By N Dhargyal
BY EMAIL, 10 November 2019
Back in 2002 I was operating the music system at a Tibetan wedding party in my settlement in North India. The crowd of youths was bouncing up and down to Dr Dre’s “The Chronic 2001” blaring out from the loudspeakers. As usual, this party was also attended by people of all ages. After watching the young people dancing fiercely for a while, one of the village’s elderly Tibetan men approached me and asked me rather inquisitively, “Injis trukpa gya ki yo re pe?” — “Were the Westerners arguing?” — referring to my choice of music.
Looking back I find it funny, but believe it or not at the time I was annoyed by his disregard for my musical taste. But over the last 14 years things have been changing in terms of Tibetan music; now we have our own trukpa (rap) music and it is a growing trend among the youth.
Hip-hop music was first formed in the 1970s in the New York district of the Bronx. It was the Caribbean immigrants who first started it during the popular street party called ‘block party’ where DJs separated the percussion from the original music they were playing on the system.
Now after all those years hip-hop music has split into numerous sub-genres and has gone mainstream. But rap music is always being associated with Afro-American youth, from poor backgrounds with tough childhoods, which accordingly has influenced and enhanced their music. The big names of the hip-hop music scene such as 2 Pac, The Notorious BIG, Dr Dre, Snoop Dog, and Slim Shady, to name a few — all these stars were born and bred in the ghetto and in the USA’s most deprived neighbourhoods.
Four decades ago it would have been unthinkable to comprehend that the day would come when rap music would provide our Tibetan youth with a platform to express themselves, and further, be used as a medium to strengthen the bonds between the Tibetans inside Tibet and those out in exile.
Like the deprived American youth, our youth too are finding sanctum in the music and have created a Tibetan term for hip-hop: sheama-tam. The treasure chest of our rap music stars reaches from Tibet and China to Europe and North America. But the only difference is that unlike our US counterparts, who predominantly rap about their gang rivalries, money, women, and ghetto life, our rappers are taking a more sober and sensible stand. Life in exile, the prison-like life back in Tibet, the systematic destruction of Tibetan culture by the Communist Chinese Government, and self-immolations in protest by Tibetans are metaphorically part of our Tibetan rappers’ lyrics, and the mode they deliver these messages is in the Tibetan language.
With the widening availability of electronic gadgets, smart phones, tablets, and the Internet, works of our Tibetan hip-hop talents both from inside Tibet and from among our Tibetan Diaspora in exile are popularly being shared on social media sites and video-sharing sites like YouTube and Google plus. Despite the distance, they all share the same concerns, whether it’s the importance of Tibetan language and culture, or lyrically reminding their Tibetan compatriots about their roots.
In his “bhoyek ki ren thang” (Value of the Tibetan Language), the Tibetan Rapper Dekyi Tsering from Tibet raps about the wonders of the Tibetan language and its grammar. In his moving music video he portrays himself as a Tibetan language teacher teaching a class full of elementary Tibetan students about the Tibetan language and heritage. And other rappers from Tibet like Norta, Tsampa Eater, Crazy Yak, MC Tenzin, and Mr Jin share the same theme in their lyrics. Meanwhile there are other rappers like JLD from Lhasa and Tibet Mirror Crew, a four-piece group based in Chengdu, who are taking a rather more gangster rap approach in their music.
There are many unsolicited Tibetan rappers on YouTube, and some are incredibly talented anonymous individuals, like the one who produced the “Rangzen” single which is exceptionally good with its catchy lyrics yet still powerful. But there are a few in exile who are leaving marks on the Tibetan world by producing CDs or music videos. “Sontsa”, the two-piece Tibetan rappers from North America, released an album back in 2007 which was fun to listen to, but they vanished from the radar after that. Then we had ‘Chino’, the British-Tibetan-Caribbean rapper whom I had the pleasure to meet, who released an EP back in 2008 and also took part in the rap battle in Rap for Tibet in Germany. But he later studied law and became a barrister. Perhaps, that was a wise choice he made.
With the arrival of Swiss-Tibetan rapper Shapaley on the scene, our Tibetan hip-hop music in exile has taken a more dramatic turn, as his rapping skill in an immaculate Lhasa Tibetan with its perfect rhymes has become hugely popular. His first single “Shapaley” on YouTube was a massive hit among Tibetans — so much so that it was banned by the Chinese Government in China and Tibet. And his follow-up single “Made in Tibet” was equally popular. Perfectly-constructed lines like “our thoughts are with you/ we bear in our hearts our brotherly bond/ however much time has passed/ we haven’t forgotten you”, which flowed well with Yann Tiersen’s lilting piano in the background, are heartfelt messages to our brothers and sisters in Tibet. And his “Tibetan Alphabet” single, with its witty lyrics about the Tibetan Alphabet, still carries a serious message to Tibetan youth about the importance of the Tibetan language, which echoes the concern shared by Dekyi Tsering. But now there are many who are following his examples, and they are equally creative.
The latest Tibetan hip-hop artists on the scene are Tenzin Seungyi from Austria, Tenkun from North America, and Tenzin Dawa Tsona from The Netherlands. These young Tibetans are getting better and more creative with each single they release on YouTube. Their music videos have been viewed over 80,000 times by Tibetans and supporters all over the world. Hip-hop music has become a channel for our Tibetan youth to communicate among themselves between the two worlds we are living in, and it has become a resistance in its own way against the Chinese government. Thus, they are a whole new generation of Tibet activists who are flowering both inside Tibet and in exile.