Myanmar rappers rewrite women’s roles in their lyrics

Published On December 21, 2015 | By Greg | Myanmar, News

With their tattoos, loud tank tops and super-short shorts, Thazin Nyunt Aung and Aye Aye Aung don’t dress like most Myanmar women.

The country’s first female rap group, the duo known as Y.A.K. sometimes finds itself at performances or recording studios alongside demure, warbly voiced divas who specialize in more commercially successful Myanmar pop music. The encounters can be awkward: the nation’s traditional notions of femininity smacking into an audacious new wave.

“They don’t think we’re pretty. They wonder how we became singers,” said Aye Aye, 31, who goes by the sobriquet Triple-A. “So we wrote a song about such women. It’s called ‘Porn Face.'”

The song is a gritty, occasionally vulgar takedown of what the pair describe as a common character in the Southeast Asian country: the pretty young woman who seeks out a rich older man to “sponsor” her designer handbags and shopping trips to Bangkok, the Thai capital. They wrote it to protest a lack of diverse female role models in this deeply patriarchal society that is transitioning to democracy after more than five decades of military-led government.

Of course, there is one giant female figure in Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi, the beloved 70-year-old democracy activist who just led her opposition party to a resounding victory in parliamentary elections. Thazin and Triple-A describe her as “incomparable,” but acknowledge that her Oxford education and patrician air are not attainable standards for most young women.

“We’re not really into politics, anyway,” Triple-A said, polishing off a plate of rice at a quiet Thai restaurant here in Myanmar’s largest city. “We just want to stick with the truth.”

Y.A.K. — whose etymology is the subject of some debate, but more on that later — has been toiling in Yangon’s small underground hip-hop scene for more than a decade. The pair met in 2004 when a mutual friend gave Thazin, who was then rapping solo, one of Triple-A’s CDs. They discovered they had both been inspired by a local collective called the Myanmar Hip-Hop Assn., as well as American rappers Missy Elliott and MC Lyte.

Back then, Myanmar was ruled by a military government that kept Suu Kyi under house arrest and that strictly censored writing and music. The few nontraditional artists performed at tiny clubs and for friends, but had to steer clear of controversial lyrics.

“No politics, no sex,” said the tall, chatty Thazin, 32, who hides her dyed brown hair under backward baseball caps. “It was a very conservative place. It still is.”

The duo stuck to writing songs aimed at elevating the status of women. Although censorship laws have been eased, women remain underrepresented in public life. Suu Kyi, the country’s most popular politician, is constitutionally barred from becoming president because her late husband was foreign-born, as were her sons.

Before the election, a leader of the pro-military ruling party told a rally in Yangon, “The president is above any other position, just as in a household, a husband is in charge.”

A recent Y.A.K. song, “Myanmar Women,” takes aim at such views:

We weren’t born to obey unjust orders
We’re made of flesh and blood, like the rest of you
Our sight is set on the future’s promise
Women, lean on each other, reach out to each other
Don’t be afraid to go up against anyone, walk with conviction
Stop thinking women are weaker than men

Y.A.K. scored a coup when its music video for “Porn Face,” made by a local producer, became a minor YouTube sensation in Myanmar two years ago. But the duo still performs mainly at small clubs and international cultural centers while trying to raise enough money to produce an album.

Local promoters book them on the B-list, behind more traditional singers who dance and wear fancy gowns, they said. To pay the bills, Thazin works as a sound engineer and Triple-A has a day job at an event planning company.

For years, they were told that to make money, they should forget writing their own songs and get into “copy tracks.” These blatant rip-offs of international hits, rewritten with Burmese lyrics and belted out by local artists, have long been Myanmar’s most popular music genre.

“There is still not a lot of room for things that are different or original,” said Triple-A, who is the quieter of the two but lets her hair do the talking, recently trading in a half-shaved look for a short, boyish cut that’s equally daring for Myanmar.

The two hope that as Myanmar’s political transition continues, their music will gain wider acceptance. The name Y.A.K. originally came from the name of a bird that belonged to Myanmar’s royal family, but fans later decided it stood for “Yangon Always Kingdom” — a rejection of Naypyidaw, the city that the military built to replace Yangon as Myanmar’s capital a decade ago.

Triple-A’s family has not embraced her rap career, she said with a hint of regret. But Thazin said her father, a former military man, supports their music.

“And my mom really likes ‘Porn Face,'” she said.

by Shashank Bengali (L.A. Times)