By Thalea Stokes
My time in Mongolia and China has been towards the aim of coming to a deeper understanding of Mongolian hip hop culture in both nations, and how those cultures interact, intertwine, and inform each other. Beginning in July 2018, I spent four months in Ulaanbaatar and two months in Hohhot immersing myself in Mongolian hip hop culture and history, interviewing fans, casual listeners, and industry professionals, navigating the virtual spaces of Mongolian hip hop culture, and participating bodily in gigs, concerts, dance competitions and classes, and graffiti. Doing these things had inverse difficulty levels for from Mongolia to China. I dedicated more time there simply taking in Ulaanbaatar as a city and a culture, as it was my first time in the country, which was difficult. Yet it was very easy for me to connect with people in person and virtually. Meanwhile, this was my fifth trip to Hohhot in a series of several trips to China over many years, thus understanding the area was not a challenge for me. Instead, connecting virtually and personally with fans and industry professionals was what was difficult, as people in China are restricted in terms of artistic expression. Pursuing such a line of inquiry as Mongolian identity through hip hop can be dangerous both for the pursuer and the pursued. Nevertheless I progressed as carefully and conscientiously as I could, and was privileged to have been taught a great many critical things about Mongolian hip hop culture.
What I Learned, Encapsulated
I could give an overarching summary of all that I researched—and indeed I will in the context of completing my dissertation—but instead I will share a single experience that touches upon many of the myriad themes that were manifested and consistently present through my research. During my time in Hohhot, I had very few opportunities to go to hip hop concerts or live shows, so when one presented itself, I did my best to take advantage of it. One such live show opportunity presented itself well in advance, and I immediately made concrete plans to go. On the day of the show, I got a WeChat message from one of my interlocutors that the show was happening. He wanted to make sure that I was going, and I assured him that I was, not only for the main act of interest (Alihan Dze), but because an Inner Mongolian rapper (Billy King) that I particularly like was slated to perform and I wanted the chance to possibly connect with him for an interview.
Just a few hours later, I received another message from the same interlocutor telling me that the main act was cancelled. I pressed a little, trying to find out if the entire show was cancelled or just the main act. I didn’t get a clear answer, and something in myself told me to stop pressing further. I decided, for several reasons, to stay home.
It wasn’t until later that I found out on Facebook—utilizing my VPN to stay connected with my friends and contacts in Mongolia—that the act was cancelled because Alihan Dze had been denied entry into China, and possibly even banned, for having rapped about a kind of “one Mongolia” philosophy at some point in the past. I was immediately frightened and relieved that I had decided against going to the show anyway, lest there be undercover government officials seeking to find out just who would be interested in listening to an artist who posits ideas unfavorable to the Chinese government.
What this incident showed was that: there are active artistic collaborations going on between Mongolian and Inner Mongolian hip hop artists; these collaborations can and do tend to foster amiable, even familial feelings between the two groups under the philosophy that Mongols in China are still part of the whole Mongolian family, i.e. a “one Mongolia” cultural philosophy; Inner Mongolian hip hop artists are at the mercy of a government that necessarily and severely restricts the kinds of topics they can express and the kinds of associations they can make, and yet still manage to express their Mongolian identity through hip hop culture. They strategically conceal overt expressions of Mongolian identity with generalized proclamations of self-love and respect for others, and by encouraging their audience to open their minds and “think freely.”
The Most Important Takeaway
Where these two hip hop cultures critically intersect is through the complicated relationship between the two groups of people. In the past, Mongols in Mongolia were wont to look down on Mongols in China as not being “real Mongolians” but instead being Chinese with some Mongolian cultural characteristics. Inner Mongolians have generally felt a deep pain over this perception, as they view Mongolia as their ancestral home, and longingly as a home many of them will never be able to see. But through collaboration, artistic mediums, and virtual information sharing even despite the severe restrictions in China, Mongols in Mongolia and Mongols in China have been changing that relationship from one of conflict to one of enlightenment and more understanding with a desire to be a single, connected family that is simply spread out over great distances. Mongolian hip hop culture has been part of this ameliorating and unifying project (here is just such a collaboration video done by both Mongolian and Inner Mongolian hip hop artists). As it continues to evolve and its participants continue to share and learn from each other, Mongolian hip hop culture across the two nations will continue remain unpredictable, harrowing, and deeply meaningful.
Thalea Stokes hails from Atlanta, GA, and is a classically trained bassist who has been invested in exploring the musics of many cultures for many years. After receiving earning a Bachelor’s in music performance, a Bachelor’s in Global Studies with a regional focus on China, and a Master’s in music research, Thalea began and is currently working toward a doctorate in ethnomusicology. Thalea’s primary ambition in life is to open a school for world music to be based in the US.