How Hip-Hop and Country Music Helped Aung San Suu Kyi Win Myanmar's Historic Democratic Election
Never underestimate the power of a catchy campaign track.
Earlier this month, Myanmar turned an important historical corner as voters flooded the polls in the country's first election in 25 years to turn out the military-backed ruling party in favor of the National League for Democracy (NLD) of inspirational figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi, known internationally as "the Lady." The landslide victory marks the end of a long battle by Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who was held under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years between 1989 and 2010. Five years ago, her photo was banned from public display, but during the run-up to this election, one could see everywhere giant red banners and sign all featuring her face. Suu Kyi's NLD didn't just dominate the campaign in a visual sense, though; it also won the music campaign.
Christian Caryl, who covered the election for Foreign Policy, described the differing approaches between Suu Kyi's NLD and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) when it came to campaign songs."All of the parties here have these big trucks with boomboxes mounted on them in bright colors, and they ride back and forth up and down the street and they blast music," Caryl said. "Sometimes you get these duels of the boomboxes. It's very funny because the NLD —Aung San Suu Kyi's party—has rap music. They have these very rollicking Nashville country tunes that celebrates Aung San Suu Kyi, too ."The rap music that Caryl mentioned is probably "Fighting Peacock NLD," a campaign track named for the party's emblem that features rappers Anegga, G-Tone and Yan Yan Chan and singers Saw Phoe Khwar and She.
"The great thing is that the ruling party, these former military people, they have these very solemn martial tunes," Caryl said. "They're all marches. They're kind of booming up one side of the street and then back down the other, and, oh my god, you just want to kill yourself. Who told these people how to run a campaign?"
The song features Latin samba, dance, reggae and hip-hop influences, slathered in pop production. It sounds anthemic and hopeful, and the chorus "NLD! We must win! People's party! We must win! NLD!" is catchy as fuck. It's a song you'd like after the third time hearing it on pop radio, love after the eighth, and then hate after the 100th. The lyrics include references to the "proud peacock," "new days of history," "freedom from fear," "escape from poverty" and "a vote between all our hearts." At one point, rapper Yan Yan Chan drops this verse, translated by Coconuts Yangon: "Hey dude! Tell me what you going to do. We are NLD and what about your sister? Wash away all of your old ideologies. Mom and father-in-law, all are NLD."
You can also find a USDP song on Youtube, too. "USDP Campaign 2015" isn't quite a solemn march, per Caryl's description, but that description's not too far off. It sounds like the composer really, really likes John Philip Sousa marches, and tried to update them for the kids—only they didn't have the budget for a full band, so they used a synthesizer with female vocals instead.
It's hard not to compare Myanmar's 2015 elections to the U.S. in 2008, when the country was coming off eight years of George W. Bush. Barack Obama presented a positive vision with brightly colored graphics and a campaign song written and recorded by Joss Stone, not to mention name-drops in countless hip-hop tracks. Meanwhile, the Foo Fighters, Chuck Berry and Van Halen (with the notable exception of Sammy Hagar) all complained about the use of their songs by the Republican ticket.
But even the Obama wave paled next to the momentous Burmese election, in which the NLD won huge majorities in multiple government bodies at the national, state and regional level. After decades of rule, even the USDP had to accept the fact it lost.
Credit the NLD's historic victory to the power, charisma and influence of Suu Kyi—but don't underestimate the power of a catchy campaign track.
Mason Adams is on Twitter.