In the last week, the Kyrgyz musical group D Billions posted eight videos to YouTube that have already amassed nearly 3 million views. With titles like “Gugu Gaga (Baby Monkeys Stories)” and “Zoom-Zoom-Zoom Binoculars,” these videos are perhaps not as arty as other creative ventures in Kyrgyzstan. But D Billions’ digital empire nonetheless stands to boost Kyrgyzstan’s soft power potential.
In August 2019, D Billions posted their first video, called “Left! Right!” and it was an instant success. Their most popular videos feature D Billions members eating giant fruit and repeating jigs at increasingly speedy tempos. In September 2021, D Billions became the first Kyrgyz channel to receive a diamond play button from YouTube, an award given to channels who reach 10 million subscribers. D Billions has grown to be a top YouTube channel worldwide, with some 31 billion total views – more than global pop icons like BTS and Taylor Swift.
There are four members of D Billions: Chicky, Cha Cha, Boom-Boom, who wear wigs and overalls in a mix of primary colors, and Lya-Lya, who sports a pink wig with blunt bangs. These characters are the face of D Billions, but the group is the brainchild of Ernist Umetaliev. Umetaliev has a long career in music, which includes doing the sound engineering for former President Almazbek Atambayev’s album of love songs in 2016.
The real people behind the D Billions characters are quite prominent figures in Kyrgyzstan’s music and dance communities. Asko Anarkulov and Janybek “Johnny” Jenishbekov, who perform as Cha-Cha and Boom-Boom respectively, recorded music with Umetaliev’s record label. The jump to wacky kids content may seem peculiar for serious artists, but according to Cholponay Kenjekulova, a famous singer and the PR manager for D Billions, it was a quick learning curve to embrace their D Billions personas. “They’re amazing, and they figured out how to work these roles,” she said in a radio interview with Europa Plus in April.
D Billions’ original English-language channel is by far their biggest, but the group has 13 total channels with a collective 17 million subscribers. These channels translate D Billions songs into a range of languages, including Russian, Arabic, Indonesian, Spanish, and Korean, and – most recently – Kyrgyz.
Umetaliev knew that the Kyrgyz channel would not bring in additional income, as YouTube has not yet enabled monetization within Kyrgyzstan. Even so, it was important to the D Billions team to write and perform songs in Kyrgyz. “We are saddened by the fact that children – including my own daughter – speak either English or Russian,” Umetaliev said in an interview with High Technology Park. “If we can get every child to know at least 30 basic words in Kyrgyz, it will be a win.”
Although Chicky, Cha Cha, Boom-Boom, and Lya-Lya don’t dress in traditional Kyrgyz garb, they showcase elements of Kyrgyz culture in some of their English-language videos. In March 2023, D Billions released a song called “Learning Nomad Games.” “Feel like a Nomad,” the lyrics go. “Try to be a Nomad.” Though the video is one of D Billions’ less popular uploads, it still has more than 700,000 views, constituting among the widest global reach of Kyrgyz pop culture figures.
This cultural promotion has gotten the attention of government officials. On May 30, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Cabinet of Ministers Akylbek Japarov awarded D Billions a certificate of honor for their cultural contributions.
This award was granted against a bigger backdrop of Kyrgyzstan’s aspirations to grow its IT sector and creative economy. The government established the Ministry of Digital Development in 2021, and the country has welcomed 1,119 people with “digital nomad” status, a program designed to attract workers in information and communication technologies. Kyrgyzstan already has a robust domestic tech community, and D Billions is playing an active role in it. They won the title “Expansion of the Year” at the 2023 Central Asian Tech Awards and will soon take a trip to Silicon Valley.
The development of Kyrgyzstan’s IT sector will hopefully lead to economic growth, but it also represents possible paths for diplomacy and the expansion of the country’s soft power. South Korean officials, for example, have figured out how to transform the popularity of Korean pop culture into diplomatic leverage.
As of yet, Kyrgyzstan’s government has not articulated a soft power strategy. Instead, according to Dr. Aijan Sharshenova, Kyrgyzstan’s soft power is “a tribute to incredible individuals who hail from Kyrgyzstan and happy random accidents.” This insight applies to D Billions’ global popularity and emergence as public diplomacy figures. On March 27, the French ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Francois Delaus, visited D Billions’ studio to discuss the group’s French language channel (and to pose for a goofy picture with Cha-Cha). On April 24, D Billions met with Leslie Viguery, the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, and Donald Lu, a former U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and current assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asia, to discuss the group’s upcoming world tour.
While there is room to improve Kyrgyzstan’s national branding, the simple fact that there is an emerging conversation about Kyrgyzstan’s soft power potential marks an important step. Much of what is written about soft power in Central Asia focuses on countries like Kyrgyzstan as passive recipients of Russian, Chinese, and American cultural influence. Flipping the script and centering a Kyrgyz content powerhouse like D Billions reflects the Global South’s growing visibility and power.