The road to hip hop stardom in Myanmar is paved with roses and teddy bears. To get on the radio, a rapper has to appeal to the lovesick masses with gentle rhymes about crushes and courtship. This is how commercial stars like Sai Sai and Hlwan Paing can fill venues with thousands of happy teenagers and their moms.
A new arrival to Myanmar would mistake this as the sad fate of hip hop in the Golden Land – that a funky, rebellious art form began its journey at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue only to arrive 40 years later as a gimmick to help a few well-connected copycats in a quasi-dictatorship fill their pockets.
Fortunately, that’s only half of the story, and finally, the artists with true hip hop knowledge and a real hip hop message are opening the door to their underground lair.
Since October 2015, many of Yangon’s underground rappers have performed under the banner of Youk $hi – a small local organization that has slowly transformed from a one-time flood charity concert (raising K1.8 million for flood victims) to monthly party bringing hip hop in its unsanitized form to the city’s few but steadfast fans.
In addition to these monthly parties, Youk $hi has also hosted two larger music festivals. With areas designated for skateboarders, dance performances, and food stalls, these immersive experiences aim to promote Yangon’s lesser-known subcultures.
The phrase youk shi literally means “I’ve arrived”, but in the community it means something more like “OK, I’m officially high” or “Yup, I’m drunk”. The name is a testament to a culture that underground artists insist you won’t hear about on the radio.
“Burmese event organizers only plan shows for mainstream artists who are already famous. Talented people are neglected just because they have different opinions from the organizers. So fans almost never get to see them. That’s where we come in,” said Jan Jann, one of Youk $hi’s founders.
If you speak Burmese, these different opinions are easy to detect. Like Youk $hi itself, the satirical rapper Wai Gyi’s lyrics are layered with wordplay. His song “Who the fuck are you?” appears to address a person, but as you listen, you realize he’s trying to identify an animal, asking whether his interlocutor is a tiger or a horse or something else. Why? On the streets, drugs are referred to as animals: “tiger” is weed, and “horse” is WY (yaba) pills.
Other artists in the Youk $hi family have ejected themselves from the mainstream by rapping about politics. In 2007, local authorities banned the rapper G-Tone from performing for a year, claiming a tattoo on his back depicting two hands clasped in prayer was an affront to Buddhist monks. G-Tone says the tattoo is clearly a tribute to his Christian faith and that the ban was really over the political content of his music, which is inspired by “conscious hip hop” from rap’s Golden Era in the 1990s.
Swe Htet Paing, another rapper in the Youk $hi family, says rappers like him get ignored for telling the truth. One of these truths, as described in his track “Human Rights”, is that Myanmar’s democracy won’t be real until human rights and gender equality are honored.
“Mainstream artists monopolize the music industry. They get noticed and get paid a lot, even though they’re not talented. Underground artists get ignored because we’re rebellious,” Swe Htet Paing said.
But for most of these rappers, a life of fame and glamor was never the point. They know that to go mainstream would mean signing up to have their lyrics censored and their behavior controlled by producers with other priorities than realness.
“We don’t care about fame,” said Swe Htet Paing. “We just want to rap forever.”
Youk $hi started off as an opportunity for rappers to perform at venues other than the underside of the Myaynigone flyover. But with the group’s third big show and its one-year anniversary coming up, the goal has expanded.
“We want people to know that Burmese rappers are just as good as rappers anywhere. Burmese audiences should come to the upcoming show to get inspired by Burmese artists. And expats should come because they’ll leave with a newfound respect for Burmese people. That’s my vision for this show,” said Jan Jann, the organizer.
“If we do more shows like these, we may have a good chance of opening people’s minds to good music they’ve been missing out on.”
Youk $hi: Made In Myanmar will be held on April 12 at the Mya Yeik Nyo Hotel. The show is scheduled for 4pm to 10pm. Tickets are available at the door for K12,000.
More information is available on the Youk $hi event page.