The Afghan Election Gets Its Own Hip-Hop Anthem

Seventy percent of the country's population is under 25. Can rap make them interested in politics?

This post has been updated to include the contest winners' newly released music videos.

Ask a young Afghan, who has come of age in war and turmoil, why his peers should vote in the country's presidential election, and what might he say? He might break into a rap that goes something like this:

Go to the ballot boxes without any fear,

Go and exercise your voting right once again.

We saw suicide attacks, explosions, and bombings,

We saw the leaves of the trees turn yellow.

The screaming of that innocent, sick child,

It's the sacrifice of that old man's wound.

The teenagers, youngsters, and widows are voting for their county.

Or like this:

Is this kind of life really comfortable for you?

Where there is bloody war for 24 hours, just like breathing that comes and goes....

O countrymen, stand up on your feet for the sake of your country,

Show me the path in this election.

The rhymes come courtesy of the rap duo Sami and Shaheed, and Sonita, the male and female winners of a competition to develop an anthem for Afghanistan's elections in early April. The winners were announced earlier this month at an event in Kabul attended by music judges and Afghan election officials. The three artists, who received $1,000 prizes, just finished recording their songs professionally and making music videos ahead of the vote. Sami and Shaheed's video is above, and Sonita's below.

The 18-year-old Sonita Alizadeh is originally from Herat, in western Afghanistan, but moved to Iran when she was 8 years old, eventually staying there with her sister when her parents returned home. She typically raps about Afghan politics, discrimination against Afghan refugees in Iran, and the challenges Afghan women and child laborers face.

The goal of the contest, which has received coverage on Afghanistan's Tolo TV and financial support from organizations like the government-funded U.S. Institute of Peace (but not from the Afghan government), is to engage Afghanistan's youth, whose participation in elections has steadily declined since the country's 2004 presidential contest (as has voter turnout in general; 8 million Afghans voted in 2004, compared with fewer than 5 million in the contentious 2009 election). And young people are an absolutely critical demographic: a staggering seven in 10 Afghans are under the age of 25. But the challenges in mobilizing them go beyond overcoming apathy. They're being asked to choose a president from a field of unsavory, uninspiring warlords and government insiders, and to take part in an election that the Taliban has threatened to violently disrupt.

"All my Afghan friends think that the election's a joke—it's a bunch of warlords or, as they call them, 'mafia' who are running the whole thing, that it doesn't matter if they vote or not," Travis Beard, the primary organizer of the contest, told me. "What they need to see or be shown is that democracy ... is actually quite cool.... A lot of kids might actually go, 'Oh what the hell. I'll go ahead and vote and see what happens.'" Not all young people will be responsive to the campaign, he adds, noting that many don't listen to the kind of music he's promoting because of their Islamic faith. But some might.

The Democracy Report

The inspiration for the competition came from Rock the Vote in the U.S., says Beard, a globetrotting Australian who's been working to develop Afghanistan's music scene for seven years, in part through the annual Sound Central music festival in Kabul.

Presented by

Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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