Afghanistan’s Rap Scene Is Real, Political, And Growing

In June 2015, a young Afghan soldier became a national hero overnight, after defending the Afghan parliament from a deadly Taliban attack. Within days, he became an unlikelier kind of hero as well: a muse for Afghan rap.

When TV interviewers asked the soldier, Essa Khan Laghmani, to describe how he single-handedly killed seven armed insurgents, he responded “Taq chapako” — Dari for “Bang! And down.” As Laghmani’s fame swelled, hip-hop songs with the catchphrase “Taq chapako!” started to go viral on the Afghan internet. A version by one of the more popular Afghan hip-hop artists, Bezhan Kunduzi, celebrates the valor of Afghan troops fighting the growing insurgency.

“O, enemies of Afghanistan beware; our soldiers will bury you,” Kunduzi warns.

The popularity “Taq chapako!” as a rap refrain sheds light on three important features of the Afghan rap scene: it’s real, it’s growing, and it’s very political.

“Afghan rap is . . . about real miseries, real struggles, and real accomplishments. Afghan rap artists have so many stories to tell,” explains Amanullah Nuristani, an Afghan producer who has a studio in Kabul and has helped several local musicians and artists.

“The stories that you get to hear in the Afghan rap, much like when western rap was good and still had substance, are the voice of people who’ve been neglected for far too long and now want to be heard.”

Gap, Not Rap

When Kunduzi first started to perform rap at events in Kabul, a lot of people laughed at him. “They did not understand what sort of music this was,” he says. “To them it sounded a lot like talking.”

In fact, the conversationalist nature of this genre earned it the name “gap” music, which, in Dari, literally means “to talk.”

“This is very different to a lot of our mainstream, pop and classical music and other such genres that focus more on softer subjects and fine technicalities of harmony and melody,” says Nuristani. “The hip-hop artists . . . concentrate more on the words and how meaningful they are.”

Afghan rap remains deeply inspired by the social and political current events. Kunduzi takes pride in the fact that his music is nothing like western rap music. “My music focuses on social causes and is purely targeted to the young Afghans, a lot of whom are returning home to help rebuild the country,” he says.

His latest song asks Afghans to forego the dangerous journey to seek asylum in European nations, and instead to stay in Afghanistan: “Not Osama, not Obama, not Gorbachev; no one can help you, unless you do something for yourself.”

Ahmad Haqbin, 21, a younger and lesser known artist, is treading the same path. “The beauty of hip-hop music is that it doesn’t have any boundaries and I can sing about anything,” he says. Haqbin is part of a local Kabul rap band called Qalam, which means pen. Lack of financial support, and next to no returns, has not stopped these self-starters. They’ve composed, recorded, shot and published several songs and singles to Youtube, some of which have several thousand views.

A lot of Haqbin’s music deals with his personal experience as a refugee in Iran. “With rap, I can critique the society from both inside and outside, in any way that I see will help throw light on social issues,” he explains.

The use of current events, situations, and characters adds a certain urgency to Afghan rap. “For instance, I followed the Farkhunda tragedy, with a powerful song on women’s rights and dignity in the Afghan society,” recalls Kunduzi, referring to the brutal murder of a young woman named Farkhunda by a mob in Kabul, in March 2015, on the false accusation of burning the Koran. The incident resulted in a massive public outcry against the poor state of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Kunduzi’s song about Farkhunda is both a memorial and an admission of complicity: “Nobody came forward to save you, I’m sorry; Farkhunda, my sister, I salute your name.”

“In this song took the liberty to criticise the regressive mullahs who’ve held back women’s freedoms and development in Afghanistan,” he says, adding that when he performed the song at a concert in Sweden, several listeners in the audience were moved to tears.

Female Voices

Afghan rap has done more than just throw light on women’s issues. It has helped amplify women’s voices as well. It isn’t unusual anymore to walk into a local cafe in Kabul and find a female musician taking center stage. The Afghan music industry as a whole, and the hip hop scene in particular, has also served as a powerful platform for women poets to add their voices to the larger narrative.

Women rappers — like 15-year-old Sonita Alizadeh, who made headlines with her song about being sold into child marriage — have brought attention to stories of Afghan women. Alizadeh’s song not only helped rescue her, but earned her a scholarship in the United States. It also started a pertinent dialogue on child marriage in Afghanistan.

Another young female rapper, 20-year-old Ramika Khabiri, has been rapping about violence against women, and women’s position in the Afghan society for nearly two years now. Her music is not only focused on women’s causes, but has also helped add a female voice to the national dialogue.

This is starkly in contrast with the situation 15 years ago, when music itself was banned during the Taliban regime, let alone music by women artists.

“When it comes to female hip hop artists, we see a very rebellious thought that’s coming out — a thought that’s against the norms of what the society has been dictating,” says Nuristani, who has worked with Khabiri on several of her recordings.

Is Rap The New Poetry?

Traditionally and culturally, poetry has been a powerful medium for social commentary in Afghanistan, a country known for producing some of the most prominent poets and literati in the region. It’s common, therefore, for Afghan rap artists to fashion themselves as contemporary poets.

“Afghan rap is akin to some very sophisticated poetry,” says Nuristani. “They are so real with what they are writing. They are poets, and finds words to express their feelings and have meaning to their songs.”

While still in its nascent stages, hip hop in Afghanistan has grown considerably since Kunduzi first played publicly. It has earned a lot of acceptance and a degree of respect. “A lot of times, to the extent they can, Afghan rap artists put a lot of philosophy into their music,” says Nuristani.

And the philosophy and politics of Afghan rap is being taken increasingly seriously by a widening range of listeners. Several of the artists have been invited to perform at concerts and even on TV shows. This wasn’t the case a few years ago, where a lot of Afghan listeners (accustomed to local and Bollywood music) found rap to be unusual form of music. Artists were often mocked and laughed at, Kunduzi claims. Others found it too controversial, and rap artists were often received threats. “I have faced criticism and condemnation, and even death threats over the issues I raise in my music. They called me a kaffir [infidel] even though I never criticised the religion,” Kunduzi added. This isn’t the case now. The genre’s likeness to poetry has gained it some acceptance over the years.

“The Afghan rap scene has become an unlikely and inclusive platform for social discourses,” says Nuristani. In that sense, Afghan rap is an unqualified success. Taq chapako.