Beginning on International Mother Language Day, the Smithsonian’s Mother Tongue Film Festival will take place in Washington, D.C., February 21 to 25. With an overall focus on music, the presence of hip-hop stands out in the film selection, including two Tibetan rap videos. One is the above video, Dekyi Tsering’s “Vowels and Consonants.”
The first god was the white lotus holder
The first Tibetan ruler was Nyatri Tsanpo
The first castle was Yumbu Lagang
The first monastery was the Samye
The first translator was Thonmi Sambota
Taking the example of the Indian letters
He established the 24 consonants
And then, in accordance with Tibetan sounds,
ca, cha, and ja above
and zha, za, and ‘a below
These six new letters were added
And so there are 30 consonants:
ka, kha, ga, nga, ca, cha, ja, nya
ta, tha, da, na, pa, pha, ba, ma, tsa, tsha, dza,
wa, zha, za, ’a, ya, ra, la, sha, sa, ha, a
This highly popular Tibetan rap song came out in December 2014. To an outsider, the language is fairly opaque, and spoken at such a rapid pace that even some Tibetans would have trouble following some of it. The song begins with a list of Tibet’s firsts: its first deity, first king, first palace, first monastery, and first translator of Buddhist scripture, who also created the Tibetan writing system. These are some of the most important historical touchstones of Tibetan culture. Then the song describes how the Tibetan writing system came to be and has schoolchildren reciting syllables, rather like rapping to the English “Alphabet Song.” Placing these next to each other renders everyday language equivalent to the founding precepts of the Tibetan civilization.
When it debuted, this video was a sensation. It spread across the Tibetan corners of WeChat—China’s massive version of Facebook, WhatsApp, Uber, and Paypal combined—like wildfire. I was in Western China at the time, three and a half years into fieldwork for my dissertation on Tibetan comedy, and enthusiastically joined in these conversations. The video immediately stood out on artistic grounds.
Its narrative style, in particular, struck me as something relatively new in Tibet. Tibetan music videos often feature people dancing traditional circle dance, imagery evoking major religious buildings in the region, or people wandering around rolling grasslands and snow-capped mountains. It is a distinctly Tibetan landscape. “Vowels and Consonants,” by contrast, is set in real life—a classroom, a schoolyard—and includes shots of the rapper and friends in what appears to be a dingy boiler room. Instead of a love story on a pristine landscape, it cuts to short shots of three monks carrying a book over sand dunes, handing it off as they one by one die of fatigue. Preserving and transmitting is exhausting.
Importantly, the rap was not simply visually impressive, but won plaudits for its valorization of the Tibetan language, which many Tibetans feel to be under threat in twenty-first century China. It is not surprising that Tibetans are so anxious about their language, as their society is increasingly incorporated into the Chinese state and global capitalist system. There is no shortage of literature about the dangers that modern life—exemplified by cell phones and participation in modern institutions like state-sponsored public schools—pose to traditional languages and lifeways everywhere.
The region’s minority languages are also threatened by these changes. Indeed, this is part of the lived experience of marginalized peoples around the world. As Tibetans increasingly move to urban environments, they are incentivized to learn Chinese, English, and other majority languages in order to conduct even the most basic of interactions.
One of the most ubiquitous signs of the changes taking place has been a profusion of “loanwords” from Chinese and English. When many of these Tibetans come across novel technologies like the smartphone or new music like rap, they first learn the Chinese or English for the term. As they come to incorporate these into their daily routines, the words they use for them are also Chinese or English. Rapidly now, minority languages are full of borrowed terms.
In response, a “purity” campaign has been brewing for several years, in which Tibetans encourage each other to paké tsang mashö: “speak pure Tibetan.” This recent movement has heavily influenced a number of cultural forms on the Tibetan Plateau. Shop owners may refuse to do business with Tibetans who mix Chinese and Tibetan language, which they call drak ké (“combined language”), sé ké (“mixed/ confused language”), or dré ké (either “blended language” or “evil language”).
In other instances, drivers fine riders who mix Tibetan and Chinese, and boarding schools single out habitual language mixers for more chores. In some towns, students have even taken to the streets to call for increased Tibetan language education. These linguistic concerns find further expression in popular comedy routines, where people who mix Tibetan and Chinese are the butt of multiple jokes, or otherwise are made to seem ignorant of their own culture.
Tibetan hip-hop taps into this existing linguistic anxiety to tremendous effect. The rapper Dekyi Tsering is not only one of the most prominent rappers to advocate for Tibetan language use in modern life, but he also wins many of his fans for his defense of Tibetan language and his passion for Tibetan culture. Later in the same song, channeling a famous statement from the beloved tenth incarnation of the Panchen Lama (1938-1989), Dekyi Tsering asks the students, “Is it okay to feel embarrassment over speaking Tibetan?” The students respond with a resounding shout: “It’s not okay!”
Hip-hop has quickly developed into a favorite form of youth culture across the world. Its popularity has made the form a powerful vehicle for disseminating ideas about how marginalized populations around the world might preserve linguistic knowledge in the face of rapid cultural loss. In particular, many believe hip-hop can provide prestige to minor languages that might otherwise seem to lack utility.
For example, scholars have pointed to Komi language pop music as an important factor in its preservation in Russia. In Finland, Sami rapper Amoc has written rhymes in a language with only 350 speakers. Nevertheless, many see him as a staunch advocate who has fundamentally changed the ways in which people perceive their language. The advent of the Internet, meanwhile, has allowed singers, authors, artists, and other performers to reach out to linguistic communities spread across multiple nations. Hip-hop and rap, then, have an important role to play in the vitality of linguistic communities.
In addition to “Vowels and Consonants,” the Mother Tongue Film Festival will feature the Tibetan rap video “Wall Building Song,” as well as rap videos in Embera (an indigenous language in Colombia) and Mapudungun (spoken in Mexico). It also includes Sonita, a feature-length documentary about a young female Farsi rapper from Afghanistan, now living in Iran, whose rapping earns her the opportunity to attend school in the United States. There will be feature-length films about other indigenous language music and musicians, like El Sueño del Mara’akame, in which the main character also hangs out with an indigenous rock band. The festival ends with Poi E, a documentary about a Maori song of the same name that became a worldwide sensation.
These films point to some of the ways in which music in general, and hip-hop in particular, have emerged as a powerful means for advocating for indigenous languages that often face the twin pressures of local government and globalization. Only time will tell, however, if hip-hop, film, and other popular forms can sufficiently boost the prestige of local languages to help them survive.
Tim Thurston is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where he works on programs dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan intangible cultural heritage. Between 2011 and 2015, he lived in Tibet conducting fieldwork for his dissertation on the social work of a wildly popular form of Tibetan comedy.