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)

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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