Documentary captures Mongolia's burgeoning hip-hop scene
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Dubbed "Mongolian Bling", the new 90-minute documentary by Australian Benj Binks showcases how hip-hop has become a popular vehicle of expression for the stresses of increasingly urbanized life among Mongolia's youth.
Forget nomads, heavy tents and epic songs chanted after a long day of herding across vast grasslands.
These days, Mongolian young people are entranced by rap.
Born on the mean streets of U.S. cities and fanned by frustrated youth, rap and the hip-hop culture it extols are helping young Mongolians express the stresses of dealing with an increasingly urban society and all its woes.
“Continue like this and you’ll be an alcoholic, you’ll forget your family and parents, there go your loved ones,” raps Ganbold, who lives in an impoverished district of Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital.
The skinny 16-year-old is one of several Mongolian rappers featured in “Mongolian Bling,” a 90-minute documentary by Australian Benj Binks that showcases how hip-hop has become a popular vehicle of expression for the nation’s stress.
“The film is really about what it means to be Mongolian in this day and age. It is not a music documentary, though there is a lot of music in it,” said the first-time director, who first discovered that hip-hop was popular in Mongolia on a 2004 visit.
“I could have told this story through rock, or maybe even through techno. But hip-hop was the most in your face. The scenes reflect the urban culture.”
The film premiered at the Revelations Film Festival in Perth last year and will be screening at Beijing’s Asian Film Week in March, though it has yet to be shown in the country where it was made due to other commitments on Binks’s part.
Ganbold, who hails from one of Ulan Bator’s “ger” districts, where many residents live in traditional tents without access to electricity and modern sanitation, said he sang to try and humanise alcoholism, one of Mongolia’s worst social problems.
“This is about how most Mongolians despise alcoholics. Some people see them as not even human,” explains Ganbold in the film. “Others see them and feel sorrow for their addiction.”
Like their counterparts in the United States, many of these pioneering musicians take up the banner of social justice in their lyrics as well, rapping about violent crime, domestic violence, alcoholism and the rampant political corruption.
“The candidate will go home thinking he has fooled the crowd,” raps Gee, another respected young artist. “In the ocean of globalisation, Mongolia is like a boat without paddles. You better start to care before we ... drown.”
“The hip-hop here is very much modeled after U.S. hip-hop, but the lyrics are socially charged, about family, wealth, corruption,” said Todd Smith, the general manager of the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation in Mongolia, which helped put Binks in touch with some of the people he filmed.
“Mongolian people are very musical, and hip-hop is an important medium for young people.”
Music has had social and political significance since before the country became democratic in 1990.
One song, “Ring the Bells,” which just skirted the strict censorship of the time, is recalled by many Mongolians as one of the final weights that helped topple the socialist government.
Now hip-hop is helping people cope with the results of that freedom, not all of which have been for the best.
The film threads together footage of people speaking, street scenes, live music recordings, and traditional religious and nomadic practices, focusing on how hip-hop has built itself up within the more traditional culture.
One segment features trash talk by Gee about an older and more softspoken star, Quiza, and how he has signed a contract to help promote an alcoholic beverage company.
“Hip-hop is not about commercialism.” Gee says, between insults such as “I hate Quiza. So commercial ... Bling bling. Goddamn. That’s not hip-hop.”
But Quiza, whose real name is Battsengel, has been working with Amnesty International for several years, symbolising the responsibility many artists feel to make life better for the next generation.
The real star of the film may be Gennie, a 26-year-old woman called the “queen of Mongolian hip-hop.”
One of Gennie’s topics is middle-aged women abandoned by both their husbands and the government to poverty. “The stubborn state says they’ve done a lot for them,” she raps sarcastically.
“Gennie also raps about how the land is being destroyed by mining, the plights of domestic violence, the lack of support single mothers get from the state,” Binks said.µ
“There is a real blend of old and new. In the city you get horses going through, and you have grandmas who are supportive of hip-hop.”
That may be because hip-hop is seen as a way of giving the voiceless power - and hope.
“It’s a tool for healing society,” says Quiza in the film.
“Hip-hop is like a weapon to express your words and opinions.”