YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar’s reforms over the last two years are opening the nation to the wider world, experts say, allowing the once-cloistered nation to experience greater foreign influence as it eases restrictions on its people.
But throughout Yangon, from political graffiti tags on walls, to teens breakdancing in clubs, to the throbbing sounds of Burmese rap coming from the open windows of passing cars, cultural exchange in the form of hip-hop culture is already alive and well.
In a cafe in downtown Burma, 21-year-old rappers Ash and X-Box explain the challenges that came with creating hip-hop culture in a military dictatorship. Part of an underground scene here in Yangon, their clothing would fit in seamlessly in any hip-hop concert or video in the United States.
"Before there was a censorship people would go through. Say if music or videos were offensive there could be real repercussions. So people would watch what they would say. Underground rappers wouldn’t censor themselves, but if a song did get popular the government might talk to you," Ash says, alluding to the arrest and imprisonment of Zayer Thaw, a popular Burmese rapper-turned-parliamentarian whose pro-democracy lyrics resulted in a three year stint in prison.
“In the beginning I started out writing graffiti, but I’ve loved hip-hop music since I was a kid,” said Ash. “I started writing in 2007 and started rapping in 2009… back then because of the political situation things were really restricted, but I liked that it was something that was part of a small community and that you had to go out and learn on your own.”
He said he began to write, becoming a local graffiti artist, after watching graffiti films like the 1983 documentary Style Wars and profiles of graffiti writers like DARE and Cope 2 by streaming them in Internet cafes.
Locals decry Burma’s online access as slow and unreliable, but this didn’t deter Ash.
“It was tough finding stuff,” he said. “The connection even now is still pretty bad though. You need a lot of patience. Back then, it would take hours.”
It was through graffiti writing, risking arrest to make artistic tags on walls, throughout Yangon that Ash met others in the graffiti community in the city. He explains, “Even today pieces come down and are erased very quickly, within a few days."
It was within this short span that young artists communicated, "When you tag something, someone else might come and tag your piece. So we’d look each other’s names up on local graffiti message boards or eventually Facebook, and meet up and get together, and get to know each other.”
As his network grew, his interest in creating pieces of hip-hop artwork expanded as well. Ash explained that he loves West Coast rap, as he felt influenced by the sounds of Southern California, from classic canonized records like Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” to newer rappers like The Game and Kendrick Lamar.
He revealed that the sounds of Los Angeles rap, heavy baselines mixed with syrupy synths, felt relatable to life in Yangon. After all, both cities possess a vibrant car culture — it isn’t unusual to find sports coupes with custom rims and paint jobs carving through Yangon’s streets during the long-awaited breaks in stifling heat that accompany nightfall.
“I like their daily life, the sound, the style, the backing of tracks. The music just sounds like a sunset. The mood, even in videos, is warm and reminds me of Yangon at sundown,” Ash noted.
Likewise, fellow rapper X-Box, leaning his Florida State snapback cap backwards and tilted diagonally to the side, explained what first piqued his interest in hip-hop.
“I started rapping in 2009, freestyling and battling. The film ‘8 Mile’ became really popular and battles just spread throughout the city… I love Biggie, and I love Eminem, and I love writing and saying the things I want… my music isn’t political but it does push the limits of what is accepted and talks about issues in young people’s lives, not being scared of authority.”
Both rappers have extremely distinct styles, which combine dense Burmese wordplay with a vast knowledge of American rap cadences. While both seem to be immensely aware of American hip-hop, X-Box says, “Before people would just take more American sounds, but now the sound is different. People are mixing in Burmese instruments and drums into the beats that people rap over. The sound is beginning to really develop in a new direction that is very Burmese.”
Both Ash and X-Box agree that Zayar Thaw, whose pro-democracy lyrics and use of hip-hop imagery in democratic protest art have turned him into one of the nation’s most popular young politicians, and his group Acid, were largely influential.
“Most of the population that follows rap are into more of a pop sound, but there are people who have made underground real hip-hop consistently. Zayar Thaw and Acid were part of the first generation that really made real hip-hop popular here. Most hip-hop here was very pop at the time, very Korean-pop influenced, but Acid was real hip-hop,” X-Box says.
While X-Box and Ash don’t see their music in an immediate political context, they do see the democratic changes that have transpired over the last two years as pivotal.
“Things have changed a lot... because that censorship is now gone, people can talk about whatever they want,” Ash explains.
“Things move slow. And the country is still pretty conservative. But now people are really open to new things, showing different stuff that would be normal in America,” Ash continues, while showing a rough cut of a new video; the scene features him exhaling a huge plume of smoke.
And X-Box has a new song explicitly titled “F*** the Police,” echoing the Los Angeles rap group NWA's classic track.
“I wanted to make something that young people can relate to,” he said. “Something that says that we don't have to listen to authority anymore. That people should do what they want."