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Thai rapper's arrest amplifies Southeast Asian political hip-hop

From Bangkok to Phnom Penh, lyricists get under authorities' skin

Thai rapper Dechathorn Bamrungmuang flashes the three-finger protest salute after being released on bail in Bangkok on Aug. 20. He still faces the possibility of years in prison.   © EPA/Jiji

PRAGUE/BANGKOK -- The song "Prathet Ku Mee," or "What My Country's Got," has been on the soundtrack of every major Thai protest since the hip-hop collective Rap Against Dictatorship released it in late 2018.

Some demonstrators want to rein in the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Others focus on opposing the military-backed government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. There are also demands to end gender discrimination and corporal discipline in schools.

Whatever the beef, "What My Country's Got" has been the anthem, performed live by the collective at several of the youth-led demonstrations that have gripped Thailand over the past month or so.

This has clearly struck a nerve: Collective co-founder Dechathorn Bamrungmuang, 30, was swept up in a wave of activist arrests in August and now faces up to seven years in prison on sedition charges. Some, however, say attention from the authorities only highlights the power of rap to give a voice to public frustrations -- not only in Thailand but across Southeast Asia.

"I am happy that my song touches upon their feelings, and finally it creates the same feeling among groups of people -- the feeling of injustice in Thai society," Dechathorn told the Nikkei Asian Review after his release on bail.

Thai protesters make their point with a sign on Aug. 31. Songs like "What My Country's Got" have become anthems for demonstrators with different sets of grievances.   © Reuters

When Rap Against Dictatorship first released the track on YouTube in October 2018, it clocked up almost 20 million views in a week. That is equivalent to over 25% of Thailand's population of 70 million. The lyrics pull no punches: "The country whose capital is turned into a killing field, Whose charter is written and erased by the army's boots, The country that points a gun at your throat, Where you must choose to eat the truth or bullets," goes one verse.

The national leadership was also listening. "Anyone who shows appreciation for the song must accept responsibility for what happens to the country in the future," Prayuth said at the time. The government even tried responding with its own commissioned rap song, "Thailand 4.0," which attracted far fewer viewers.

"It goes to show how strongly rap music, which is a form of art, moves people; so strong that the authorities feel threatened by it," said Putri Soeharto, an Indonesian rapper better known by her stage name Ramengvrl.

For Paul Chambers, a political analyst at the Center of ASEAN Community Studies at Thailand's Naresuan University, political rappers operating online are "an unprecedented new variable in Thai politics, something that could not have existed previously in contemporary Thai history."

Any genre can give rise to protest music, but hip-hop has many advantages. Unlike rock or pop, which generally consist of a handful of verses and repetitive choruses, rap songs rely far more on lyrics, allowing for greater complexity. Rap is also easier to create, in some respects. DIY producers can compose the beats on the cheapest of laptops, adding the vocals on top. There is no need to learn an instrument or secure expensive studio space; a makeshift, low-cost sound booth will do.

Indeed, rap has had a heavy element of social commentary stretching back to its origins in the U.S. -- from the Black power politics of Public Enemy in the late 1980s to N.W.A.'s controversial hit "F--- Tha Police" in the early 1990s.

The internet and social media only make it easier for rappers to give censors headaches.

Members of Rap Against Dictatorship perform in a Bangkok studio in December 2018.   © Reuters

Not long after "What My Country's Got" was first uploaded, the Thai police warned that they would prosecute anyone who shared the video online. They reportedly planned to use the country's computer crime law, which carries a five-year prison sentence for spreading false information that damages national security or causes public panic. The authorities later walked back from this threat, although the police have frequently detained internet users for sharing politically contentious content in recent years.

Ramengvrl noted that shutting down rappers is not as straightforward as closing down actual street demonstrations. Rap music is digital and intangible, and "you can't censor what you can't see or touch," she said. "When the authorities bring one [song] down, new ones will come out."

The protest rap phenomenon has reached much of Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese rapper Nah was studying in the U.S. in 2015 when he released his less-than-subtly titled track "F--- Communism," which quickly went viral on YouTube. In the Philippines, artist-research collective Sandata spent two years interviewing people affected by President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly war on drugs for songs that went into the album "Kolateral," released last year.

The rising popularity of hip-hop among Southeast Asian youths, especially electronics-infused subgenres like "trap music," is not lost on international music executives.

In September of last year, Universal Music Group launched a new hip-hop-focused label division in the region, Def Jam South East Asia. Def Jam itself has represented some of the biggest names in the business, like Jay-Z and Kanye West. The Southeast Asian version went on to sign many of the region's most popular (albeit mostly apolitical) rappers, including Joe Flizzow of Malaysia, Daboyway of Thailand and Singapore's Yung Raja.

"I think the rap genre is quite trendy and that's why it receives massive acceptance among teenagers," said Dechathorn. "I can't deny that the song ["What My Country's Got"] helped attract more supporters and drew many supporters at the protests."

But Dechathorn and other outspoken artists have found it is not always possible to avoid legal trouble.

Malaysian rapper Wee Meng Chee, known as Namewee, has been hauled in by police multiple times, including over a song that was deemed blasphemous in the Muslim-majority nation. Cambodian rapper Chhun Dymey, known as Dymey-Cambo, was forced to pull some of his songs from social media platforms after his track "This Society" went viral early last year, earning the ire of his country's autocratic government.

"I will stop composing such songs and turn to write sentimental songs that encourage the younger generation to love and unite in solidarity with one another," he was quoted as saying by the Phnom Penh Post, a local newspaper, last year.

Speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review last week, Chhun Dymey said life as an artist is difficult because in the eyes of the authorities, "we can't do anything right."

"Politics is complex and very hard to understand. It's like a game for politicians," he added. "The message I want to send to my fans is to get them to love each other and follow their politics. I especially want them to love their country and their culture."

No one knows for sure how Thailand's protests will end. Analysts are pessimistic, as the authorities step up their clampdown. But Naresuan University's Chambers stressed, "Such a government response will not end online rappers, but will instead make them more radical in their music."

While out on bail, Dechathorn said he and his collective are still working on new songs. "We do not make a living with this job, so there is no rush," he said. "We need to crystallize the idea before writing it up."

Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat.

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