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Turkmen on the turntables: the çyraçy vs. the aksakal

Written by on Monday, 3 September 2012
Culture and History, Media and Internet, Turkmenistan
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In my last post, I talked about the political potential of Turkmen Hip Hop. What I meant by that wasn’t that the music is going to mobilize the young generation to rise up against their government — maybe it could, if the çyraçy ideal (fast cars, fast money, fast women) flounders against the hard realities of our country’s daily life – but that the authorities should listen to it, to understand the desires of the youth. Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to happen, but not just because our leaders seem too afraid to listen to anyone else. Hip Hop will probably continue to be rejected also because of the huge negative reaction from the general public to Hip Hop, and the fact that the çyraçy ideal challenges the very nature of our state at the moment. In fact, the two things — the negativity of the general public and the threat to our sense of nationalism — are connected.

The outside world makes fun of how our media is so censored, but they don’t completely understand. It’s no longer a top-down Stalinist system in which officials meet everyday to plan the propaganda machine; increasingly, people outside of the government can submit their own content to the media for broadcast. However, their content must meet very strict regulations set by the officials: you cannot criticize the government or be political in any way in your lyrics, and if you film a video clip to go with your song, you must wear decent, formal clothing, and girls especially cannot wear anything explicit. Restrictions like these are why you will not find Hip Hop on the official media outlets; the çyraçy ideal is not compatible with the “traditions” and “good morals” the authorities want to promote. The thing is, the older generations — the parents and grandparents of the rappers’ audiences — agree with the authorities.

Beneath the surface, Turkmenistan is a very divided society. It’s not that we were some barbaric/nomadic desert people before the Soviets or even the Tsarists came and are only just getting used to being an urban, modern nation-state. We were actually already settling down in the nineteenth century, building small towns around oases, and we could also claim the historic cities of Khiva and Mary [Ed.: known in the West as Merv] as ours. Still, for centuries, violent jealousies and vendettas have existed between our major tribes, the Tekeler, Yomutlar, Arsarylar, Goklenler, Saryklar, etc., and even today, many people identify themselves tribally first and nationally second (if they even identify with the Turkmenistan nation at all!). What unites us is a sense of common tradition that, maybe in content is localized, but in form is universal to all Turkmen. This is the ideal of the aksakal (“grey beard”, i.e., elders), the way of the forefathers.

Arguably, the aksakal ideal is the basis of our whole sense of nationalism at the moment, and the very structure of our government. Again, the outside world makes fun of our two presidents for the honorific titles they gave themselves, but those titles are revealing about their vision: “Türkmenbaşy”, the chief of the Turkmen, and “Arkadag”, the protector/patron of Turkmen ways — the ways of our forefathers. Naturally, there are differences between them: Berdimuhamedow seems to believe that the Tekeler are the “real” Turkmen, while Nyýazow was more broadminded. However, it shows how their orientation was to the old and established (and maybe this is also why they were so reluctant to give up on the old form of Soviet governance, since that was also, in some sense, a tradition).

Still, our traditions are not inflexible: we aren’t riding horses to work everyday! And there’s a huge amount of European and Turkish contemporary pop music influence, even if the instrumentation and lyrical styles are often “traditional” or “cultural”. So, maybe Hip Hop could have been embraced by the older generations, or at least not hated by them.

But the rappers aren’t helping themselves in the eyes (and ears) of the elders. In my first post I talked about the dissing war that broke out between the Balkan and Aşgabat Hip Hop scenes. For example, Azat Orazow once famously told his opponents, “Azat gyzyl dishini ayyr” (“remove your gold teeth”), and the famous Zumer also got his mic dirty, rapping, “Koynegini prokada aldyn my?” (“where do you rent your nice clothes?”). Obviously, lyrics like these do not make a good ideal for the youth to follow. It also makes it difficult (well, impossible) for older generations to be receptive to the positive aspects of the music form and its culture.

There are other problems between the old and young about Hip Hop. One is the huge investment parents must make in their children’s education: there is very little money to be made in music, especially Hip Hop, so it will always be seen as a very bad career choice. Another is the parent’s desire to protect their children: suppose the child turns out to be a good rapper and develops some fame? The government is going to begin following them. But in the end, I think that if Hip Hop abandoned the çyraçy ideal — but at the same time, not mindlessly embracing the aksakal ideal, either — and began rapping about noble things, then many parents might be willing to take the risk. Because ultimately, people do desire change as much as they also desire stability. It does not have to be forever a black and white choice between the young and the old, new and tradition, difference and sameness.

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