LHASA (AFP) – In his tracksuit, silver chain and sparkly sneakers, MC Tenzin would look like any other rapper if it weren’t for the high Himalayan peaks in his videos and rhymes about karma.
The self-proclaimed “godfather” of Tibetan rap is a leading figure in the region’s hip-hop scene, where strict social constraints are at odds with the in-your-face art form.
Tibetan rappers are walking a tightrope unknown to their peers overseas, with some cautiously exploring local pride and Buddhist identity in coded lyrics to avoid unwanted attention from Chinese authorities.
Most, however – MC Tenzin included – give a lot of room to politics to be able to continue to create their music.
“I’m a little different (from western rappers). I do my best to create a positive experience,” said the 36-year-old, real name Tenzin Dhondup.
He discovered hip-hop while listening to American giants like Eminem and 50 Cent in his hometown of Pasum, near the foot of Mount Everest, connecting so much to the music that he felt like “at home” .
“I listened to them so much that sometimes my ears hurt,” he told AFP in an interview in a bar in the nightlife district of the Tibetan capital Lhasa.
Over the next decade, a local Tibetan scene emerged, with Tenzin among the early pioneers.
Chinese hip-hop received a huge boost with the launch in 2017 of the hugely popular TV talent competition The Rap Of China, which helped bring the genre into mainstream audiences, and Tibetan fans say the stream lyrical Buddhist chants correspond to the rhythms of rap.
Some young rappers of Tibetan descent are pushing the boundaries by expressing their cultural pride, “challenging the stereotype of underdeveloped Tibetans (and) advocating for interethnic equality,” according to a 2019 study by a researcher at the University of Georgetown, based on interviews with dozens of Tibetan musicians. .
Tibet has alternated over the centuries between independence and control from China, which claims to have “peacefully liberated” the rugged plateau in 1951.
In 2008, the region exploded into deadly riots after growing anger over the perceived dilution of their ancient culture by rapid development fueled by China, and controls have been ultra-tight ever since.
In his videos, stylish rapper Uncle Buddha walks between trendy neon-lit parties and meadows on horseback, singing the âone unified rootâ of Tibetan tradition.
His song, Tsampa, refers to the staple grain-based food of Tibet, a symbol of Tibetan cultural pride and unity.
Religious connotations and Tibetan chanting can also express subtle opposition to Chinese pressure for secularization and assimilation.
âBecause artists can’t be explicit, I see important messages in the way they choose to express themselves, to dress, the topics they choose to rap on and who they collaborate with,â Ms. Dechen Pemba, founder of High Peaks. Pure Earth website, which translated Tibetan raps into English.
Karma and kindness
However, most Tibetan rappers stick to positive messages and cultural images like temples, colorful prayer flags, and monks in brown robes.
Popular hip-hop duo ANU scored a hit with the catchy karma-focused anthem Fly, which told listeners to “seek the highest soul.”
In another, they rap about kindness as “the essence of Buddhism” and denounce material greed.
Against his parents’ wishes, aspiring rhymer MC Tenzin finally moved to the big city, Lhasa.
âI worked in a travel agency, I slept there at night. At first it was very difficult,â he said.
“One night my friend and I were sitting down drinking Lhasa beer and we started making music.”
Rapping in Tibetan, Mandarin, English and Nepali, he primarily uses Douyin – the Chinese version of the TikTok social media platform – as well as live performances to share his music and interact with fans.
The Tibetan scene is however so embryonic that MC Tenzin also works as a tour guide because he still does not have enough income to earn a living – nor the support of his parents, who “do not understand rap”.
His parents had planned that he would make his living in their village with his family and follow the social practice of fraternal polyandry – a once common custom where several brothers marry the same woman.
Ultimately, MC Tenzin believes his mission is to give his fans a musical blessing.
âI want to make music so that the positive energies go to everyone,â he said.