Hip-hop from yurts

Mongolia. What are the first things that come to your mind? Nothing? For me – nomads gallop throughout the grasslands on one of the best horses in the world. Falconry. Living in the middle of nowhere in yurts. But what if I tell you that Mongolia has quite a vibrant hip-hop scene?

Patrick Schneider | Unsplash

Ulaanbaatar – the name of the capital of Mongolia means ‘Red Hero’, ironically called Utaanbaatar which means ‘Smoke Hero’. Mongolia has one of the most considerable urbanization rates in central Asia. Nearly half of the country’s population lives in Ulaanbaatar. Congestion, air pollution, corruption, alcoholism, and unemployment are not the only problems of this city. Surrounding Ulaanbaatar are ‘ger’ districts – infrastructurally unequipped residential areas far from the city’s main arteries. It combines traditional yurts and basic homes inhabited mainly by the poor working class. Nearly 70 % of Ulaanbaatar’s population lives there. In these areas, even drinking water and electricity is limited. Most of the well-known Mongolian rappers come from ger districts. 

One-third of the Mongolian population has less than 34 years old. Rap is one of the most popular music genres in such a young society. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia changed its political system from communism to democracy. After years of censorship in music, the country opened up to western culture. People started sharing mix tapes of US rappers, and Ulaanbaatar’s hip-hop scene exploded. 

Big Gee is one of the players on the Mongolian rap stage. He comes from a low-income family in the yurt district. Often they have no access to fresh water, so as a child, the rapper had to carry it from kilometers away. He wanted to be like his grandfather – a journalist and poet, so he started to write his first poems. After 1996, when he first listened to hip-hop music, he came up with the idea of putting his poetry to the beat. Big Gee is an example of a morally good hooligan from ger district. He is trying to teach young people how to live a morally good life in his rap. The rapper knows hip-hop has a significant role in shaping society, so politicians try using artists to bolster their campaigns. Big Gee said: “Rap is like a weapon. We can’t sell our weapon to fake people.”

Mongolians have a vast level of cultural pride. Hip-hop became, for them, a prolongation of the steppe. In rap, like on a step – you are free. You can freely express yourself. They are connected to the place of origin, land, and natural environment. When Mongolians migrate to the city, that connection is taken away. A representative of young Mongolian rappers who migrated into the city is Pacrap. In his art, he often uses the topic of current protests in Ulaanbaatar, the social problems of the working class, and the everyday hardships of living in Mongolia. For many in Ulaanbaatar’s rapidly changing environment, hip-hop is a voice of their concerns openly in a way they couldn’t years ago. 

In the art of young generation rappers, we can see more and more inspiration from trap music, like references to violence, guns, or drugs, which is entirely different from before. But it doesn’t change the fact that Mongolian rappers are still passionate about their heritage. In the music and clips, we could still see an overrepresentation of historical and cultural symbolism – Chan, falcons, throat signing to traditional instruments. Or even association with classic Mongolian literature – like in the song “Tears of Sukhbaatar.”

When I first heard about Mongolian rap, I didn’t expect so high quality. Even though I cannot understand as well as often to find a translation of the lyrics, the sound is pleasant and doesn’t differ from Western standards. Catchy bits and surprisingly good flow this is what, in my opinion, characterize that music. Highly recommend getting out from the music genre bubble and checking it with your own ears.

Aleksandra Kanasiuk

Dział Zagraniczny | Czemu to hip hop wyraża najlepiej współczesną tożsamość Mongołów (Dział Zagraniczny Podcast#133) 
Alex de Mora | Straight Outta Ulaanbaatar 
HuckMag.com | Inside Mongolia’s vibrant hip-hop scene  

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