KABUL, Afghanistan – In a gated art gallery in the centre of the capital, a group of rappers dressed in baggy black shirts and skateboard pants perform.
Their rap is distinctly Afghan.
Their beats mix seamlessly with the rubab and dambora, classical Afghan instruments. Their freestyle is blunt, political and a reflection of their traumatic lives growing up in America’s longest war.
Perhaps that’s why the rappers are going viral. They were born around the time the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban from power in 2001 and they are entering their twenties as the U.S. plans to leave.
The rappers are the quintessential urban Gen Z Afghan.
They are students becoming doctors and engineers, who are also juggling jobs to support their families. They are building a hopeful future, while exploring their unapologetic identity in a country whose story has always been told from the outside through the lens of war and U.S. troops.
“Hip-hop is important as it shows us a different peaceful world,” Jawad Sezdeh from the Afghan rap duo AK13 told VICE World News.
“When we are freestyling, everyone’s just doing their own thing, there’s no Pashtun, no Tajik, no Hazara. There’s no fighting.”
The rappers desire for peace is captured in their most recent release, the single “I AM”, which gained half a million views on YouTube.
It was released around the time the U.S. announced their plans to withdraw troops after two decades, even though the Taliban still control or contest more than half the country.
AK13’s Jawad Sezdeh and Seraj Amiri also rap with Hadi Hashemi and Fareed Lalzad under the name LBR.
In “I AM”, they collaborated with many other rappers in Kabul to produce an epic protest anthem, which seems to directly address the Taliban in Afghanistan’s national language Dari and says, “You didn’t let anyone live. Division was your practice in the country. We yearn for peace.”
But as the U.S. has been decreasing its troops, violence against civilians in Afghanistan has surged 40 percent, according to the UN.
Recently, tragedy struck the rappers’ own impoverished and predominantly Hazara neighbourhood, where a school bombing killed 60 mostly teenage girls.
Their hillside neighbourhood in the west of the capital is no stranger to extremism violence. In fact, their name AK13 is a play on the AK-47, the rifle, and their neighbourhood’s name, District 13.
“Our destiny is very similar to people of colour in the U.S.,” Jawad Sezdeh said. His fellow rapper Lalzad explained they were heavily influenced by the birthplace of hip-hop, the South Bronx, and the rappers Rakim, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and The Notorious B.I.G.
“I believe in their ideologies. They fight for innocent people,” Lalzad told VICE World News.
Kabul’s hip-hop community has a spectrum of Afghan ethnicities but many are Hazara, a historically persecuted group. Hazaras account for 20 percent of Afghanistan’s 30 million population, but they were only given equal rights under Afghanistan’s constitution in 2004.
In one of the single most brutal events of Taliban violence, thousands of Hazaras were systematically executed in 1998, according to Human Rights Watch.
With American encouragement, Hazara representation in government has since expanded, but systemic discrimination and violence remains.
More than a thousand Hazaras have been killed in 50 targeted attacks against their community since 2016. Many of the attacks were claimed by the Taliban or the Islamic State's affiliate in Afghanistan and happened where the rappers live: Kabul’s District 13. Whenever violence happens, the hashtag #HazaraLivesMatter trends on Twitter.
For the Gen Z rappers, the thought of Taliban presence within their government is an unimaginable affront.
But that is their future, as is evident with U.S. troop withdrawal, which was part of a peace deal the American government signed with the Taliban in 2020.
Their uneasy future is even embedded in the awkward language of the deal that says, “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban.”
But the Gen Z rappers seem determined to fight back with their music. “We target young Afghans who share our views of rebuilding the country and protecting hard-won freedoms during continuous instability,” Sezdeh said.
For AK13 and others in Afghanistan’s hip-hop community, transitioning to adulthood has been more complicated given their country’s continuously uncertain political future and power struggle with the Taliban. Their individual stories have been overshadowed by headlines of America’s conflict with the Taliban.
“Western media tends to be one-sided when it comes to Afghanistan,” said Dr. Najib Sharifi, co-founder of the Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee. “It focuses on what it means for the U.S.”
Abdul Qahar Jawad, a professor of journalism at Kabul University, told VICE World News, “Youth are not given fair coverage, even though 63 percent of our population is under 25.”
The rappers are all between the ages of 18 and 22. Many of them live in the densely populated District 13, which has close to half a million people with limited state utilities like water and electricity and state facilities such as drainage and sanitation.
Freestyling enables the rappers to let go of thought. In “I AM” they reflect on “a life that doesn’t exist,” where “their weapon is their rap, and their words are their bullets.”
“I fight because I don’t want my sister to fight or be depressed,” the rapper Hashemi said.
For them, growing up under Taliban and American occupation, rapping has become a coping mechanism and a meaningful way to speak up. “This is our revolution against a society that needs to change,” Hashemi said.
And they are slowly gaining a loyal audience among Afghanistan’s Gen Z. But their popularity has not come without struggle.
Their viral music video “Kabul az Maast” took months to produce using an old camera. The rappers had to walk miles to get to and from the shoot location and their homes. They create with little equipment and have to work extra jobs to pay for their studio, which costs $150 a month to rent.
“We get all these comments about how well we are doing, but nobody understands what a struggle it has been to get there,” Sezdeh said.
But these are not close to their biggest challenges.
Their families worry about their safety. “Those who are doing something different in our society, they are all under threat,” the rapper Amiri’s brother Shahab said.
Sezdeh’s mother Fatima points at his tattoos and her eyes begin to water. She worries they may put him at risk.
Revealing their interest in hip-hop was not easy at first, but they have managed to gain support from family. Hashemi’s grandmother grew a greater appreciation for rap after listening to “Mojahid,” a song dedicated to his grandfather, who died during the Afghan-Soviet war. “I felt connected with his lyrics,” she said.
Increasingly, their families believe rap is a form of activism. “They are a voice for people and young generations,” Hashemi’s father Sayed said.
“There’s family who will support you, outside society who think rap is wrong, and radical Islamists who think this is something against Islam.” Sayed said. “All we can do as a family is be supportive.”
Despite the risk, the rappers believe that “the world needs to see not only who they are, but also, a real part of Afghanistan.” They dream of hosting international concerts. Right now, they perform only wherever it is safe to do so.
Their music has even caught the attention of other international rappers, including Atlanta-based King Darius, a ghostwriter for Lil Wayne. They are currently working on a collaboration.
For now, hip-hop is their way of making a difference. Sezdeh hopes that continuing to tell their story will inspire others to do the same. “We want to show that even with all our problems, we can’t be taken out so easily by anything. We exist, and we will never give up.”
Update 8/18/21: This story has been updated.