Dispatches From Xinjiang: Uyghur Hip-Hop As Folk Music

Adil Mijit is not the only Uyghur comedian to incorporate a discussion of hip-hop into his performances. In the recent state-sponsored film Shewket’s Summer, directed by Pan Yu with assistance from Beijing Film Academy students, Abdukerim Abliz joins the Uyghur hip-hop crew Six City as a reticent folk musician. The film, which is both a “coming-of-age” and “parent-trap” melodrama, highlights the way conflicts resolved at the level of the family have larger implications for society.

Although it’s heavy in the propaganda of ethnic harmony (a Han character named Luobin [!] is featured as an aspiring musician in search of “original” tunes, and then as an inspiration to the Uyghur characters), the slick production values and money behind the film present Uyghur folk arts in a strongly positive light. As a wise Native American activist and anthropologist once told me, “If The Man offers you money, you take the money.”

Six City and Abdukerim took the money. The fact that the Uyghur-language poetics of Six City shows up at the end, when the conflict between the main character and his wife is resolved, serves to highlight the tangential relationship Uyghur conflict has to the propaganda theme of the movie. A close reading of the film reveals that the heroism of the reluctant Han savior is undermined by the force of Uyghur music. It also shows us a hip-hop infected by the contagion of deeply felt Uyghur self-expression.

When Six City take to the stage at the 77-minute mark, they reinterpret a Uyghur folk song “You Say I Am Black” as an anthem for Uyghur teenagers. Unlike the Tang Dynasty poetry recitation, which Shewket struggles to recite earlier in the film, this song, whose title means “You Say I am Guilty,” screams off the tongues of the hundreds of kids gathered for the Six City performance. Unlike the memorization of high Han culture, Uyghur folk songs are shown to be integral to Uyghur education and Uyghur futures. Although Luobin teaches Shewket how to phrase and intonate classic lines from Li Bai, Shewket still does not understanding what he is saying. Even if Li Bai was born in present-day Kyrgyzstan, his Chinese Central Asia was not the Chinese Central Asia that Uyghur kids know and love. The turns of phrase they know refer to their neighborhoods (mehelle), and the lyrics they love are clever rhymes which highlight the deep resources of Uyghur poetics.

You Say I’m Black

From that neighborhood to this neighborhood, I have come to play (to check you out).
I have come to ask whether you are willing.
From my city to your city I have come for you. I have come to ask if you think I am good or bad.
They say I’m black,
They say I’m black,
There is no blackness in me. I don’t even have the guilt the size of the husk of a black peppercorn.
They tell me to go, they tell me to return. But it’s my will …
Even if they whip me 80 times, my love is mine.
Rap (2:05 above; 4:00 below)
From that neighborhood we have come to this neighborhood (mehelle). All us players have reached a new level (pelle).
Like sophisticated royalty the love between us guys and girls is full of trust and promise.
New beginning, new life, new direction (bulrush), for the life of the future our waist belt shouldn’t be loose (bush).
If the princes aren’t deceived, if the trust is bound, tomorrow (ette) is beautiful; and you won’t say “where (nede) is happiness?”
If you work hard, happiness is still yours. Don’t believe in miracles, wake up from your dream and join our line.
Your friends will be your witness (guvah), the affairs of life will no longer be vague (guva).

“Amina I’m sorry”

The song ends with a banner inscribed with an apology to the estranged wife of Abdukerim; although the hero of the story is intended to be the young Han musician in the end rap, the effervescence of Uyghur youth prevails. Hip-hop becomes the beat to which old quarrels are resolved and a community of the future settles into place. Six City is asking young Uyghurs to “join their line” of hard work; they are asking young Uyghurs to stop pining for dreams and instead tighten up their waist belts. A Uyghur future can be made through effort and solidarity.

A full version of Shewket’s Summer (with Chinese subtitles) can be viewed here.

Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asiawhich attempts to recognize and create dialogue around the ways minority people create a durable existence, and, in turn, how these voices from the margins implicate all of us in simultaneously distinctive and connected ways.

|Dispatches from Xinjiang Archives|

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