Darkhan | Mongolia’s Release Valve

For Mongolia’s marginalised youth, hip-hop music provides an outlet to discuss unemployment, anger and disillusionment

Nyamka and Dalai, two members of Sea-Star, are part of a burgeoning hip-hop scene in Mongolia. JEFFREY LAU FOR THE CARAVAN
01 September, 2010

I HAD BEEN IN THE MONGOLIAN CAPITAL of Ulan Bator less than 24 hours before I saw my first racially motivated fight. You could scarcely call it a fight: three Chinese men knocked to the floor by a drunken Mongolian. He’d been angered by them talking to Mongolian women in a bar, and followed the trio outside to teach them the error of their ways.

Standing beside me as it happened, a young hip-hop singer in a green wife-beater undershirt and Yankees baseball cap looked on and shrugged his shoulders as if to say it happens every night and said, “It is stupid”—a sentiment he spoilt by laughing afterwards.

I had met Nele, who like many Mongolians has just one name, the night before on the train to the capital. During the long journey, he told my photographer and I about the explosion of hip-hop among the youth of Mongolia, let us listen to a handful of his band SS’s songs, and explained some of the problems in the country, of which there are many (alcoholism and a hatred of their southern neighbours being major ones). This was made all the more impressive by the fact that he spoke perhaps 200 words of English, many of which were curse words he’d learnt listening to foreign hip-hop records.

While in Mongolia, I had a busy schedule interviewing herders who were trying to piece their lives back together after last winter wiped out 17 percent of the country’s livestock. City dwellers who had come to the capital looking for a better future were now living in slum-like conditions in the north of the city—where a quarter of the country’s entire population lives, where the unemployment rate runs at over 50 percent in some areas, and where rampant alcoholism and crime is causing major social unrest. It was not until a few weeks later that I was able to sit down and talk to some of those involved in the music that seems ubiquitous among young people across the country.

I was introduced to Nyamka and Dalai, two fresh-faced 20-year-olds who make up the small-time hip-hop trio, Sea-Star, not to be confused with SS, put together by Javkhaa Ragchaasuren, a middle-aged radio station producer and part-time music video maker in Darkhan, Mongolia’s third- largest city.

As we drove through the ill-lit and potholed streets to our late night rendezvous at an old Soviet-built housing estate, Javkhaa explained the reason hip-hop had become so popular in Mongolia.

“It reached [the country] in 1999,” he said as we scanned the dark entranceways to the dilapidated buildings for our guys. “Before that it was Michael Jackson and Bon Jovi. So it really is a young person’s movement and perhaps the only way for these kids to get their voices heard.”

Nyamka and Dalai—who we eventually find hanging around outside one of the many nondescript blocks—are part of the first generation of Mongolians to grow up outside of communist rule. In 1991, capitalism arrived, and Mongolia sped up its rapid alteration from a rural, nomadic country to an increasingly urban one. This has led to many positive improvements in the lives of Mongolians, including freedom of speech, but also a lot of confusion and upheaval: a perfect combination for creating social unrest and powerful music.

Despite a willingness to talk, the pair are shy and unsure when they answer questions. In fact, the only time both sound sure of themselves is when they are talking about their music.

“Mongolian hip-hop is different to other countries’,” says Dalai, the band’s songwriter. “Our language is very good for emotion and rhyming.”

Mixing beats that sound like they come from American rap circa 1990 with the aggressive and guttural sounds of the Mongolian language, the band are able to create powerful and modern music.

The strength of the language for this type of music partly explains why the young generation of Mongolians has embraced hip-hop so fully, but the main reason seems to be a search for an identity for children born in a time when their country is experiencing an unprecedented transformation.

While 800,000 of Mongolia’s roughly three million people remain herders, almost half the population now lives in the capital. Urban areas continue to expand rapidly with each harsh winter. Employment opportunities have been unable to keep up with demand, and there are few sectors in Mongolia growing outside of mining and tourism.

Many youngsters leave, and those who stay have very little in common with older generations. This has led to a relatively Internet-savvy generation of Mongolians becoming aware of the world’s endless possibilities, yet unable to access them.

Some embrace rabid nationalism as a result. Several neo-Nazi groups have sprung up and attacks on foreigners, especially Chinese, are not uncommon. But for most, hip-hop seems a much stronger draw.

“Our first gig, in August 2008, filled an old Soviet stadium of 600-700 seats,” says Nyamka, Sea-Star’s lead singer, quietly, soon after we sit down. “Most of those who came were high school students from nearby towns and villages. They just wanted to connect with others like them.”

Hundreds of bands, some with members as young as 12 or 13, have sprung up across Mongolia—the oldest hip-hop performers in Mongolia are, for the most part, still in their 20s. The country’s music channels constantly bounce back and forth between professional Western music videos and low-budget videos by young Mongolian hip-hop groups with a desire to be heard.

Sitting in the darkness surrounded by the remnants of Soviet architecture, the pair from Sea-Star describe hip-hop as their own personal release valve for society’s ills: the political corruption (which is rife in Mongolia), rampant alcoholism, and very few career or life opportunities that leave the young lost and discontented.

“The last song we did was about young people and their ‘dark lives’,” says Dalai. “Young people [in Mongolia] are struggling with drugs, unemployment and anger. They are going out drinking every night, going to nightclubs, each time with new girls. We are trying to say, let’s change this lifestyle. Find something more positive.”

Most involved know, however, that music is never likely to be their long-term way out.

“In Mongolia, hip-hop music is not a business, it is just a hobby,” Dalai explains. “There are not enough people in the country to buy the records.” He is training for a career in forestry, though Nyamka works part time in a radio station and hopes to stay somewhat involved in music.

“Music gives us a voice,” Nyamka said, as if in explanation, as we head back to the car and the pair disappear back into the urban sprawl of a once-nomadic country.