Burmese rap duo Y.A.K. continue to elevate Yangon’s music scene with messages of equality and freedom of speech
BY YUKO MASKAY
Hip hop and rap have come a long way. Ask Y.A.K (Yangon Always Kingdom), Myanmar’s first girl rap duo who has witnessed the many changes during the country’s uncertain times. When they started out 11 years ago, the music scene was just growing with the government putting restrictions on the lyrics and even censoring or banning songs for “foul” content.
But that never stopped this feisty duo from doing what they love in an industry commonly represented by men.
“I’ve always believed that whatever a guy can do, I can do as well,” says one of the duo, Thazin Nyunt Aung, 32. She is well aware that sexism exists everywhere, especially in her country where girls have no place in the hip hop/rap culture, but that’s the reason she took it upon herself to do it.
Her partner, Aye Aye Aung (aka Triple-A), 31, feels the same way. She is the quieter of the two and makes infrequent side comments and nods in agreement, giving Thazin the lead in the interview. But on stage, she is a different person, like she was born to rap. Triple-A actually started out as a pop singer and finished as one of the six semi-finalists among 60 contestants at a talent show organized by City FM in the late 90s.
The two share a sister-like bond, they say, and get into fights like siblings do, but it’s undeniable that together they form a dynamic combo, with their synchronized body movements, flowing lyrics and good looks. They’re not afraid to defy the norm, perhaps a cliché in the rapping world, but in a patriarchal country like Myanmar where women are considered subordinate to men, where their voices are hardly heard and where you can be put in prison for controversial content, Y.A.K. is a rarity.
Even in their early days, when fighting for your rights was still a dangerous endeavour, Y.A.K. relentlessly fought for equality and freedom of speech. In 2014, they performed at Jamit, a concert organized by musicians to give opportunity to underground singers. It was risky to sing at the venue then because it wasn’t authorized to hold a concert and the police tried to ban it, but Thazin and Triple-A didn’t hesitate to perform, even granting an interview to MTV’s Rebel Music documentary, Voice for the Voiceless that year.
“The police showed up, but we were not intimidated. We played our show even though the military was present,” they say in the interview.
Thazin is quick to point out that she’s not alone. There have been many rappers before her who weren’t afraid to voice out, like her idol Acid, considered the father of Myanmar hip hop, who is quite explicit in his lyrics. In the early 2000s, she was going through a rough time and his lyrics helped her hone her skills as a poet, which later translated into rap. “It kind of just came to me,” Thazin says, describing the beginning of her singing career.
Thazin is so passionate about hip hop that she tattooed the four elements of hip hip on various parts of her body— namely a mike, b-boying, spray paint and graffiti, and both of them have a tattoo of “Yangon Always Kingdom,” which they say symbolizes their loyalty to Yangon as the capital of Myanmar instead of Naypitaw.
With baggy pants, tank tops and sneakers as their trademark look, they seem to thrive on not exposing their sexuality like some female performers do to increase visibility. In their recently released song, Woman Crazy, they rap about how they’re “passionate about rapping, have tattoos, but they’re not slutty”—something that they emphasize frequently in this interview. “Our mission is to increase the status of women,” explains Thazin, “and let women know that they don’t have to degrade themselves to get attention.”
In their song, Myanmar Women, they pay homage to the women of their hometown by encouraging women to stand up for their rights in a conservative society like Myanmar. “We know that our music is rough. We don’t really follow the mainstream preserved for girls and our music is not girlish,” Thazin notes.
While their music is aimed at empowering women, they are not afraid to state what they see as a wrong direction in society. In their most popular song, Porn Face, produced in 2013, they poke fun at the working girls and their sugar daddies. The song received a lot of criticism, especially from girls for portraying them as money hungry opportunists.
“It wasn’t really about that. We wanted to give women encouragement that they don’t have to depend on men,” says Thazin. “Besides, if we see anything worth talking about, we will put it in our lyrics.”
Both Thazin and Triple-A consider themselves feminists and that plays a big part in their lyrics, but they say, “it’s not the man-hating type, rather an equal-opportunity type.” While they are not against marriage itself, Thazin yells a big, “No!” and bursts out in laughter when asked whether she is married. “One day I would like to have kids, but that will happen when I am in my 40s,” she adds and Triple-A silently nods.
When they’re not rapping, both of them are immersed in their full-time jobs. Thazin is a sound engineer at a studio and Triple-A is an events manager, and both love their jobs as much as rapping. Performing is more like a hobby for them, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because they say it allows them to rap about sensitive topics instead of singing what the audience wants to hear. Besides, they know that albums and concerts are not going to make them the money they need to make ends meet, especially in Myanmar where copyright infringement is common and accepted.
“We started out in humble homes with parents who weren’t rich. We love doing what we do and we’re fine with that,” Thazin elaborates.
So how long do they plan to sing? “Who knows,” says Triple-A with Thazin adding that life may have different plans for them. They may have their own business, have kids and may not have the time to perform anymore.
Besides, there’s so much more that they want to do, like perform at a women’s prison or sing at a juvenile centre like they did last year. Just February of this year, they launched their first album at the French institute with other guest rappers commemorating the occasion.
“We’re lucky to be doing what we do and we want to do it as long as we can,” says Thazin.