Gangsta rap, Afghan style
By Tom Coghlan
“The people find this very funny,” said the young man. “They say this isn’t a song because this man isn’t singing, he is talking.”
From the car stereo came the sound of looped drums and a thudding bass-line topped by the machine-gun delivery of a man rapping in the style of America’s gangsta rap stars.
To the delight of the young, Western dressed Kabulis in the car next to me, he was rapping in Dari.
“I like it very much,” the man went on. “Lots of Afghan men like me who know English have heard foreign rap music. But now we have it in our own language.”
While the arrival of rap music in Afghanistan is hugely popular with some young Afghans, it has also caused widespread bemusement and in some cases outright alarm.
“This is too much for Afghanistan,” said Akhtar Mohammed, 31, a Kabul shopkeeper who described himself as not particularly conservative.
“This is a new music, which we cannot do like the Westerners, and it will destroy Afghanistan’s traditional music.”
DJ Besho, the country’s only rap star to date, is a diminutive 28-year-old.
His outsized jewellery, sculpted facial hair and gigantic camouflage pattern jumpsuits are clearly tastes culled from America’s all-conquering rap music scene.
Besho, whose real name is Bejan Zafarmal, is frank in admitting his considerable debt to controversial stars such as Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent; while his fluent English is littered with US street slang.
His first video finds him rapping atop a bouncing Hummer utility vehicle. His arrival is just the latest expression of the massive cultural change going on inside Afghanistan.
DJ Besho’s rap music is on the airwaves less than five years after the 2001 overthrow of the Taleban government ended a complete ban on both music and film.
Today, there are dozens of independent radio and television stations, many of them funded by foreign donations and importing news, views and music from around the world.
Internet cafes are appearing in the major cities and more than one million Afghans now possess a mobile phone.
But while many young urbanites are voracious in their appetite for Western and Indian popular culture, much of the country remains extremely conservative.
And some of Afghanistan’s leaders are increasingly concerned by what they perceive to be an erosion of Afghan and Islamic values.
DJ Besho was raised in Kabul during the communist era but his family fled to Germany at the time of the disastrous civil war of the 1990s.
In Germany he has what he describes as an 18-strong musical collective in the town of Weisbaden, near Frankfurt. Besho is, somewhat improbably, a trained hotel manager when he is not rapping.
For DJ Besho the usual preoccupation of rap music with sex is far too controversial to contemplate, at least when he is in Afghanistan.
“People like 50 Cent want to show their money and the ‘pimping’ side of rap music,” he said.
“I want to write about my country and I want to write about love. I don’t use swear words and I have even used texts from the Koran in my music.”
For war-weary Afghanistan rap music’s other dominant theme, a casual preoccupation with street violence and guns, is unlikely to prove a popular draw.
DJ Besho’s subject matter thus far has remained studiously uncontroversial. In one song he adapted an old Afghan tune to sing about his love for Afghanistan. In another he sang in restrained tones about a beautiful girl with captivating dark eyes.
‘Shaking the booty’
Although there are many of the trademark features of American rap in his videos – cars with bouncing suspension, ostentatious jewellery and much semaphore-like hand signalling – there is no sign of the gyrating, scantily-clad ladies that are more or less ubiquitous to the genre in the West.
Besho admits wistfully that one day he hopes to include some of what is called “shaking the booty” into his videos. It is this sort of erotic dance that has the religious establishment up in arms.
“The new generation are impressionable,” Maulvi Mohammed Seddiq, former adviser on Sharia law to the Supreme Court says.
“When these dancers are shaking the backside and the front side, this excites the young people. We have less sex crimes in Islam because in Islam we have forbidden the temptations that cause these crimes.”
Such a view is by no means unusual. Despite the claims of Western politicians, burkhas remain the norm in rural areas of Afghanistan and a common sight on the streets of the cities.
Successful independent TV stations, such as Tolo TV, which has a contract with DJ Besho, make careful cuts to foreign music videos they show to avoid criticism from the religious establishment.
A measure of the sensitivity on religious issues was clear when the country’s Supreme Court sought to ban Tolo TV for showing the Charlton Heston sword and sandals epic, “The Ten Commandments”, during Ramadan in 2004.
“It showed the prophet Moses with short trousers and among the girls,” Wahid Mujdah, a Supreme Court spokesman, said at the time.
“He’s a very holy person and Islam respects him. This is wrong.”
At the end of April 2006 the Afghan parliament sacked the Culture Minister, Sayyed Makhdum Rahin, and called on President Hamid Karzai to find an alternative.
Mr Rahin had been a noted liberal on issues of freedom of speech and expression, a position which brought him into frequent conflict with the conservative-dominated Cultural Affairs Committee of the parliament.
While the conservatives and liberals are at loggerheads over what the future direction of Afghanistan should be, both sides agree that a major underlying fracture is taking place within Afghan society.
“These are revolutionary times in Afghanistan,” says Saad Mohseni, the Australian-raised Afghan director of Tolo TV.
“Sixty percent of Afghans are under the age of 20 and they are adapting very fast to a new age. But there is real conflict within families and a definite rift between young and old.”