Crossroads Asia

Kyrgyz Rapper Strikes Chord With Track Condemning Corruption

Fans of Kyrgyz rap are quick to see parallels between traditional musical forms and a famous artist’s new release.

Colleen Wood
Kyrgyz Rapper Strikes Chord With Track Condemning Corruption
Credit: YouTube / Screenshot

On May 8, Begish – a fixture of Kyrgyzstan’s rap scene, one of the few who writes and performs solely in Kyrgyz – released “Sayasat” (Politics), a biting track condemning widespread corruption and morally bankrupt leadership.

The premise of the music video for “Sayasat” is simple: a police officer – played by anti-corruption activist Bolot Ibragimov – handcuffs Begish and shoves him into a sidecar, and Begish raps as they drive away from the mountains. While Begish chants about bribes for votes, the struggles of doctors and labor migrants during the pandemic, and corruption, the police officer looks forward stoically, only reacting when Begish chucks himself out of the sidecar at the end of the song. “When will the sun shine, or will this rain never pass?” Begish asks in the final stanza. “Kyrgyz people have suffered enough, life is complicated.”

In describing the range of suffering, Begish speaks to enormous scales of corruption and theft. “Your sins keep your stomach full, you filled it with people’s hard work,” he raps, referring to electricity generated from local rivers sold back to citizens at a premium, officials’ skimming off money coming from abroad, shady construction and resource extraction contracts that benefit the already rich. If this theft weren’t bad enough, Begish is furious about the tone politicians take while speaking to their compatriots; his disdain for Kyrgyzstan’s ruling class is clear. “Are you done gorging on sin?” he asks.

Although he doesn’t name any politicians outright, a close read of the lyrics reveals a few key culprits. For example, Begish ends the chorus, “You say my dear people,” a not-so-subtle jab at Atambayev, who often used the same phrase (“altyndarym” in Kyrgyz, literally “my golden ones”) to refer to fellow citizens in speeches.

While “Sayasat” is certainly not the first song to criticize the state of Kyrgyz politics, his listeners see the song as distinct from other music coming out of Kyrgyzstan’s rap scene.

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One YouTube commenter compared Begish to Toktogul Satylganov, one of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous akyns – masters of musical improvisation – who was imprisoned at the tail-end of the Russian Empire and welcomed the October Revolution. Another person responded suggesting that Elmirbek Imanaliev, who sang about the corruption of a foreign gold mining company’s controversial projects and local elections, would be a more apt comparison.

These comparisons suggest that Begish is drawing on the form and content of aitysh, a socio-musical tradition practiced for more than a millennium in Central Asia. Aitysh involves two akyns performing in a sort of “good cop, bad cop” set-up to expose social vices and express public opinion. Granted, it might be a stretch to interpret “Sayasat” as the work of a parallel akyn, given that the song and video are neither improvised nor performed with another artist (although Begish does perform extemporaneously in rap battles that have become increasingly popular in Kyrgyzstan).

While the impulse to domesticate contemporary cultural products by looking for something innately Kyrgyz about a foreign artform like rap could be concerning, comparisons between Begish and famous akyns suggests that the significance of the rapper’s music is bigger than simply translating a dominantly Russophone subculture into Kyrgyz.

The public reaction to “Sayasat” demonstrates that Begish has struck a chord with his lyrics. “Sayasat” offers a channel for directing frustration with the government at a time when the pandemic has made it impossible for mass gatherings to express collective dissatisfaction with the ruling class.