How battle rap and streaming platforms are bridging Kyrgyz hip-hop’s elders and youth

Rap has dominated Kyrgyzstan’s music industry for 30 years. Finally, thanks to the streaming era, the genre now has the potential to be economically viable.

25 February 2020

In a room at one of the oldest rock clubs in Bishkek, plastered with AC/DC and Led Zeppelin posters, 150 fans are cheering for the first act to take to the stage. A brigade of cameramen and sound engineers are poised in the crowd, waiting to record the events of this very special night. The first performer who swaggers on stage is neither a tribute act nor a rock musician – it’s rapper Lev Belov, known by his stage name Belyi (“White” in Russian).

“Tonight we celebrate the fourth birthday of the Street Credibility movement,” he gestures to the space around him, “which started right here in Zeppelin!” The event marks the the final of the 2019 edition of the local battle-rap tournament called Street Cred BPM. Besides performances from local acts MadContender and Baritone, the night promises endless battles, several guest appearances, and an open mic where anyone can join the stage to spit a few bars into the microphone.

Belyi during a freestyle rap battle against The OM, with whom he opened the sound studio Biblioteka Rec in March 2019

Over its four years of existence, Street Credibility has put on 12 unforgettable parties. Crucially, their popularity has ushered a new wave of rap in Kyrgyzstan. In line with rap music’s phenomenal rise across the world, the genre is now a staple of radio programmes and club playlists across the country. Russian-language rap tends to be popular among urban-dwellers, while rappers like Begish and Bayastan, who were also part of the night’s celebrations, are driving Kyrgyz-language rap beyond big cities into the country’s rural areas.

But as the Street Cred event progresses, the organisers also make sure to pay their respects to the forefathers of rap across the pond. As Belyi expressed at Street Cred’s semifinal last April: “At some point, Africa Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash laid the foundation for this shit, and today the streets are ready to give their recognition!”.

Lev Belov, aka Belyi. After 15 years in rap, he's earned a reputation as one of key figures of on the scene

Rap made it to Kyrgyzstan in the late 1980s via illegally traded tapes and vinyls. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of restrictions on Western cultural products, only a minority of teenagers could get a hold of the latest rap albums, available through sound studios or relatives who traveled abroad. Instead, the early rappers of the 90s honed their skills by spitting rhymes at school discos to impress their peers. As aficionados found each other, hip-hop progressed as a subcultural phenomenon through the first decade of Kyrgyzstan’s independence.

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Rapper Rashid Sarbagishev can give a first-hand account of that time: born in 1983, he has been listening to hip-hop music since the age of 10. He became fond of the genre after his cousin brought him a cassette of LA rapper Ice Cube back from the US. If you couldn’t afford tapes and merch, you could always get your fill of hip-hop through TV shows, such as Blah Blah Rap from the French TV channel MCM or the Russian youth programme Do 16 i Starshe (From 16 and Over).

Rashid still remembers his friend taking him to his first hip-hop party in the now-defunct club Aladdin in the late 1990s. “The parties brought together many rappers, representatives of hip-hop culture, and break dance,” he recalls. Packed with around 200 people, this was an opportunity for young people to show off their talents. “They didn’t have their own beats of course, but they had their own [English and Russian language] lyrics. When they rapped, I was amazed to have made it to such a party, where people really showed pleasure in what they were doing,” Rashid describes.

A few years later, the Rashid Sarbagishev founded the AP Clan collective, or just AP (Asian Power) for short. Consisting of Rashid and his friends Nurmat, Talgat, and Kanat, today it is the oldest existing hip-hop group in Kyrgyzstan. The collective landed the first local rap hit in the early 2000s: “Apake” (Mum). The song tells the story of a soldier who dies during the Batken conflict of 1999, when the Kyrgyz army was fighting against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The Russian-language song with a Kyrgyz title showed that rap can be music that the masses can relate to. “Wherever we were invited, whether a joyful party, a sad party, people kept asking for that song,” Rashid recalls.

Together with groups like Acapella or Kiggaz, AP Clan reached a career peak in the mid-2000s, a time that can be considered the golden age of hip-hop in Kyrgyzstan. “We became pretty popular, performing at parties sometimes 3-4 times a week,” remembers Rashid. “Every week there were two new hip-hop groups appearing”.

"> Rashid Sarbagyshev is one of the “dinosaurs" of the Bishkek rap scene
Rashid Sarbagyshev is one of the “dinosaurs" of the Bishkek rap scene
Lev Below, aka Belyi, in his sound studio

This rapid emergence of new artists also essentially watered down local hip-hop. In an interview with the youth newspaper Limon in March 2007, ex-rapper MC Mara commented that, “Kyrgyzstan is very small and the scene just couldn’t hold together when every second person rushed into rap.” He also complained about the genre getting diluted, saying that “the new generation [of rappers] has not come up with anything new; there is nothing left to attract listeners.” The pioneers of Kyrgyz hip-hop disbanded at this time: after reaching their early 20s, they did not see a future for themselves in rap music. In 2008, Rashid went to Afghanistan to work on a US military base for two years.

But the next generation had already started to lay down the groundwork for rap’s evolution. Belyi, the organiser of Street Credibility, was 12 when he first performed at the biggest concert hall in Bishkek in April 2005. Two years later, he had his first paid gig. “Before that, my mum was convinced that rap was just ‘killing time’,” he remembers.

In a bid to please the masses, some rappers have taken on patriotic themes

As a member of two Russian-language rap collectives, No Comment (2008-2011) and Troeraznykh (2012-2017), Belyi has been one of the most active figures in Kyrgyz rap for the past decade. After winning silver at a freestyle battle in Almaty in 2013, he took part in early attempts to introduce rap battles to Kyrgyzstan, creating platforms where local rappers could perform. He says today’s young rappers know there is limited economic prospect in the industry; the main problem is they often lack the conviction and feedback needed to succeed: “When you rap every day and don’t receive anything in return, you eventually give up.”

Street Credibility was created to give new talents a career momentum. “For me that’s the main goal: that someone performs at Street Credibility and comes out of it with extra motivation to keep writing and creating,” Belyi tells me at Biblioteka Rec, the sound studio he opened together with fellow rapper The OM two years ago.

As there are a limited number of economic opportunities in rap music, many rappers pursue music as a hobby or side-hustle. This was the case for Rashid, who recreated AP in a new formation as soon as he returned to Bishkek in 2010. Even now, as a married father of two children working in the field of accounting, he is preparing the group’s third album, a collaboration with Kamil, another “dinosaur” of the Bishkek rap game. Others, like Kyrgyz-language rap stars Begish and Bayastan, or the Russian-language group PBL75, are only able to survive thanks to regular concerts and performances at private parties or clubs.

In a bid to please the masses, some rappers have taken on patriotic themes, calling on audiences to love their homeland or respect their elders. In Begish and Bayastan’s stylish and drone-heavy video for “Kim Jetsin” (Kyrgyz for “Who Can Reach”), the rappers drop lines like, “What can compare to the Kyrgyz land!” on the beat of Rick Ross’ 2010 single, “Blowin’ Money Fast”. Patriotic rap has been on the rise since the Kyrgyz Revolution of 2010. Yet EDM-flavoured party rap still reigns supreme in Bishkek’s clubs, to much dissatisfaction from the older generation of rappers. For this reason, Rashid’s latest track “MVP” is so didactic. He tells his followers: “Rap for refining, for style lovers/ Rap not about bitches and fake cash”.

But it’s the ability to make money from streaming platforms that is incentivising young artists and even drawing older rappers back into music. There is hope that this will eventually make Kyrgyz music more sustainable: “Those who had left, and given up, have already returned,” Belyi observes, announcing a new rap wave for the foreseeable future. “I think that eventually the guys who are talented, whose music is really great, will be able to make money from it all.”

Besides his own rap career, Belyi also works at Infinity Music, a pioneering digital distribution company based in Bishkek. In less than a year of existence, the firm has already published more than a thousand tracks by musicians from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Out of the various genres, Bishkek rap is generating several million streams per track across the Russian-speaking world – Ulukmanapo’s “Ne Segodnya” (“Not Today”) is a case in point.

“If we are successful, we have to work hard to stay successful,” says Rashid. If AP Clan could ever make it, then Rashid just might consider pursuing a full-blown musical career. “We would be doing what we love; writing music in the studios and spending time with our family in the evening. In the ideal world, you would wake up, eat, and head to the studio like you go to work.”

With more and more rappers dreaming of worldwide acclaim, gatherings like Street Credibility are building a sense of community by bridging the generations of rappers and fans in Bishkek. It also serves as a reminder to young rappers that they are part of a wider history. That’s why Belyi had invited Rashid as a jury member for the final of Street Cred BPM. When he introduces Rashid on the night, he beams with pride: “The dinosaurs didn’t die out, they are alive and living in Bishkek,” before pausing and grinning to the younger crowd members, “guys, you weren’t even born when he was already rapping!”

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