Tajikistan's rap scene has had a turbulent couple of years. Since 2014, hip-hop has been banned from buses, minicabs, public spaces, and state TV and radio, and the country's few private stations refuse to play it for fear of losing their licenses. Performers whose music is "alien to national and universal human values," as the mayor of the Tajik capital Dushanbe put it, are also barred from holding concerts, with authorities refusing to issue the necessary permits.
While many have fled the country, complaining of persecution, others have found a way around the media blackout: Just praise the president. Parading in front of the capital city Dushanbe's phallic flagpole, stars such as Boron now rap about how President Rahmon is "God's shadow [in] paradise on Earth."
In this authoritarian nation, where any lingering idea of freedom of speech is fast disappearing, despite having been president for a quarter of a century, Emomali Rahmon is in no hurry to relinquish power. In a dubious referendum held in May this year, Rahmon secured 94.5 percent of the vote in favor of his being able to run for unlimited terms, as well as making his family—who own nearly all of the businesses in the country—permanently immune from prosecution.
I spoke with a UN elections observer in Dushanbe about a video that had surfaced of Rahmon at one of his sons' weddings dancing drunkenly and performing karaoke. Gray cronies spinning around him like some nightmarish boy band on a reunion tour, a clip of his antics became an internet sensation. "So Rahmon banned YouTube from Tajikistan to 'prevent the misconduct of the people,'" the observer explained. "The site was down for three weeks while the president's gofers worked out how to remove the offending material from Tajik cyberspace."
I asked David Lewis, senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, why free speech is seen as such a threat in Tajikistan.
"Although dissenting voices might not seem to have much support, they undermine the model of a highly controlling but popular regime that President Rahmon has developed," he said. "Even a few voices disturb the self-image that the political leadership has developed, and the government is concerned that criticism can quickly develop into wider political opposition. Most alternative voices end up in emigration, one way or another. The regime has been very active in pursuing dissenting voices, both at home and abroad. It has tried to use Interpol to track and detain political opponents and radical Islamist activists alike. There have been credible allegations of violence against émigrés and cases of forced returns and imprisonment of Tajiks in Russia."
Born in the Tajik city of Khorog, rapper Dorob-YAN's family was forced to flee the country after the civil war of 1992.
"My father was a rebel, and he fought for the people, so he began to receive threats from the government," YAN's told me. "I lived in Kyrgyzstan until 2005, and then I moved to Russia, where rap has amassed a huge listenership."
Falling afoul of the security services in Moscow, YAN's was apprehended after releasing a track criticizing the Tajik president, "Do Not Be Silent," which features lyrics like:
Politicians with full stomachs / never get tired of the money in their bank accounts / Meanwhile, the people remain silent and believe / that one day the feast will come to their streets / I am the son of this city and of this poor country / and who, if not we, will be able to escape this darkness?
We are surrounded by construction, hotels, and boutiques / while our homes have no water or electricity, and all without reason / Why do our people have to be slaves in a foreign country? / My motherland gently weeps and waits, waits / to be liberated by its people.
"The people who detained me were employees of the Tajik law enforcement agencies, together with the Russian authorities," YAN's said. "They detained me three times. With the third detention, they began to threaten me: that they would put me away for a long time, that I would never have any chance to be free again, that I should not have put out the track, and also that they could just eliminate me—for example, have me murdered—and that's not even all the threats. At the same time, they wanted to open a criminal case against me and have me extradited. When they released me, they said, 'We're not saying goodbye.' They blocked my pages on social networks. I began receiving threatening phone calls, both from Russian phone numbers and Tajik ones. I realized that I had to lay low for some time, and I flew to Kyrgyzstan."
"Wolf Side," by Dorob YAN's. Via YouTube
I spoke with rapper SOR—a resident of Dushanbe—about the problems inherent in being a musician in Tajikistan. Having raised the money to make his first record by carrying sacks of cement around a market, he spoke not just about the politics but also the economic dimension.
"I've been doing music for about 15 years," he said, "but from the beginning, it was very difficult as there was no studio. In music, especially with rap, it's impossible to live, impossible to earn money. Old school rappers aren't making music anymore, the reason being so they can live. You have to work because there are hungry people in the house. It's very important that there's an alternative scene, but unfortunately, no one will say that, and no one supports rap artists, including the Ministry of Culture. The 2000s were a different time; that was the time of real underground rap."
"In Da Devonahona," by SOR
With freedom of expression and youth movements under fire, an oppressive air hangs over the streets of Dushanbe. There's little to engage young people. Blocking the road with whistles to their lips, by day the militsiya stop motorists every 50 yards along the main drag, grimaces followed by the presentation of bribes. By night, the city screeches, boy-racers revving their engines. In a country with extremely narrow perceptions of what's considered a good job, for many a career as a musician is a choice that falls beyond the pale. In this climate, some rappers have taken to pleasing the powers that be.
Outfitted in the national colors, posturing as they dance around heritage sites, the video for "Tajikistan" by Adaba, Mr. Skap, and Sam Salamov plays out like a tourist board advert, celebrating everything from the national airline to the Tajik soccer team. Interspersed with shots of the president, the track asks listeners to raise the flag and celebrate independence, achieved with "God's"—aka Rahmon's—help.
Adaba, Mr Skap, and Sam Salamov
Taking this logic a step further, the video for Boron's "Dear Motherland" sees the rapper inspired by the words of the president, "leader of the Nation, Grandpa Emomali." The platitudes clearly worked; in April 2016, Boron's track became the first rap video featured on state TV for more than two years.
"In Tajikistan, there's a big industry of festivals, where people celebrate holidays, birthdays, and weddings together," explained an NGO source who wished to remain anonymous. "These artists that sing about 'sun' and 'God,' they simply want to be invited to these events. Government officials may well organize these festivities, and if they invite a singer, they'd like to listen to a 'proper song,' if you know what I mean. I think those singers are just following an economic perspective; they simply want to get a job."
Currently blacklisted from entering his homeland, YAN's remains a firm believer in the power of music to effect change.
"Without the youth, there's no future," he said. "The government doesn't pay attention to them, and this is their mistake, the effects of which will be felt later. Out of boredom, many have already gone off to fight in Syria, but don't even know what they're going to be fighting for. I'll continue to make political tracks to address the government of Tajikistan. When my father was 92 years old, he defended his people. Now it's our time. But our fathers had to protect their people's interests with guns, while today we only need a pen and paper."
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