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Tibetan rappers gain popularity among diaspora with songs about ethnic identity
They also seek to inspire those living under China’s repression in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
By Dolma Lhamo for RFA Tibet
Tenzin Younten, 19, who lives in Darljeeling, India, penned a song about Tibeans speaking in their native language.
Tenzin Younten wanted Tibetans living in the diaspora in Darjeeling, India, to speak in their native language. So, the 19-year-old rapper wrote a song about it.
“I saw two Tibetans in my neighborhood communicating in the local dialect [Nepali] and that just triggered me,” Younten, whose stage name is Youns BoB, told Radio Free Asia. “I then thought and decided that I must empower young Tibetans in exile to at least communicate in our own language. So, I went home and wrote the song ‘Speak in Tibetan if You Are Tibetan.’”
Rap music has become a creative way for Tibetan youths living in exile to assert their cultural identity and to communicate their stance on Tibet-related issues.
They say they believe their songs represent a powerful cultural framework to stand up for Tibetan identity, closely tied to Tibetan Buddhism, which has come under assault by the Chinese government in recent years as it seeks to maintain an iron grip on the restive Tibet Autonomous Region.
In the past, Chinese authorities have jailed scores of Tibetan writers, artists, singers, and educators living inside the region for asserting Tibetan national and cultural identity and language rights, especially after widespread protests swept Tibetan areas in 2008.
In 2020, authorities in Tibet sentenced singer Lhundrub Drakpa to six years in prison for his song “Black Hat.”
The lyrics criticized repressive Chinese government policies in Driru County in the northern Tibetan city of Nagchu. In recent years, the county has been one of the most severely and militarily controlled areas in the region, according to the rights group Free Tibet.
Many young Tibetan musicians like Tenzin Younten say music is a powerful agent capable of arousing emotional and patriotic sentiments. Credit: Tenzin Younten/Instagram
Meanwhile, the music of the up-and-coming singer Younten and his song “Speak in Tibetan if You Are Tibetan” have become popular among some members of the Tibetan diaspora, and he now has more than 5,000 fans on Instagram.
Many young Tibetan musicians like Younten say music is a powerful agent capable of arousing emotional and patriotic sentiments. They say their lyrics instill a sense of pride in being Tibetan and seek to unify and strengthen Tibetan communities in the diaspora.
Not everyone is a fan
Other Tibetans living abroad have criticized Younten’s song, questioning whether speaking only in Tibetan validates someone as being ethnically Tibetan and portrays authentic Tibetan identity and culture.
Netizen Kalsang-td recently posted a comment on Instagram below Younten’s song: “You are completely wrong, brother, if one cannot speak Tibetan doesn’t mean he is not a Tibetan[.] Tibetans have many tribes and regions and they all have different languages and dialects.”
Another netizen, smokytibetan, also posted a comment on Instagram about the song, saying, “All I’m saying is let people speak whatever they want to speak. It’s not up to you or other Tibetans in our society to be telling others how to be. Btw [by the way] there are plenty of Tibetans living in their respective western nations who don’t speak Tibetan as their first language so you should acknowledge that.”
Younten said he does not have contact with anyone inside Tibet, so he doesn’t know if his songs have reached people inside the region. But posts on the video-sharing app TikTok indicate that some young Tibetans inside China’s borders have heard his music.
'You are our pride'
A Europe-based Tibetan rapper, Tenzin Seungyi, has gained a following abroad in part because of his song “Rewa,” which means “hope” in the Tibetan language, in which he sends a message of inspiration to Tibetans inside the Tibetan Autonomous Region. He sings:
Respect to our brothers and sisters inside Tibet,
Thank you for preserving our Tibetan language and culture,
You are our pride,
I am sure we will all meet in front of Potala.
I am lucky to be born as Tibetan.
I hope that I will be born as Tibetan in my next life.
Tenzin Dawa Tsona, a Tibetan singer in his early 30s, performs in the video for his song 'Your Holiness,' which is dedicated to the Dalai Lama. Credit: Screenshot from Tenzin Dawa Tsona's YouTube channel
Rapper Tenzin Dawa Tsona, a Tibetan in his early 30s, grew up in Dharamsala, India — the residence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile — and attended the Tibetan Children’s Village school there. The nonprofit organization provides care and education for Tibetan children living in exile.
Tsona turned to rapping after immigrating to the Netherlands with his family. Finding himself in a new and different cultural environment helped shape his music and lyrics, he said.
“Music is a unique communicative way to express our feelings whether it’s to pay tribute to His Holiness the Dalai Lama or sing songs of love for Tibet or send a message of hope to our Tibetan brothers and sisters back in Tibet,” said Tsona, who is married and has a son.
His song “Your Holiness” is dedicated to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. In a video of the song, Tsona raps, “If we didn’t have Your Holiness as our leader, Tibetan culture and pride, Tibetan language and religion, Tibetan unity and kindness, compassionate and sympathetic Tibetans, Tibetan identity would have vanished.”
The Dalai Lama, considered a separatist by the Chinese government, seeks a greater autonomy for Tibet as a part of China, though, with guaranteed protections for Tibet’s language, culture, and religion.
A voice for the voiceless
Tsona also released a song titled “Lhamo Dhondhup” on July 6 to mark the 88th birthday of the Dalai Lama. In it, he sings:
Even though the Tibetans are dispersed
We remain united because of His Holiness.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the soul of the Tibetan people.
Tsona’s songs have reached young Tibetans in western China, who have posted comments about them on the Chinese instant-messaging app WeChat. One listener thanked him for sharing such sentiments in his songs.
Tibetan rappers living in the diaspora have a duty to their fellow Tibetans inside China, Tsona said.
“[L]iving in a free country, I believe that we have the responsibility to be the voice for our voiceless people inside Tibet through mediums like music,” he said.
Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Matt Reed.
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