Freestyle Utopia—Hip Hop and Healing in Meikhtila
By Klara Christensen 21 December 2016
We were all crammed in the tour bus, slowly leaving behind us the lush hills of green, water-rich Loikaw, now entering the red, dry lowlands with a merciless sun greeting us outside the toned windows. It was the last stop on the tour. The entire crew was exhausted from intense days of training, managing, dealing with money and cables, negotiating with locals on how to set up our mobile studio, and editing songs in the remaining hours of the night.
The karaoke that had previously been playing over the lousy speakers of the bus was mute and I was sitting in my own thoughts, staring back at the sun. Last stop, a stop in a city we all knew, that the whole world knew. A few years back, part of the town burst into flames, when a Muslim and a Buddhist merchant got in a quarrel, and hundreds of Muslim residents had to flee for their lives. We were heading to Meikhtila.
The morning before our first day of training, I woke up feeling a bit uneasy and I decided to go on my morning run. Unlike Loikaw or Pathein, where people looked with amusement at my running outfit and sweaty blond hair bobbing over a scarlet red face in the unbearable heat, this place felt different. People looked at me differently, more wary, and just as I turned the first corner, I was met by a gang of street dogs blocking the way.
They gathered around me, and it was not until I heard the yells of an elderly woman behind me that I dared move. She waved an enormous branch twice the size of her body to chase the gang away. “Go, go!” she said, and I went straight back to our bleak hotel. Welcome to Meikhtila, I thought to myself, wishing I were back among lush hills with generous rivers.
The first thing I noticed, when we went to the small urban house we used for our music training, was the black t-shirts, jeans and caps. The guys—very few girls came to the workshops—looked tough and unimpressed by all the gear we dragged into the tiny training facility. Street-wise and cold as ice.
As I started our name-game I felt like a ridiculous hippie teacher, and my guided music facilitation was clearly out of place. The kids quickly separated into small groups, scattered around the house with guitars making music their own way.
As the days progressed, I heard shaky Burmese rap coming out of the improvised studio with LoneLone, a famous hiphop producer, working long hours with the kids and their texts. But I had no clue how things were going. Honestly, I just wanted it to be over, to get home and re-charge.
Soon it was last night of the workshop and the end of our tour. It was LoneLone’s birthday, and we went to the hotel roof with a big bowl of strange cocktail ingredients and a cool evening breeze in the dry night.
All of a sudden, four young guys came up the stairs from the dark, some of the youngsters from our workshop. High fives and knuckles, they sat down and grabbed a glass of the murky brownish punch. Darko, another one of the musicians from our group, translated once in a while and I sensed how the talk slid from chit-chat to more serious topics: The city, what had happened.
The tallest of the guys joined the conversation. He was Muslim, and with a high pitched voice he told us how the police did nothing as bodies were dumped in the river two years ago. As they still were. Unnoticed, someone, HtetHtet perhaps, switched the music on the portable speakers from The Black Keys to a steady rap beat. In one, unnoticeable movement the birthday party turned itself into a freestyle rap session, with our previously unengaged participants now giving it up, throwing words and phrases into the night as they gathered closer around the little speaker. The atmosphere was vibrating, the dark night air thick with a fiery energy. “What are they rapping about?” I asked. “The Government,” Darko replied, “how it has failed them.”
Thomas, the tall white guy with an oversized T-shirt and a gold chain around his neck, grabbed the Black Magic camera and a flashlight, and before I knew it, we were all heading out in the dark, down to the river.
We stopped next to the gigantic Golden Duck, a bizarre mutated rubber duck towering over us in the pitch-black night. Thomas held the camera, I was on the mic and HtetHtet operated the flashlights while LoneLone put on the beat.
Young guys with eyes shining from the sharp light, staring into the camera. Muslim and Buddhist youngsters throwing hand signs and “yo”s in a restless, energetic manner, faltering for words but insistently rapping about the scars of the city, all the wrongdoings floating in the rivers, and the hate and fear seeping through the streets. The Golden Duck was shining behind them, as a comical yet ominous symbol of the power of the rich and religious, a Big Brother looking down at the little dissident group finding each other in the black night. Not giving a f**k what this could lead to.
On the bus the next day, driving out of this infamous city in the heart of Myanmar, I felt something had changed. All the struggles to make this project happen, all our doubts if it did any good, all my worries if this was a just a dream of a naïve NGO activist.
At the feet of the big, golden duck, a small, nagging doubt had evaporated. The bus was silent, but it was not the muted silence of tired, worried minds. It was an exhausted, amazed and humbled silence. On the last night of the tour, the roof of our hotel transformed into a small, temporary fleeting utopia, a moment of crystal clear magic revealing itself to us. In front of me, four young guys came together across deep divisions, connecting through the beats of a noisy little portable speaker, creating tones of resonance. With my head resting on the bus window, I fell into a deep sleep.
Klara Christensen holds a master’s degree from the University of Oxford in Social Policy with a special focus on social cohesion and trust-building in post-conflict countries. She is working with the Danish NGO Turning Tables on youth empowerment projects in Denmark and Myanmar, using music as a tool for social change. This piece is written on the basis of her experiences setting up a music project in Myanmar in 2014 called Voice of The Youth.
This article was originally published on the website of Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.