-rise office of John Lwin, a 45-year-old talent agent and maker of celebrities.
Come casting days, the hallways resound with the clatter of high heels. Companies pitching instant coffee, tractors, jade and chainsaws all want ads with fetching females. The flow of wannabe models, Lwin said, is endless.
Those with even higher ambitions offer themselves up as undiscovered singing talent. “I do jungle R&B,” said Wai Ti, a singer whose career hasn’t quite blossomed. She milled about the agency halls, awaiting an audience with Lwin, her fake contacts matching her skin-tight green dress.
Few girls satisfy Lwin’s eye. “I can tell who has potential in seconds,” he said. “They must have the X-factor.” Asked to elaborate, he flipped open a portfolio and pointed to a young beauty, draped in jewels at a gem expo.
“See this? It’s a big problem,” Lwin said. “Myanmar girls have chubby legs.”
Boy bands, girl groups, soap-opera queens and fashionistas: Lwin has created them all. “Most of the movie stars here, I own them,” he said. Though his family’s business is alcohol — they own one of Burma’s biggest whiskey brands, Grand Royal — Lwin prefers to be the starmaker of Rangoon.
Lwin started his agency, Stars and Models International, after a modeling career in Singapore. He was sent there by his father as the 1988 uprising, championed by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, began to threaten military rule with raucous protests. The rebellion was violently crushed. Two years later, Suu Kyi’s election to the prime minister’s seat was voided by generals.
Two decades later, as Burmese authorities attempt a pseudo-democracy, there are reasons to fear that Burma’s isolation has left a vacuum of creative thinking.
If the tape is ripped from entertainers’ mouths, will they have anything original to say?
Consider the sad state of Burmese pop. In a total absence of observed copyright laws, groups release note-for-note copies of Western hits with Burmese lyrics.
Even the all-original Me-N-Ma Girls, in a previous incarnation with a different producer, specialized in so-called “copy tracks.” With a little pleading, they can still sing a Burmese ripoff of Sean Kingston’s “Fire Burning.” (“So embarrassing,” Htike Htike said.)
Though Lwin is busy sculpting Burma’s next big boy band, he’s only marginally invested in music. Much of his entertainment income, he said, comes from organizing grandiose expos headlined by his stars. “I have a house in Bangkok and another in Singapore,” he said. “I didn’t buy them with music money.”
That has not slowed the parade of pop-star hopefuls knocking on his door.
After an hour of waiting, Wai Ti was finally granted an audience with Lwin. It was Burma’s Buddhist Thadungyut holiday, a time to pay respects to teachers and elders.
Wai Ti brought offerings: a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola and a canister of Ovaltine. After placing them on his desk, she dropped to her knees, touched her nose to the carpet and murmured an honorific incantation.
“They just do this so I’ll remember them,” Lwin said after she left. “I have so many girls coming here. I forget them so easily.”
As the Johnnie Walker flowed, so did J-Me. His crew had taken over the second floor of a cafe, killed the lights and put an upstart Burmese rapper/producer, G-Tone, on the sound system. In between gulps of whiskey-and-Coke, J-Me rhymed along with G-Tone’s rotating cast of MCs: old-school Dr. Dre, 1990s legend Nas, contemporary lyricists Slaughterhouse.
“Kids like all types of hip-hop here,” J-Me said. “Right now, everyone’s into [American] down-south rap.”
The UK booze, the American Cokes, the Brooklyn rhymes. Was this still Burma?
The only evidence was a blunt — gutted and herbally enhanced — circulating around the room. It was not made from Phillies or Swisher Sweets, the US corner-store cigarillo of choice, but from a cheroot, Burma’s traditional green-leaf stogie. “Yeah, a cheroot,” said one stocky hip-hop dude between puffs. “We can’t do real blunts here.”
In a land offering so much to rebel against, why does Burma’s hip-hop scene fixate on American excess?
Perhaps kids crave escapism. Even Burmese teenagers lucky enough to own a stereo are still far too poor to party like J-Me. Only about 15-30 percent of homes have electricity, according to the various estimates, and the country’s average monthly salary is only $27, according to the United Nations. (That jug of imported Johnny Walker Red Label ran $30.)
There is a sub-genre of activist rap, led by an anonymous collective called “Generation Wave,” that dwells on Burma’s poverty and abuse. Its MCs, some serving prison terms, have provoked Burma’s youth to topple the corrupt leadership.
But that could require kids to rise up against their favorite act’s family. Burmese hip-hop appeals equally to cronies’ children and kids whose families struggle under their grip on power.
That same outdoor concert bumrushed by broke kids also featured a young singer named Whine Su Khine Thein. The assets of her father, Burma’s fisheries minister, and grandfather, a former senior official, are frozen by the EU to prevent funding “internal repression or terrorism.”
Other children of the elite belong to a "2 Fast 2 Furious"-style street racing crew called the “Yangon Drift” that careens over cratered avenues in tricked-out Japanese imports. Fees and import restrictions can drive the cost of such cars higher than $35,000. Most Burmese might as well pine for an F-16.
G-Tone, however, is one of the rappers who “really reps the ‘hood and the struggle,” according to J-Me. “I’ve been to G-Tone’s ‘hood and it’s crazy!” But G-Tone’s grit landed him in police custody in 2007, after he dared to show off his back tattoo on stage.
He and his group, Cyclone, were ordered to stop performing for a year. Though waylaid by the order, the crew gained cred. “Over here, you need street credibility more than lyrics,” J-Me said. “If you want to be gangsta, you need to have really done something. Like punch a cop in the face. Or bring a sword to a show.”
Burma’s dominant rap style, according to University of Texas anthropologist Ward Keeler is “masculine, aggressive and materialist” and largely disinterested in stoking a revolution. Keeler, in a 2009 study, wrote that “progressive observers” may regret top Burmese rappers failing to offer “messages linked to powerful beats [that] incite disadvantaged people to join together to push for change.”
“But we have to be ready to admit,” he wrote, “that the pleasure people take in rap may lead to no consequences beyond itself.”
J-Me is prepared for just that scenario. He’s already plotting a career shift from rhyme spitter to businessman, a contingency plan in case Burmese hip-hop never tears down the walls manned by out-of-touch censors.
“Me, I don’t believe that s**t will ever happen. Not in my lifetime,” J-Me said. “But if I was a 15-year-old guy now, I’d be so happy.”