A Lesson from ‘Gangam Style’

Korean pop-star Psy’s video for ‘Gangam Style’ recently surpassed Justin Beiber’s ‘Baby’ to become the most watched YouTube video EVER, with over 840,000,000 views. Psy has appeared on Saturday Night Live and Ellen (two huge markers of success), I ran into several Psy look-alikes on Halloween, and countless parodies have been made, including the politically charged ‘Mitt Romney Style’ video.

It’s been interesting to hear the reaction to this Korean music video going viral from pundits and reporters here in the United States where, quite frankly, we tend to think we’re the best at this kind of thing.

For those of you who haven’t seen the video or don’t know much about it, ‘Gangnam Style’ is a comical pop song making fun of Seoul’s elite. It’s a goofy song with a good beat and a charismatic dancer/singer. It is what a hit pop song is all about. But it’s done something that not many pop songs from non-Western countries have done – it’s made a huge international splash.

One of my favorite reporting teams, NPR’s Planet Money, recently reported on the video’s success and what it means. They explain that this is the result of a calculated effort on the part of the Korean music industry over the past 20 years to develop a strong and competitive pop industry. As Korea continues to become increasingly competitive in the global marketplace when it comes to cars and electronics, so too are they developing their cultural exports. As reporter Zoe Chace succinctly puts it, “It’s what happens when a developing country becomes developed – an infrastructure to make and export culture develops too.”

For anyone in Asia or who follows Asian culture, Korean pop music (K-pop) is nothing new. The girl group Girls’ Generation, is just one of many who have gained huge recognition throughout the continent.

In Mongolia, where urban youth buy Korean clothes, emulate Korean hairstyles, and watch Korean films, Korean music videos were played on the music channels every bit as much as Mongolian and western videos.

However, the music market in the United States tends to favor a) songs sung in ENGLISH and b) songs produced in the west. And so for ‘Gangnam Style’ to be played on radio stations and featured on television programs is quite a leap.

But, not everyone seems so impressed. Conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly dedicated an episode of his show to trying to understand this trend. It seems ‘Gangnam Style’s’ popularity evaded him, and so he decided to deconstruct the appeal. It’s worth watching the 5 minute clip to fully appreciate.

What I think the root of the issue here is that it’s difficult to accept that another nation (an Asian nation, at that) might actually be competitive in the cultural marketplace. As Americans, we have come to accept that the entire world imports our culture. Sports figures, musicians, actors – their names and faces are known worldwide.

There’s some implicit sense of cultural superiority that accompanies this phenomenon. And now, as other nations’ music and film industries are becoming increasingly competitive here in the United States, it seems we’re losing a bit of that notion that what is produced here in the U.S. is obviously the best and should be consumed the world-over.

Korea has managed to do something that the Mongolian music industry is eager to accomplish. They have created an internationally recognized brand of music (K-Pop) that is now on the same playing field as pop music from Australia, Great Britain, and the United States. Granted, Korea has been working at this for decades and has the capital and man power necessary to make the leap from national to international marketing, two things Mongolia is lacking. Still, the K-Pop craze is inspiring to the Mongolian pop industry as musicians and producers develop their own brand by mixing unique Mongolian sounds with the pleasant pop-rock accepted world wide – Mongol Pop.

I can’t help but feel that the success of ‘Gangnam Style’ must be encouraging to these musicians who are looking to not only be active consumers of culture worldwide, but also producers.

Musings: Mongolian Imitation and Innovation

Now that I am more adjusted here in Pittsburgh, PA, it’s time to get back to the project at hand: turning all of my footage and interviews into a coherent documentary!

I spent this morning transcribing an interview I did with anthropologist David Sneath from Cambridge University last summer. He spoke eloquently about Mongolian politics, modern history, and nationalism. Sneath has been coming to Mongolia since it opened up to outsiders in the early 1990s, and lived in Chinese Inner Mongolia before that, so he’s seen it all.

As I sat listening to the interview and typing it verbatim (which I do for all of my interviews), I was struck by one answer in particular. Over the course of my research I continuously came across this pattern of imitation, mastery, and then innovation. In the 1990s, western music was brand new, and thus, exciting. The first grunge band, the first boy band, the first punk band, etc, all started cropping up as Mongolian versions of what they were hearing on MTV or the radio. After a decade and a half of this imitation, however, musicians have started looking toward ways to make the music their own – make it Mongolian. Sneath addressed this trend quite articulately and I wanted to share it with you.

I think there is a sort of series of stages that you can see particularly in music, but in other fields outside. And you could say that in the first stage, you know, it was all about mastery of the new possibilities. So in that sense, it might look like imitation, but I would say it’s actually innovation in a very creative period.

Suddenly, elite Mongols particularly, but quite a lot of Mongolians,  had access to a lot of Western and other styles and possibilities – not just commodities and technologies, but also film, music, dance, all these styles. And they’re mastering them. And it still means they’re Mongolian too, they’re just able to do a proper version of what they’re seeing abroad.

And then, now, increasingly, as that mastery has become more commonplace, the new challenge is to produce something distinctive and new. And I don’t think that is accidental that they’re reaching for Mongolian national themes to do that. The cultural heritage is very strong here. The whole governmental society have promoted it very strongly, particularly since the end of the Soviet period.

And they’re drawing on those resources to put a distinctive flavor on what they can produce. But a lot of  what the young people are interested in is being able to produce things that look and sound and feel as good as the international stuff that they are aware of. And they are often very aware of it. But, once you can do that, make it better, make it distinctive, make it Mongol, and then you’ve got something that might make it marketable and appetizing and attractive to foreigners, but is also a token that they still have a sense of a kind of pride in their own location and roots.

Perspective is a wonderful thing. After living in Mongolia for some time, I became used to the resources and technologies that were available in UB. I also became used to the level of professionalism in music production – from big pop shows to small rock concerts.

But having listened to this interview now that I’ve been back in the United States for a few months, I’m struck by just how many hurdles Mongolians have in front of them and how well they’ve done with what they do have.

I will continue to share my thoughts here as I continue to work through interviews and footage.

Losing Lenin

UPDATE:

A crowd of about 300 people watched the Lenin statue be taken down from its podium on October 14th. The affair lasted from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm and was mostly low-key.

According to a friend of mine, Christa Hasenkopf, there was only a handful of onlookers present until the end, when Ulaanbaatar mayor Bat-Uul gave a speech. She says the crowd was mostly made of middle-aged to older men, just standing around. As it was being taken down, four people threw shoes at the statue (a sign of great disrespect) and then one person waved good-bye as it was taken away.

Photo by Christa Hasenkopf

Photo by Christa Hasenkopf

ORIGINAL POST:

Later this week, the statue of Vladimir Lenin that has been prominently peering down at passers-by off Ulaanbaatar’s central thoroughfare for nearly 60 years will be finding a new home.

According to a recent article published by Reuters, the remnant of Mongolia’s soviet days will be up for auction with the bidding starting at 400,000 togrog (less than $300).

[City Mayor] Bat-Uul said two companies had already expressed interest, including a tourist “ger” (yurt) camp outside Ulan Bator which already owns a statue of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Ulaanbaatar’s Lenin statue (Image: asia-trip.info)

The newly elected mayor has been actively working to improve Ulaanbaatar. By August, only a month after he took office, Bat-Uul had implemented a series of traffic laws aimed at easing the flow on the heavily congested roads. As one of democracy’s loudest cheerleaders, the symbolism of removing Lenin’s statue seems to be of no small significance.

Bat-Uul said he was surprised the statue had survived as long as it had, given the millions who died in famines and mass executions under Soviet rule.

“We had a brutal communist regime in Mongolia too,” he noted. “We lost around 40,000 people in just two years during the 1930s. They were killed in cold blood. It was genocide.”

Four years ago, Bat-Uul was a key figure in the fate of a very different kind of statue. The ‘Beatles Statue’, as it is commonly called, was unveiled on October 9, 2008 as, yes, a tribute to the famous rock group, but also as a reminder of the country’s Soviet past.

Most foreigners and many younger Mongolians who see the statue are unaware of it’s symbolism. Many use it as a landmark and commonly refer to Tserenhand St., on which the statue resides, as “Beatles Street”.

Posing with the Beatles on a wintry evening in Ulaanbaatar

But the Beatles Statue is actually quite symbolic. In a time when access to the foreign marketplace and Western culture was banned, the Beatles came to represent free society. I’m told by many Mongolians in their fifties that contraband such as ball point pens, jeans and Beatles albums were hot commodities that they would secretly trade.

The statue has two sides, separated by a brick wall. One one is a bronze image of the four singers as they appear on the cover of “Abbey Road”. On the other, is a statue of a young Mongolian playing guitar in a stairwell, reminiscent of the days when that was a common occurrence. There’s also a window on this side where a tiny whole has been drilled into the brick (although it was later filled in). This, I am told, is supposed to symbolize the youth peering into western society.

Honestly, I’m a little sad that the Lenin statue will no longer stand as one of Ulaanbaatar’s many remnants of history. Not because I’m a Lenin fan, but because I always liked that the city was full of statues from so many different era’s of the city’s past stood concurrently. The fact that it wasn’t torn down after the democratic revolution, like statues in almost every other formerly soviet country were, I thought was a testament to the Mongolians’ ability to move on. Their revolution was a peaceful one. Somehow allowing the Lenin statue to remain for all these years seemed to represent that.

The ‘soviet’ side of the Beatles Statue (Image: http://cycletourtake2.blogspot.com)

Continue reading

Mongolian Rock in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

I was happy to contribute an article for “The Next Page” section of yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The piece gives a brief history of Mongolian rock music but also features Mohanik, one of the bands I was following last summer. Mohanik spent last spring and summer preparing to record an original sounding rock album in the countryside. At the end of August, they brought a crew up to Amarbayasgalant Monastery (5ish hours from UB) and recorded the full album in one day. They let me tag along and film the incredible experience. I’ll be posting more on Mohanik as I sift through all of my footage.

You can read the full article here.

Music Profile: The Lemons

One of the most interesting things about a music scene as small and young as the one in Ulaanbaatar is that every band seems to be the first at something. I have met with members of the first Mongolian grunge, punk, metal, folk rock, and alternative bands – all of which are still performing.

The Lemons are one of these pioneering bands. They would fall into the post-rock, alternative category and were the first to create a Strokes-inspired sound in Mongolia.

The four-person group (plus a regular sound guy) formed in 2004 when they were in their late teens and early twenties. Each member brought different musical tastes to the group, but they all agreed that alternative rock was the way to go. After eight years and two albums, they have now become one of Mongolia’s quintessential alternative bands.

The Lemons’ songs are generally high-spirited with bright-sounding guitar riffs. One of the hits off their first album is a tune about a frog princess. After the male protagonist breaks the spell the princess is under, turning her from a frog back into a human, she thanklessly forgets about him. Another hit song is an ode to Ulaanbaatar. Some of the lyrics are poking fun at the soviet-era obsession with production. But it’s mostly just a peppy song praising their hometown.

The Lemons say their appearance was no accident. When they first formed, they took care to cultivate a sort of hipster style, buying skinny jeans from abroad since they didn’t sell them in Mongolia. Odnoo, the lead singer generally sports dark sunglasses and a leather jacket while the others are a bit more casually dressed.

All three band members that I interviewed said it’s not easy being a rock musician in Mongolia. Even as late as 2004, when they first started, it was difficult to find instruments and a practice space – two key ingredients to any band. Now, guitars are a bit easier to come by, but they still struggle to get amplifiers, mixers and electronic equipment.

Beyond the logistics of acquiring instruments and finding a place to rehearse, it’s not easy to make a living as musicians. While they are one of the most famous bands here, the Lemons still have to play weekly gigs at a handful of bars around Ulaanbaatar to make money. They sign contracts with the bar owners agreeing to play the same six or seven songs each week. It’s typical for a band to show up at a restaurant, play for about twenty minutes, and then be on their way. The fans don’t seem to mind the abruptness nor the repetitive sets, but the bands certainly do. Guitarist Tulga told me, “We are actually bored by singing the same songs and don’t have any interest in singing at these kinds of places. But we have no choice.”

On the other hand, lead singer Odnoo says that playing with the band makes up for it. “The best thing is practicing and playing our own shows,” he explained. “I like to create new things.”

Now, the Lemons are working on their third album, which should be finished by the end of the summer. Their songs have taken on a more electronic sound after importing a special electronic keyboard from the U.S. that helps them create different effects. Before an interview this spring, Tulga showed me some of the unfinished tracks. One song featured a long song singer (a traditional Mongolian style of singing). I thought it worked really well with the electronic sound and added some unique Mongolian flavor to the music. But now they cut the long song, claiming it was too similar to Mongol Pop, a style that blends traditional elements with pop music.

When I asked them what they want a foreign audience to know about Mongolian music, they all agreed that just knowing that this kind of rock music is available in Mongolia is enough. Most foreigners come to Mongolia expecting the traditional herders and horses and don’t pay much attention to the rich urban culture Ulaanbaatar has to offer. For them to simply know about the music scene here is enough, they say.

Today’s Mongolian Music Videos

Mongolian television is chalk full of the latest music videos. Several stations are dedicated to playing the latest in American, Korean, and, of course, Mongolian tunes. Here are a few of the Mongolian music video gems I caught on the Mongolian Top Music channel this afternoon.

‘Namariin Syndrome’ – TV Cocktail

‘August Syndrome’ is the film song for a recent romantic comedy by the same name. It’s generally a light-hearted song about falling in love. The chorus says, “If you fall in love, you will lose control. When I’m falling in love I feel crazy.”

‘You’re So Sexy’ – SweetYmotion featuring Twilite Jonez

SweetYmotion is one of the most popular girl groups in Mongolia. I saw this song performed last fall and the live performance was very similar to the video. The three singers dressed in what were essentially leather bikinis and danced very seductively while a dance troupe dressed in Shaman-like clothing danced around them with similar moves as in the music video. I don’t think I will ever get over the juxtaposition of extreme sexiness and traditional symbolism that is so common in Mongolian music videos these days.

‘Miss You’ – Extacy

‘Miss You’ is pretty straight forward. It’s about the classic love ballad subject: unrequited love. In the chorus, the singers says, “I want you as you really are. What do you think about our relationship? Is it irrelevant to you?”

‘Gegeen Muza’ – Dashdondog & Altentsetseg

I wasn’t sure what to make of this one when I first saw it. It’s actually a sort of theme song for a Theatrical Awards Celebration. The two singers are basically talking about the awards while paying homage to the Mongolian actors that are no longer with us.

The Mother of ‘Mongol Rap’

Hip-hop is a musical genre dominated by men the world over. And so when a woman follows her passion for rap and makes a name for herself, it’s worth paying attention to.

Gennie is not the only female rapper in Mongolia, but she is certainly one of the most resilient and one of the first. Just 25 years old, Gennie has made a name for herself in the Monoglian hip-hop scene. While she has yet to release an album of her own, she has been featured on several of Mongolia’s top rappers’ songs. She is also one of three central characters in the newly finished documentary, ‘Mongolian Bling’.

Freedom of Expression

Hip-hop has been a way for Gennie to express herself throughout her young adult life. “I like hip-hop because it gives me a freedom to express my views through song,” she told me. “When I rap, I feel like I become a different person, someone who is free – unconstricted.”

Gennie started rapping when she was about 12 and recording her songs at 14. She has been steadily performing, writing and recording for the past ten years, unlike many of her female counterparts. “I think the [other] women aren’t very serious, they will quite after recording only one or two songs,” she explained.

It’s difficult for musicians to make a career out of music. Almost all of them (across genres) need a full-time job to support themselves, while they pursue their passion after hours. Gennie, who also has a three year-old son, works as a mechanic adjusting and monitoring water pressure in an apartment complex. She proudly told me that she was the first woman to have this kind of job in Mongolia. “I’m kind of a masculine person,” she said. Gennie takes a quiet pride in breaking gender barriers in Mongolia, doing things most women won’t do.

A charming, unassuming, friendly, eager, bright-eyed, animated, and considerate person, Gennie breaks stereotypes across the board. When I first met her, it was hard for me to imagine the petite woman making her way in the hip-hop world. But when she raps, Gennie channels her effervescent energy into her words and beats with the calm confidence of a true performer.

Greater Message

Gennie takes her songs as seriously as her commitment to her craft. While other Mongolian rappers are focusing on wealth, cars, women and musical rivalries, Gennie is using her microphone to draw attention to social issues particularly pertaining to nature, the needy, and women. One song, titled ‘Woman’, she’s been developing for the past several years highlights the difficulties many women face in Ulaanbaatar. “It’s not meant to criticize or praise,” she says, “but just shine a light on the reality.”

In ‘Women’, Gennie profiles three archetypes over three verses: a middle-aged woman in an abusive relationship, a teenager who is eager to grow up and is taken advantage of by older men, and a young human trafficking victim. These sorts of issues are rarely discussed in Ulaanbaatar, and Gennie hopes to use her music to bring attention to what she says are common problems.

But hip-hop has also helped Gennie reach beyond Mongolia. She says that she learned English by listening to Eminem. She wanted to understand the songs and so she downloaded the lyrics, translated them and would sing them over and over. “By loving something, I allowed it to influence me in many ways.” Hip-hop also helped Gennie travel abroad. In 2010 she was invited to participate in an international hip-hop festival in France where she met musicians from around the globe who were all eager to share their own styles and learn from each other. While words and language are crucial in rap, Gennie says she was able to get a lot out of the exchange despite the language barrier.

Likewise, her influence has been a mix of Mongolian and foreign (mostly American) rap. She particularly admires Eminem and Dain ba Enkh (War and Peace), one of Mongolia’s first hip-hop groups. She says she particularly likes Dain ba Enkh because they use words from a famous Mongolian poet, Choinyam, “who is really in touch with reality and real life situations.”

What is ‘Mongol Rap’?

Most Mongolian hip-hop, especially early on, is based on the American style. Rappers were exposed to artists like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan, and Eminem in the late 1990’s when the genre was still in its infancy in Mongolia. Aside from mimicking the style, many of the rappers in the early stages also lifted beats and tunes directly from foreign songs, a practice that was common across genres during that period in Mongolia.

But now, Gennie says, that is all changing. There’s an on-going discussion about how Mongolian rap (‘Mongol Rap’) should develop. There are some musical differences between the Mongolian and American styles. The singing style and flow is different as is the rhyming pattern. Traditional Mongolian poetry uses the beginning of words and lines to rap, rather than the end. That’s carried over into rap. Some musicians even rhyme both the beginning and end of lines.

But the question of what defines Mongol Rap remains. Do artists need to included traditional Mongolian instruments or tunes? Should they only rap about Mongolian issues? Or is Mongol Rap anything that is made by Mongolian rappers? It seems Gennie believes, at least in part, the latter. “I am Mongolian, so what I create will be Mongol Rap.”

As more beat makers and composers enter the industry, experimentation and authenticity are expanding. I asked Gennie what her hope for Mongol Rap is. She explained that she would like to see it continue to develop into something new and unique. “In 10 years, I hope that we would be recognized at least in Asia”.

Gennie is doing her part to make that happen. Her dedication and passion which have helped shape Mongol Rap over the years will undoubtedly continue to enhance the genre. When I asked Gennie what she finds challenging about her craft, she said, “It’s always difficult to make things. But there is a Mongolian proverb which says, ‘If a person makes an effort, then their fate will also make an effort.’ If you follow your passion and create something, the way will be more open.”

More Music From Gennie:

Born in UB

Tuukhee Butee (Create History)

Naimag Gecen Hair (Love For Me)

Az Jargal (Happiness)

Music Video: ‘Say It Now’ by Kush and Oyuka

Almost all of the music videos I’ve posted on this blog I have found from watching one of the many Mongolian music television channels or losing myself in a seemingly endless jungle of YouTube music videos.

But I am happy to say that this is different. I have been working closely with Kush & Oyuka, Mongolia’s newest jazz duo, as they record and prepare to release the first contemporary jazz album written in Mongolian and recorded in Ulaanbaatar. They are an energetic and talented couple with heaps of passion for bringing contemporary jazz to Mongolia.

About two months ago they closed down one of my favorite spots in Ulaanbaatar – an art gallery by day/bar by night called Xanadu. They filled it with their friends who just so happen to also be talented artists, actors, models, and filmmakers. Over the course of 16 hours, they recorded their first music video.

I’ve never been on the set of a music video before – in fact, I’ve never been involved in a scripted shoot like this before. All of my work is reality-based – news, documentary, reporting, etc. There’s a tremendous amount of work and preparation that went into this music video, that I can now, after observing the scene all day, fully appreciate.

The song, ‘Say It Now’, is about the power of love and allowing yourself to give into love. The music was written by Oyuka, the piano player and composer of the group. Oyuka also added to the lyrics which are mostly words from a famous Mongolian poet, Munkhbaatar.

For the video, the director and writer wanted to present imagery that would contrast with the lyrics and intention of the song. They wanted to show a somewhat bizarre scene out of place and time. On the day of filming, the director Moku told me, ‘Although Kush & Oyuka are singing about love, a precious treasure, none of the attendees seem to be paying any attention. It’s a cold approach. It’s an art gallery opening or an after party of some kind but it’s so bizarre – emulating that 70’s lifestyle. There aren’t any sailors in Mongolia, which explains the nonexistence of time and space occurring here.’

They also included two scenes with same-sex couples, which is still very taboo in Mongolia, and as far as I can tell it is a first for Mongolian music videos.

Kush & Oyuka are trying to do something new with their music in Mongolia, and it was important for them to stand out right away. In Mongolia, music videos are key. It’s one of the only ways musicians are recognized and their music is heard. Kush & Oyuka will try to get as much attention for this video as they can before releasing their album later this summer.

Without further adieu…

Live From UB: Gee

Munkherdene, more commonly known by his stage name, ‘Gee’, is one of Mongolia’s more notorious rappers. His aggressive, vulgar lyrics and commanding presence have helped him make a name for himself. He’s known for rapping about corruption in the government, environmental degradation, the Ger District (where he grew up), and, most notably, his anti-Chinese stance. He’s been featured in articles about a changing Mongolia and is one of three central characters in the new documentary, ‘Mongolian Bling’. Love him or hate him, Gee is one of Mongolia’s most (in)famous rappers.

I first met the 28 year-old last November, when I was still getting acquainted with UB’s music scene. I had heard about Gee from Benj Binks, director of ‘Mongolian Bling’, and a few expats who warned me of the violent side Mongolia’s hip-hop scene. But I had yet to hear a track or see a picture when he caught me eye at a concert for pop singer Naran’s CD release.

 

Gee is a large man. He’s well over 6 feet tall and has the bulk 20120513_Gee_Edit-62to make one second guess engaging him in an argument. He wears baggy pants and oversized sweatshirts with screen-printed Mongolian symbols. There is an ever-present heavy chain around his neck, which holds the large talisman his shaman gave him. His head is shaved down to the skin. Tattoos adorn his hands, arms and even cheek. The tattoos on his right arm pay homage to some of his musical heroes (the Wu-Tang Clan and Tupac), while the tattoos on his hands show his Mongolian side. The proverb split between the two hands reads: ‘Aibal buu khii; Khiibal buu ai’ (translation: ‘If you are scared, don’t do it; If you did it, don’t be scared’).

He has the personality to back up such an imposing presence. There’s a boyish arrogance to him that comes of as cocky, yet he has a certain charisma that is sort of endearing. He walks with a swagger and is not shy to exploit his size. During an interview he told me he was the best Mongolian rapper with the most impressive crew, which includes UB’s best graffiti artist, best tattoo artist, and best beat makers. In fact, two members of his noteworthy crew sat silently sipping tea at a table nearby during our hour-long interview.

The second time I met Gee, he was performing for a televised music award ceremony. I sat with him, another rapper, and the members from folk rock band Jonon, during the 2 hour-long shoot. There were about ten acts (mostly pop bands who lip-synched to recordings of their recent hits) and two emcee’s who interviewed musicians in between acts. Throughout the show, Gee was almost happy to show his boredom by playing video games on his handheld device or loudly laughing at other performers. After Gee and Jonon played their song, Gee was given the top award (something like ‘Musician of the Year’), which he accepted with palatable disinterest.

This is not the way I would ever choose to act at a public event (especially a televised one). Yet, I couldn’t help but feel glad that I was sitting at Gee’s table. Despite his arrogance, or perhaps because of it, I found I was eager to be on his good side. It felt eerily similar to social interactions back in middle school – a period I spent seeking acceptance from people I didn’t actually like.

Gee started rapping in 1998, when he was just barely a teenager. He grew up in Ulaanbaatar’s sprawling Ger District (home to about 2/3 of the city’s population). As the son of a single mother in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, Gee says that he needed a way to express himself. He first started writing poetry. But, after acquiring a cassette tape of various rappers (Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and The Sugarhill Gang), he thought he’d try and merge his poetry with beats.

Gee released his first album, ‘Bolovsrolgui Seheetnii Tavigdahgui Iltgel’ (rough translation: ‘An Uneducated Nobleman’s Unreleased Presentation’) in 2005, but it was his appearance in a 2004 song and video called ‘Hood’, by well-known hip-hop group Vanquish, that started turning heads. ‘Hood’ showcases four rappers (and their crews) who each introduce themselves and rap in turn about their neighborhoods in UB. At the time, Gee was the only person rapping about the Ger District, and his pride in his neighborhood and gangsta style made him stand out among Mongolia’s rappers.

When I asked Gee what he likes to rap about in an interview last November, he said that he wants to deliver a message to Mongolia’s youth by focusing on what the community is missing and the malfunction of the government. He says he’s not interested in rapping about “money, women or weed”, but instead says, “Mongol hip-hop should be wise and should tell the people what is right to do.”

But not all of Gee’s songs have a greater message. In our interview, he expressed frustration over the fact that Mongolia’s hip-hop fans mostly like songs about conflicts between rappers. He told me he’s not interested in using his music to fight for superiority with other Mongolian rappers because he’s already the best. Yet, one of Gee’s big hits (86,000 plus views on YouTube), ‘Mongol Rapper’, is 3 minutes and 57 seconds of Gee asserting his rapping superiority over another Mongolian rapper, Tsetse.

Gee is outspoken to say the least. He identifies as an individual performer, not part of a larger artistic community, and has a, ‘I do what I want’ mentality. While talking about coming from the Ger District, he said, ‘Everyone is the same, no more no less’. In another meeting, he asked me what part of the U.S. I was from. When I told him Minnesota he looked at me and said that he ‘hated that place’. He explained that during a layover in the Minneapolis – St. Paul airport he felt that people were treating him poorly because he’s Asian. I said that it might have had more to do with his tattoos and shaved head. Then he said, ‘I hate racism. I’m not racist toward anybody… except the Chinese. I hate the Chinese.’

Gee’s most controversial song is titled ‘Hujaa’, a racial slur referring to Chinese people. It appeared on his most recent album which was a collaborative effort with Jonon called ‘Mongolz’. In it, Gee raps about Mongolian superiority and its future dominance over China. If the lyrics weren’t shocking enough, the corresponding music video certainly will draw your attention. Gee stands in a meat freezer with sheep carcasses dangling from meat hooks all around. He wears a white apron splattered with blood and looks straight into the camera wielding an ax as he sings. It’s creepy, which I’m pretty sure is what he was going for.

The song, understandably, turns the foreigners living in Ulaanbaatar and their Mongolian friends off. It reflects and promotes a rising xenophobic nationalism that is having very real effects on some of UB’s foreign population. For years, Chinese and interracial couples have enjoyed a heightened risk of random assault, but now it seems that all foreigners are being targeted. Not a month has gone by since my arrival in UB when I haven’t heard of a foreigner – sometimes a friend – being randomly assaulted because he or she was not Mongolian.

20120513_Gee_Edit-62But for many Mongolians, ‘Hujaa’ resonates. The past decade has been a time of rapid change and development, which only seems to be increasing in speed. The Economist Intelligence Unit projects that Mongolia will have the second-fastest growing economy of 2012 after Libya. But there is still a question as to whether Mongolia’s development will be beneficial for the majority of the populace or only a select few at the top. The nationalists and many of Gee’s fans feel it is the latter and point to foreign involvement (particularly in the mining sector) as the cause. There’s a prominent belief that foreign interests, especially Chinese, are taking Mongolia’s mineral wealth, destroying the environment, and doing little to invest in Mongolia’s future. In addition to the current political-economy, history plays an important role. Many are quick to point to thousands of years of warfare with and occupation by the Chinese. But what might have left a more lasting impression was the aggressive Soviet-led anti-Chinese propaganda campaign of the 1960s and 1970s as the USSR used Mongolia as a buffer state. As is the case with nationalism and racism in any country, it is most likely a combination of all factors.

20120513_Gee_Edit-50This might all help explain why, at a recent club opening in Erdenet, the young crowd was calling for Gee to rap his most controversial song. Gee performed five songs that night, and ‘Hujaa’ was by far the most popular. It was also the only one people sang along to. After the show, a reporter I was traveling with asked a pair of 21 year-old fans why they like that song. They explained that it is about being proud of Mongolia, but mentioned nothing about the Chinese.

Although the anti-Chinese message is the overpowering one from ‘Mongolz’, Gee and Jonon have more to say about their pride in Mongolia. The song ‘Minii Nutgiig Nadad Uldee’ (rough translation: ‘Leave my Country to Me’) which features veteran Mongolian hip-hop artist Bayaraa, talks about environmental degradation and calls on the government to preserve the land.

When he’s not giving interviews to foreign reporters or traveling around Mongolia performing at club openings, Gee is looking toward his next project. He told me that he wants to focus more on gangsta rap, but not 100%.

‘I do whatever I want,’ he says.

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Country Music Comparison

While Mongolia’s version is lacking the twang, blond bombshells, and sold out stadium concerts, country music in the Land of the Blue Sky does have a few things in common with its American namesake.

For one, there’s a strong sense of national pride associated with both. Stateside, songs like Lee Greenwood’s ‘Proud to be an American’ and Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of The Red, White and Blue’ are full of pro-American rhetoric. Granted, the American patriotism in these songs tends to be a bit more aggressive than its mountain-praising Mongolian counterpart. Still, Mongolian country music is full of patriotic anthems. Javkhlan is one notable singer known for praising his homeland. He’s respected by many for being extremely pro-Mongolian. Although, as far as I can tell, his love for his country is more of the praising Mongolia and less of the threatening foreigners brand. Javkhlan is so committed to Mongolia, in fact, that he is purportedly running for office in next month’s parliamentary elections.

Another similarity is the fan base. In both Mongolia and the United States country music is aptly named to represent the people who consume it as much as the people who create it. Here in Mongolia, country music is most popular among those who live outside of Ulaanbaatar (about half of the population) and those who recently moved to Ulaanbaatar. In the United States, country music fans tend to be from rural areas or states that have a larger proportion of rural citizens.

Appearance is important in both genres as well. Musicians try to look like an aggrandized version of a folk hero. In America that means denim, cowboy hats, boots, and big muscles (for men, that is). In Mongolia, that means deels (the traditional dress), Mongolian hats, boots, and big muscles. Music videos often rely on visuals of horses, hard work, connection to the land, overt national symbolism, and images that reinforce an idea of traditional life (a white-picket fence in America vs a white-felted ger in Mongolia).

Finally, both styles are musically accessible. American country music is full of those good old predictable G-C-D chords that anyone first learning to play the guitar knows. Songs are easy to sing along to and are familiar even to those Americans who don’t actively listen to country music. Similarly, Mongolian country songs are all written in the pentatonic scale – the five note scale used in traditional Mongolian music. It’s easy for Mongolians to hear country music without having much musical knowledge themselves. Mongolian country songs tend to be well known, even by those who openly admit to disliking the genre.

One of the places the two country music traditions part, however, is overall popularity. Even in Ulaanbaatar, roughly 70% of the radio play is dedicated to country music. There are generally more live* country music events than any other genre (save, perhaps, classical). Seven times out of ten my taxi driver will be listening to country songs on the radio or on a CD – sometimes singing along. While this might be the case for country music in certain regions of the United States – in massive population centers like New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago, it is certainly not getting the majority of airtime.

I’ll admit, I’ve been hesitant to look into country music too much. I think my aversion stems from the fact that all of the backing instruments are created via computer creating a hollow sound that I find difficult to listen to for long. But, it is a significant percentage of the music currently being produced in Mongolia, and a huge portion of the market.

I’m hoping to look a little deeper into the scene in the coming weeks, and will hopefully have a more nuanced update.

*The backing tracks for Mongolian country music are almost exclusively done on computerized midi files, which means a live music event is a singer accompanied by one of these recordings.