THE UNDERGROUND HEROES OF TIBET

In August 2012, one of seven Lhakar awards for outstanding courage, dedication, and innovation by Tibetans to the cause was given to young Karma Norbu. Karma also known as Shapaley is a Swiss-Tibetan rapper who blasted the Internet with his song “Shapaley” in 2009. For those that do not know what Shapaley is, Karma will show you as he raps about this Tibetan delicacy with it hung around his neck. Shapaley is a pastry stuffed with meat — usually beef, which is then deep fried and served.

The Chinese occupation of Tibet also called the “Liberation of Tibet” began in the 1950s. The first Tibetan kingdoms were established in the fourth century. Under these, a vast, beautiful and bizarre culture of Buddhism flourished, giving rise to schools of art, music, philosophy and literature. Through waves of industrialisation and global explosion, Tibet managed to keep its systems intact. When the Chinese occupation began, Tibet’s culture suffered at the imposition of Chinese socialism. Although committed by the 17 Point Agreement of 1950 to preserve the political and cultural autonomy of Tibet, the Chinese left little authority to the keepers of Tibetan tradition. After the departure of the Dalai Lama in 1959, Tibetan culture suffered a blow to its knees. Tibetans today are still fighting for the loss of their nation, for basic freedom in a world that is otherwise free.

In the video for Shapaley, Karma Norbu is nonchalant, effortless and as an added advantage — good looking. He introduces his subject Shapaley, by wearing it on a chain around his neck and tells you that he has “hot ones and cold ones”. He uses a method that is primal to the invoking of culture, that of exhibiting one’s food. The Shapaley is the center of the song, which then becomes a tool for instilling Tibetan pride. Karma Norbu also wrote the song Made in Tibet which was also turned into merchandise in the form of T-shirts that are worn by young Tibetans world over. In this he asks his fellow countrymen to “remember where they come from no matter where they are”. Karma echoes the emotion of Nostalgia, one that is rare in contemporary youth. The video for “Made in Tibet” shows clips of young Tibetans all over the world, who join their hands and declare,

“We haven’t forgotten where we come from,
We remember that Tibet is our homeland.”
Karma Norbu in Made in Tibet

The song proclaims that Tibetans, though scattered throughout the world, keep Tibet in preserved in their hearts and will not forget about their lost nation. It showcases the others like Karma, who though far away from their land, are still united in the struggle for independence. Karma’s rap is not a direct political act, but an appeal for strength and patience.

Hip-Hop as a genre evolved in the 1970s, becoming increasingly popular amongst young Americans, particularly African-American youth who lived in the suburb of the Bronx. Like all sub cultures, Hip-Hop arose from a feeling of otherness, from the search for a new medium of expression. While 1970's rock-n-roll spoke of angst, emptiness, and an alienation that was deeply sad but also somewhat privileged, Hip-Hop took to talking about more authentic life struggles. It appropriated language, creating a subversive ‘gangsta’ lingo and developed the tone of spoken lyric. Artists like Erik B and Rakim, Tupac Shakur, spoke about survival, racism, and standing up in the face of discrimination. As a genre — Hip-hop advocated a tenacious, outspoken and obnoxious attitude to the hurdles that life presents.

Though Karma uses lyrical rap, and his beats are similar to a young Tupac, his tone is different. He speaks with a sense of comedy and calm that is unusual but typically Tibetan. Karma’s music invokes a side of the Tibetan struggle that is not usually acknowledged. In Shapaley, he preaches — “buddy, it is good to obey your parents”. He talks of respect and compassion to one’s elders as Tibetan values, and prompts his fellow Tibetans to keep that in mind. In his single “Tsampa” also about a native Tibetan food, Karma Emchi raps cheerfully — “it is impossible to be on time, I am a nomad of the grassland, a son of snow, a Tsampa eater.” Though he uses rap, a technique adopted from the West that he inhabits, his subject and his flavour of rap is Tibetan.

Recently, a group of young Tibetan rappers Sheep droppings posted a video about the unfair portrayal of Tibet’s history and culture in a Chinese TV show titled “Tibet’s Secret”. The show chronicles the history of Tibet during the 1930s and 1940s before China’s takeover. It has been accused of showing Tibet’s language and culture in an unfavorable light and has caused outrage amongst thousands of Tibetans. Sheep Droppings’ song titled “RESPECT” was uploaded on Youko, a Chinese video sharing website but was removed on February 3rd. However, before this censorship, Tibetans had shared and spread the video, putting it on sharing sites elusive of administrative control. “RESPECT” starts off with an angry emphatic tone, and expresses unadulterated wrath at the Chinese TV show and government. It speaks out against misappropriation of Tibetan culture, and the silencing of the Tibetan voice. Sheep Droppings’ has received criticism from Tibetans, who are unhappy with their aggressive tone of voice, but this rap group is indifferent to all.

The lyrics of the song go like this:

Right now I only have words with which to riot
So here I’ll give you two words: ‘Blasted Idiot’
I do not care what you produce
But you should always be close to the truth
Just like my lyrics write the truth about yourself

The song also shoots out directly at the maker of Tibet’s secret:

Fucking Liu Debin, you make me speechless
Again and again you defame our people

It expresses an attitude of angry punk, which is unusual to the general temper of Tibet. Though Sheep Droppings’ are different in tone to Karma, the underlying emotion is the same — the defence and of Tibet’s culture.


In July last year, while my friends and I were stumbling from shop to shop in search of T-shirts in Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh, I came across a man calmly drawing a tattoo of the two Tibetan lions onto his own arm. Temding Tsetan is a tattoo artist who runs a movement called Tattooed for free Tibet.

He believes that political tattoos are a strong method of protest, and does tattoos for his fellow Tibetans free of cost. Tamding was born in Tibet and at a young age was chosen to be ngakpa — a Tibetan yogi, by his grandfather who brought him up. His hair was shaved from the sides except for a ponytail at the top of his head. Tamding hated this, he wanted long hair like a musician’s, a mandolin player to be specific. Later, his grandfather wanted him to be a monk, and shaved off his head. Tamding hated this too, and determinedly kept growing his hair back. When he turned 16, he grew into a tall young man, and no one could cut his hair anymore. Which is when he started on his chosen path of music and art, with a full head of hair and dreams.

Tamding Tsetan talks about the confusion among young Tibetans of the political situation of Tibet. He says it is not uncommon for a young snow-lander to be clueless, to not know what the Tibetan flag looks like, to be unsure about what they were fighting for. However, he says that all young Tibetans feel a lack of freedom, feel that something that is constantly being kept from them. He wants to change the cluelessness by aiding the revolution with visual art.

Tamding moved to India at the age of 20, applying for an education in the Tibetans Children Village saying he was 16 years old. After he learnt that funds were scarce in the Village, and there was not enough food to go around, he and his friends applied to the TTS — The Tibetan Transit School where he learnt the art of thangka painting, an art highly evolved and spiritual. He became proficient in thangka, but the strict disciplinary procedures to be followed during the period of painting curtailed him. He started to play the guitar, travelled with the musical group Akupema, after which went on to work at Norbulinka, a training centre for the Tibetan arts for 2 and a half years. It was at Norbulinka, that he evolved in the art of tattoo-making. With the help of his friends from America, Tamding finally got to tattooing with a western machine in a more professional and hygienic set-up.

Today Tamding owns his own Tattoo parlor in Mcleodganj and works with many NGO’s teaching language and arts to Tibetans in exile. He believes in the ‘middle way’ as preached by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, of Tibetan autonomy under Chinese rule. Every year, on March 10th, he prints a new collection of political T-shirts to mark the anniversary of the 1959 Lhasa uprising. Tamding Tsetan is a modern-day Tibetan, who uses methods that are new to protest. Like Karma and Sheep Droppings, he is not a martyr for the cause. He does not use the methods of ancient Tibet, non-violence, spiritual mediation, and sacrifice but expresses with tools that he has developed.


At university, I had to make photocopies of notes for my Tibetan friend who spent most weekends in jail for protesting outside the Chinese embassy. She used to tell me cheerfully that how she would rather do that than attend boring Shakespeare classes. If you ever go to Dharamshala, you will notice a people that are quiet in their determination. Though Mcleodganj for many of them is home, it is evident that their heart is not in it. They speak of Tibet as a place full of beauty, a land that used to be equal and joyful for all, and it is easy to discern the their tragedy. Karma Emchi, Sheep Droppings, and Tamding Tsetan are only a fleeting glimpse at the heroism that is the people of Tibet. Resolute monks, political radicals, peaceful protesters, rappers, artists, sacrificing mothers, they are a community that is immeasurable in their perseverance. As I watch Karma Norbu do the moonwalk across my computer screen, I ardently hope that the snow-people can return to their land, to sing, rap, dance and draw in celebration of their triumph.