While there is seemingly little socially-conscious hip-hop in the US these days, oppressed people around the world – from Palestine to Burma – are still utilizing rap to challenge the injustices they face.
The Guardian recently took a fascinating look at how this art form is being used in Burma, where the military regime censors and controls everything, as a form of nonviolent resistance.
Burma has a history of revolutionary music. Traditional protest songs, known as thangyat, were once used to air grievances, both small, against neighbours, and large, against authority. Following the 1988 student uprising, however, the music was banned outright by the ruling military junta.
But hip-hop’s fluid lyrics wrapped in rhymes and youthful argot make it a perfect modern format for subtly spreading an anti-authoritarian message.
One of the most popular and outspoken hip-hop artists is 29-year-old Thxa Soe. On his most recent album, three-quarters of the songs, with titles like “Water, Electricity, Please Come Back,” were banned.
And there are others in Burma finding an outlet for dissent in music. A group known as Generation Wave, its exact membership unknown, secretly records and distributes anti-government albums across the country, dropping them at the tea shops that are the social hubs for Burma’s underground political network.
They write songs such as Wake Up, a call for young people to join the pro-democracy movement, and Khwin Pyu Dot May (Please Excuse Me), the story of a young man asking his mother’s permission to join the struggle.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but feel sad that hip-hop has been so commercialized and co-opted by the mainstream in the US. Given the many crises we face, rap could and should serve as a powerful vehicle for dissent here as well. Unfortunately, there seems to be little new protest music – hip-hop or otherwise – that really speaks to our predicament.