For the past three years, the Sound Central Music Festival drew artistic talent from across Afghanistan, featuring music, dance and art. But not this year.

On April 5, Afghans will head to the polls to vote for a new president from a slate of 10 candidates. The situation is a bit uneasy right now, so it’s not the best time for a full-on music festival. So one of the festival’s organizers came up with another idea.

Inspired by the ‘Rock the Vote’ campaign in the US, Travis Beard got the idea for running an election song competition to get young people to participate in elections.

“Famous musicians can get people, and especially the youth, interested in voting,” Beard says. “Because, frankly, voting is not cool. Voting is not sexy.”

Youth around the world are notorious for poor voter turnout. In Afghanistan, the reasons are a bit different. For a young country, with a young population, the idea of voter participation is relatively new.

More than 60 percent of Afghans are under the age of 24. Eligible young voters have grown up through the Taliban and the US invasion. They could be a significant force in the elections — if they head to the polls.

For the competition, the organizers released several music tracks for participants to write lyrics around. The lyrics had to deal with elections and civic participation.

But with Afghanistan’s recent history, it’s no surprise that song submissions took on other issues, too, like ethnic tension and years of turmoil.

“Go to voting boxes without any fear," was a line from one of the winning entries, by a rap duo from Herat in the western part of Afghanistan.

When the submissions started filtering in, the majority were actually hip hop and rap themed, even though rap wasn’t a requirement. Beard attributes that to the oral tradition of poetry in the country.

“If you can put a basic 4/4 beat behind them with a little bit of a melody, they can rap this stuff out very easily,” he explains.

In the process, Beard discovered great new talent, both inside the country and out. Sonita is a female rapper born in Afghanistan, who now lives in Iran. Her rap is some of the best Beard has heard. The duo Sami and Shaheed were the other winners.

“Because we put this out on television — national television — and radio and bombarded Afghan online sites, these kids sort of popped up out of nowhere,” Beard says.

He had heard rumors about an underground hip-hop culture, but he didn’t really have a way of discovering that talent.

“We kind of knew there was a hip hop scene over in the west of Afghanistan. We’d had one of their acts on our festival, but we didn’t realize there was a whole sort of crew," he says. "We unearthed some really interesting rappers over there, and even some musicians that were Afghan-born, but actually not living in Afghanistan.”

The second part of the competition involves re-recording the songs in a studio and creating a music video. The competition and the music were broadcast on the same TV channel that airs the talent show, Afghan Star. There’s also talk of a possible compilation album featuring all the entries from the competition.

“All we want to do is just get the youth to participate in the elections,” Beard says. “I think with cool music like this, some kids out in the urban areas, if not the rural areas of Afghanistan, will listen and go, ‘Hey, that’s really quite cool. Hell, I am going to go down to the ballot boxes and put my vote in.'"

He says that’s the bottom line.

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