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 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.

To drum up interest in the competition, Beard asked two Afghan rappers, Edris Bayan and Shekeb Yaaghi, to record tracks encouraging people to participate, and then plastered the promotional songs on radio and television. Contestants downloaded one of the pre-made rock, traditional, or fusion tracks on the website, wrote lyrics in one of the country's two official languages, Pashto and Dari, to sing over the music, and then uploaded their recordings to the site (contestants couldn't mention specific political parties or candidates).

Bayan (whose video is above) rapped in Pashto about how voting is a "peace flag," and singing a "sword." Yaaghi (below) rapped in Dari about how voting is a right, a responsibility, and a means of ensuring the country's development.

Yaaghi, a 23-year-old studying computer science at the American University of Afghanistan, is part of a hip-hop group in Kabul called Hybrid Pharaohs that raps—mainly in English (rap doesn't sound good in Dari, he laments)—about tribal wars, political corruption, government suppression, and the need for national unity. He grew up in Herat in the 1990s during Taliban rule, and got interested in hip-hop by listening to CDs from the German synth-pop duo Modern Talking—music his uncle picked up for him during business trips to Pakistan since it was nowhere to be found under the Taliban. In 1998, Modern Talking came out with an album that featured a rapper in every song, and Yaaghi was hooked. Now that his election rap has run on a loop on TV, kids recognize him on the street. "Most of the time they ask me, 'Why don't you do a rap?' And then I have to do a rap," he told me.

As a rapper in Afghanistan, Yaaghi is part of an exclusive club. "There's exactly one rapper in the whole country whose known, and the rest of them are all really underground or independent because there is no scene to support them," Beard says, though he adds that the scene has begun to take shape in the past few years. The country's top hip-hop artists include a few female rappers and, most prominently, Bezhan Zafarmal (DJ Besho):

Still, in some ways, rap is a natural fit in Afghanistan. "Afghans are really big into their poetry, and that dates back 800 years to Rumi," Beard explains. "I guess for them the direct way to translate that into a genre would be rap or hip-hop."

Yaaghi says that some Afghans engage in 'poetry battling,' a kind of freestlying where people pluck lines from Persian poets like Rumi and Saadi and try to rhyme them. And then there's the traditional singer Hasan Besmil, who often improvises lyrics and melody. Here he is earlier this year urging outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in song, to sign a U.S.-Afghan security agreement:

According to Yaaghi, Afghans don't necessarily associate rap with the U.S. "People think you're talking over a track"—plain and simple, he explains. But "young people know better. They listen to a lot of 50 Cent, Eminem, and all that."

"I was thinking about doing certain things to make hip-hop [come] alive here, like maybe in 10 years having speakers and DJs playing in Central Park in Kabul city," Yaaghi adds. "But I don't know how it will go. The government keeps changing and all. Politics..."

He trails off.