Burma's Rappers Don't Care Much About Politics

Jeroen de Bakker

Even after Burma's 2011 democratic reforms, the government is still pretty much controlled by the military, and speaking out against the state can land you in prison, as local rapper Zayar Thaw found out.

Unlike their parents and grandparents before them, today's Burmese rappers keep away from politics. “I’m a rapper,” says local musician J-Me. “Politics don’t matter to me.” Even after the country's 2011 democratic reforms, the government is still pretty much controlled by the military, only their control is less visible than in 1962, when the army staged a coup d'etat. So just to be on the safe side, the Burmese have learned to watch their words.

Zayar Thaw is the frontman of the popular hip-hop crew Acid. In 2008, Thaw was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison because it was said that he was involved with the pro-democracy movement Generation Wave. Indeed, his songs featured a fair amount of coded criticism of the regime. In 2011, possibly in an attempt to show the Western world that the Burmese government was cool, Thaw and hundreds of other dissidents were released early.

Despite this alleged political transformation, nobody in Burma seems to know what they can or cannot say, think, or do. For 28-year-old Ye Yint, member of the band One Way and founding member of hip-hop crew G-Family, the priority is to create a unique Burmese sound, but "that requires a lot of work," he said.

He hopes that his work will contribute to the development of Burma's music scene, and believes that smoking weed can help with that. One Way recently wrote a song about marijuana, which they titled "Marie-Ana," because, as he explains, "we wouldn't have been able to pass it through the censorship commission and it would have never been played on the radio otherwise."

—Maarten van der Schaaf

Dutch documentary photographer Jeroen de Bakker is looking at what 60 years of dictatorship has done to Burma and its citizens. More about the project can be found on the Myanmar Project website.