Ask a person for their opinion on rap and they may tell you that it’s all about money and material possessions- they would be right. More precisely, it is all about money and material possessions that the rapper never thought he or she would have when he or she was poor, and the “haters” who want to harm the rapper, emotionally, physically, or both. Rap in America tells the story of social advancement in low-income neighborhoods, where anyone doing anything that might take them to a new landscape or living standard will incur the resentment of their peers. The lyrics often fly over the heads of middle and upper-class listeners, who can reach the same the stature as the rapper they are listening to, but without the same arc. Hip-Hop tends to find its voice among the lower classes, and not just in the US. The genre is finding an audience among Tibetans as well, and they are using the music to tell the story of their own struggles inside and outside of their homeland.
The Tibetan autonomous region lies in the southwest part of China, bordering India, Nepal, and Bhutan. It is considered to be the traditional home of the Tibetan people, though some members of the Tibetan community have also asserted rights to parts of the Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu Provinces. Tibetans viewed their homeland as an independent country, governed by spiritual and temporal leaders known as Dalai Llamas, but in 1950 the Chinese Communist party asserted its sovereignty over Tibet, sending troops to crush the Tibetan army and annex the land. A failed revolt against the Chinese forces in 1959 prompted the 14th Dalai Lama to flee Tibet and establish a government in India. From there he continued to push for Tibetan independence from China. Even today, Tibet is a very touchy subject in China and one best avoided by foreigners visiting the country.
After the occupation, much of the Tibetan community was scattered, with some remaining in the autonomous region while others spread to neighboring countries or left Asia entirely. As American Hip-Hop became more popular and international it was adopted by the Tibetan community but modified to reflect Tibetan cultural values. In 2009, Swiss-Tibetan rapper Shapaley ’s single “Made in Tibet” called for Tibetans around the world to stay strong and remember where they came from. Shapaley spent his childhood years in Lhasa, an experience that profoundly shaped his views on the condition of Tibet and Tibetan people under the Chinese Communist regime. The song was banned by Chinese authorities. In 2017, female rapper TibChicks won international fame when she released several songs on the internet without the backing of a record label. Singles like “Fearless” reflected a new bolder ideology that is spreading among the Tibetan youth. There is a belief now that anything is possible, and through music, Tibetans are not only preserving their identity but evolving it.
JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself.