"Forget about nomads and monks! It’s hip hop that’s making Mongolia move in the 21st century. "
STEPPEIN’ OUT… “The film is really about what it means to be Mongolian in this day and age,” says Australian director Benj Binks about his first feature, Mongolian Bling. “It’s not a music documentary, though there is a lot of music in it.”
The film’s setting is Mongolia’s capitol, Ulan Bator, one of the world’s most polluted cities and a place that’s usually so bone chillingly cold that everyone’s always bundled up. Yet Mongolian Bling is beautifully shot and flows effortlessly as Binks brings the people, the food, and the neighborhoods to life, so vividly that you actually want to visit.
The story is told through rappers Gee, Quiza, and Gennie (the “Queen of Mongolian Hip-Hop” whose construction worker husband watches the baby so she can pursue her career) and through producer D. Enkhtaivan and traditional singer Bayarmagnai. We also get to know a traditional Mongolian music teacher whose dislike for hip-hop turns to love, a shaman who sings, and Gennie’s feisty grandmother, a folk singer still active on the Asian festival circuit.
Mongolian hip-hop is highly patriotic, searching for a synthesis of all things Mongolian as it strains to find a morality that fits the times. One of the film’s high points is the depiction of Gennie’s trip to Europe to perform with French bands and rappers. Nervous and proud and aware that no one can understand her Mongolian lyrics, she “used the rhythm and actions of my body more than usual to express my character and they felt me, supported me, and gave me a lot of energy.”
Perhaps inspired by her French trip, when Gennie goes into a friend’s makeshift studio to record her first CD, she reveals a change in her thinking. “I’m not going to make songs about a dark past but make songs about a bright future that others are unable to see.”
In many ways Mongolia, nestled between Russia and China on the other side of the world, is very different from the United States. Primarily a Buddhist country with ancient cultural traditions, thirty per cent of its people still live as nomads, moving across the steppes and tending livestock. In Ulan Bator, more than half the people live in the slum-like ger districts, which draw their name from the traditional felt-lined tents of nomadic culture. It’s not uncommon to see horses in the streets of Ulan Bator, just as it it’s not uncommon to see them on the streets of Compton, whose rappers influence their Mongolian peers. Both cities in their current incarnations are products of massive immigration, resulting in an uneasy and incomplete shift from agricultural life to city living.
Mongolia and the United States do have important things in common: an extreme polarization of wealth, homelessness bad and getting worse, people living without water or electricity, and widespread unemployment. Like many Americans, many Mongolians survive by dumpster diving. Like the U.S., Mongolia has sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
When Gee says “In an ocean of globalization, Mongolia is like a boat without paddles,” he could be talking about either side of the Pacific. The U.S. is a capitalist country with a democracy collapsing so fast that the state of Michigan has declared local elections null and void, replacing elected officials with political appointees called emergency managers. Mongolia, a former Soviet republic, collapsed into electoral democracy and capitalism. As Quiza puts it: “I grew up under socialism until I was ten. Then democracy took over and I learned how to be independent. At that time starvation struck and everything was rationed.”
Mongolian hip-hop emerged in the early 1990s due to the advent of cable TV and the immigration of nomads into Ulan Bator. Producer Enkhtavian says hip-hop was a natural fit since “the nomadic civilization is a culture that seeks the new.” At first, the biggest American influences on the emerging Mongolian hip-hop culture were M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice but, as the material abundance those rappers symbolized didn’t exist for rappers in Mongolia, Tupac became the dominant figure.
Since Mongolia has a history of song fighting games, speed spelling contests, and other cultural competitions, the American tradition of rap battles was copied quickly. And just like the rest of the rap universe, Mongolia is consumed by battles about what constitutes “real hip-hop.” The country’s first rap group, a duo called Black Rose which performs in traditional robes, is dismissed as “techno.” While some Mongolian artists rail against the destructiveness of alcoholism, Quiza signed a corporate sponsorship contract with a liquor company. “I hate that motherfucker!” hisses Gee.
Mongolian hip-hop is different in its embrace of traditional music. This includes Tuvan throat singing which, with its multi-pitch overtones, can become a sort of beat-boxing. At times the combination of old and new is just well-meaning, in other cases it creates a fusion of extraordinary power.
Unlike the U.S., there isn’t much of a rap industry to fight over in Ulan Bator. The irony of the film’s title is that there is precious little bling of any kind in Mongolia and what there is belongs to government officials and foreign corporations. The failure to share the bling defines Mongolia’s hip-hop.
“I rap about real life issues,” says Gennie, who has songs against the mining industry that dominates the Mongolian economy and in protest of a government that does little for poor women such as herself (“This land of mine has been turned into a cradle of criminals”).
The baby-faced hip-hop artist Bardoral raps:
My Mongolia hasn’t always been poor like this
Maybe it’s gone down a bit now
There are so many useless politicians
Eating each other like wolves eat meat
Hip-hop has always told the inconvenient truths of the past and the present. That’s the stream where Gennie and other Mongolian artists first got their feet wet. Now she is standing on the far bank and saying that a journey out of pain and suffering can begin. Or, as Gee puts it: “Art is not a tool to make money. It’s to heal society and the artists are the doctors.”