For the uninitiated, Mongolian hip hop came into the scene after the fall of socialism. It has really begun to flourish here in Mongolia proper, and has even began to spring up in Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia. It has gained the attention of the media most recently thanks to the documentary Mongolian Bling (which I have yet to see). I remember reading about Mongolian hip hop before I even came to the country. It was one of my first exposures to modern Mongolian culture.
Most rappers rap about traditional lifestyles, social unrest, and concerns about ruining Mongolia’s landscapes in exchange for material wealth that only a select few will see. On that front, some rappers have a strong, pro-Mongolian theme in their songs. They rap about the pride and strength of the Mongolian people. A few, however, also use it as a battle cry against foreign “invaders,” most notably, the Chinese. One rapper in particular, Gee, throws around the phrase “hujaa” (хужаа) quite a bit, which is a racial slur against the Chinese. It’s also the title of one of his most popular songs, the video featuring him cutting sheep carcasses with an axe.
Khuumii is the traditional Mongolian throat singing. The singers produce two distinct sounds simultaneously in their throat. It’s an interesting style to hear. It’s been around for hundreds of years, and its origins are like most others in music: It was developed to mimic the sounds of nature. Lots of regions produce khuumi singers, and you can find teachers in different provinces all around Mongolia. Mastering it, though, takes time and effort. It also hurts your throat quite a bit, as I have heard from other volunteers who have endured the training at one point or another. I was told that if you master khuumi, the effects on your throat are so drastic that you won’t be able to return to a Western style of singing. Learn at your own risk, I suppose.
Hip Hop and Khuumii
Last summer, during the national Nadaam holiday, there was a small concert in our little village. Local dancers, singers, and musicians took to the stage to entertain the masses. One duo, notably different from the rest, took the stage about mid-way through. They were two large Mongolian men from Khuvsgul: One with sleeveless traditional garb on his back and Mongolian boots on his feet, the other in more western, clearly hip hop-influenced, attire. With the addition, of course, of an animal pelt draped over his shoulders. One sang, one rapped. What was unique about their act was that they both used khuumi to rap and sing parts of the chorus. If you pay attention, you hear the chorus start with “I am a Mongolian” (би монгол хүн), which harkens to the aforementioned theme of national and ethnic pride. Rather than spend too much time explaining, I will let the video show you what I mean.
My apologies for the shakiness and lack of clarity. Clearly, it was one of the more popular acts that day. Just another way Mongolians are mixing the modern and the traditional.