Khar Sarnai (Black Rose), Mongolia's first rap techno band. (Mongolian Bling )
BEIJING — Mongolia's hip-hop scene caught Benj Binks off guard. The young Australian expected the descendants of Genghis Khan to be mostly nomads and herders, cantering over wild, bleak plains. Instead, when he arrived in the country's capital of Ulaanbaatar in 2004 he found nightclubs, graffiti and guys rocking baseball caps and baggy pants.
An aspiring filmmaker, Binks' first thought was to make a comedic short, perhaps bringing Sacha Baron Cohen over to do interviews in character as Ali G. But he was soon drawn into this extraordinary community and only emerged six years later, having created "Mongolian Bling," a thoughtful, feature-length documentary, which will be screening at New York's First Time Fest on Sunday and at San Diego's Frequency Film Festival in May.
Watching this documentary, it becomes clear that while there is much that is recognizable in Mongolian hip-hop, there are big differences. Trinidad James may boast about "gold all in my chain, gold all in my ring," but Mongolian players are more interested in rapping about the destruction of Mongolia's land by big mining companies, the country's problem with alcoholism and corrupt politicians.
Quiza, one of the leading rappers profiled in the documentary, says, "I sing to give my little contribution towards democracy, human development, equality, education and a better future for Mongolia."
It is this hip-hop with a conscience i that makes the music so compelling. "I wanted to go beyond the novelty of it and reflect the things that people were singing about, the issues facing the country," explains Binks, adding, "We like to call our film the first that focuses on contemporary Mongolia culture."
Although most documentaries about Mongolia focus on the beautiful but disappearing nomadic tradition, in reality, only 30% of the country's 3.2 million continue to live an itinerant or semi-itinerant lifestyle while almost half of Mongolians live in Ulaanbaatar and other urban centers.
Rapid urbanization since the fall of the country's Communist government in 1990 coincided with a period of opening up to Western culture and music. Mongolia's first self-proclaimed rap group, Khar Sarnai (Black Rose), formed in 1992. This eccentric duo spat lyrics over techno beats, wearing outfits that alternated between Mongolian robes and shiny top hats that would have made Slash from Guns N' Roses proud.
By the mid-'90s cable had come to the country, bringing MTV, and with it Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer, into Mongolians' living rooms. In 1997 came the release of arguably the first real hip-hop single in Mongolia — "Know your limits" by War and Peace. This song borrowed words from Ryenchinii Choinom, a dissident poet during the socialist era, and transformed them into rap lyrics, laying them over early hip-hop beats and ethereal Mongolian instrumentals. In the documentary, Enkhtaivan, the rapper who founded War and Peace, recalls: "[Hip-hop] entered Mongolia and represented similar conditions to the situation we were in."
The emergence of Mongolia's first real city, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the growth of a subsection of society that increasingly felt disenfranchised were among the developments that helped create a society that could identify with American hip-hop.
What's more, this new music genre also dovetailed with the country's ancient oral traditions. From the long-standing culture of song fighting, praise singing and various spoken word games, it wasn't a huge leap to MC-ing. The Mongolian language itself, rich as it is in heavy, guttural sounds, seems almost custom-designed to be rapped over base-dropping beats. And, at a stretch, Mongolia's tradition of khöömii, overtone singing in which the throat is used as an instrument to create two pitches at the same time, one a low drone, the other a high melodic note, could be seen as a precursor to beat-boxing.
When interviewed by Binks, Bayarmagnai, one of Mongolia's last singers of traditional epics, even claims hip-hop began in Mongolia. He argues, "[Look at] the long songs of praise; even when we were kids getting into arguments… these [sing-song] intellectual debates to avoid physical fighting…"
While modern Mongolian hip-hop often samples traditional instrumentals and singing, the overall sound and look of its artists more closely resembles that of their American brethren. Diamond earrings, hoodies, tattoos, pimped-up rides and studio walls plastered with Tupac posters are all de rigueur.
Despite all this surface bling, their lyrics are more down to earth. "There's a lot of hype and bravado, bitches and hoes in Western hip-hop. Mongolian hip-hop is more grounded, more honest and raw," says Binks. "They're singing about the realities of their lives and trying to create change."