Ablajan Awut Ayup, the Uyghur Justin Bieber, is trending again in Uyghur cyberspace. Uyghur Weixin and popular social media sites like Misranim have amped up Ablajan’s meteoric rise in Uyghur pop culture, but this time it’s not just his highly orchestrated K-pop-style dance-ensemble performances, his catchy rhymes and bad-boy persona. Ablajan is crossing over. China, meet A-bo-la-jiang.
In October the pop star released his first official Mandarin-language music video, and it is epic.
Starting from the top of an Ürümchi tower, Ablajan, his gang of slick Uyghur urbanites, his girl and his wingman, the rapper McKelly, take us on a car chase through Xinjiang cityscapes. Although the song itself is a fairly straightforward lyric of unrequited love and a playboy scared straight, the imagery, like Bieber’s 2012 epic music video, is re-appropriated from Hollywood car movies and Michael Jackson dance videos.
After plotting the way the song, titled “Today,” has been transformed in its journey from Uyghur to Chinese, I will point out some of the key moments in the video when echoes of Bieber and Jackson emerge in a Uyghur imaginary.
In the Uyghur version, Ablajan uses the beautiful Uyghur metaphor of the Sufi poet and his beloved to convey the depth of his love. He tells his girl that he has strung words together like pearls in a necklace in the hope of winning her heart. He tells her that all he wants is a chance to present these words as a gift from his heart before she vanishes like a spirit that will haunt his memory. In the second verse he sings:
I have always been a bad guy, my heart has always been unsteady. But once I saw your glowing (shahla) eyes, I became a different person. My friends asked “what happened?” I just want to pour my soul out (mungdishili) to you. Today I strung these words together like a beautiful pearl necklace for you. I don’t want to give my love to anyone else. Today I gathered my courage and expressed my heart.
By the time this song reaches the Chinese in its October 2013 variation, Ablajan’s passion seems on the verge of explosion. His love is burning; no matter how much he tries to cool off, he can’t. He sings that he just wants to “be with” his lover and her “beautiful body.” Rather than a plea for recognition as the song appears to be in Uyghur, in Chinese it becomes an anthem of consummation: “Today my love is released; you already humbled me. Please go with me today; you already made me well-behaved.”
After cavorting on tall buildings in Ürümchi, the scene shifts to Kashgar. There, with the Uyghur Old Town in the background, Ablajan and his gang of slick buddies circle up in their shiny cars for a bit of The Fast and the Furious, Uyghur-style. It is here, at the two minute-mark, that Ablajan first gives us an indication of his Uyghur identification. He greets his friends with the traditional pan-Islamic Arabic greeting of the Uyghur heartland, “Peace be unto you” (Esselamu Eleykum), and a few of his friends touch their hearts in response. The rituals of identity are still so automatic that they show up even when they are being combined with Hollywood and Michael Jackson.
As Ablajan and his bros hang out in front of their cars, the girl of his dreams arrives and takes him for a dueling dance in an alleyway of the functioning museum of the Old Town (the streets have been leased to a tourism company from Eastern China) and then down the freeway out into the desert in a careful car chase.
At the 4:42 mark the scene shifts to a parking garage in Ürümchi where Ablajan and the West African rapper McKelly recreate the scene from Michael Jackson’s 1987 hit Bad. It is interesting that this is the same scene Justin Bieber recreated with Big Sean in his 2012 music video As Long As You Love Me. After an extended dance sequence the scene ends with McKelly rapping “I love you girl cause you’re my boo” and Ablajan walking away from the catcalling crowd, following his girl off into the night.
This video and song is interesting on several levels. First, as a Mandarin-language pop star, Ablajan’s performances come across as even more streamlined and sculpted, and his lyrics seem more explicit and sexually provocative. Second, the imaginary of a rural Uyghur striking it big in the city as mediated by a continuum of K-Pop, Hollywood car movies, Justin Beiber, and Michael Jackson seems to still be framed by a common Uyghur dramatic theme: a precocious and challenging woman competing with the tight bonds of male friendship. Uyghur ideals are thus shown to be relevant in new and living forms of Uyghur sociality in the city.
Three years ago Abalajan was a little-known wedding singer from Hotan trying to make a go of it in Ürümchi. Today he shares the stage with Abdulla, the King of Uyghur music. While Ablajan has already become a mainstream hero among rural-to-urban Uyghurs, it remains to be seen if his performance of cosmopolitan Uyghurness will translate into success with a mainstream Mandarin-speaking audience. His first major test happened this week when Deweilong, the company that first promoted Luo Lin (Dao Lang) to a mainstream Chinese audience, sponsored his performance at a major music festival in Guangzhou.
Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, which 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.