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
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.”
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.”