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‘Straight Outta Ulaanbaatar’: A portrait of Mongolia’s burgeoning hip

Written by Oscar Holland,

It was 1996 when the young poet Tugsjargal Munkherdene heard American hip-hop for the very first time.

4 years earlier, Mongolia’s Soviet-aligned government had actually fallen, opening the country to a fresh wave of cultural imports. The easing of state censorship declared a brand-new era of complimentary expression. It also suggested that G-funk, boom bap and gangster rap quickly arrived on the airwaves– consisting of the track that made an enduring impression on the then-teenage Munkherdene: Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “187 On an Undercover Cop.”

” I understood I might put my poems on a beat like them, and I started writing rap music,” he recalled in a video interview from his studio in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital.

Maturing in one of Ulaanbaatar’s impoverished ger districts, Munkherdene could empathize with the type of city challenge narrated in the music he admired. Made up mainly of semi-permanent camping tents (or gers, the Mongolian word for yurts), these sprawling outer-city settlements have tripled in size because 1990, as a traditionally nomadic population is drawn to the capital.

Most of the districts’ low-income homes rely on wood-burning stoves– or until a restriction in 2019, coal-burning ones– sending out contamination throughout the skies of a city where winter temperature levels frequently fall below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. As a kid, Munkherdene would stroll numerous kilometers a day to bring water.

1/ 10 Rap artist Big Gee riding a Bactrian camel in Mongolia’s capital. Scroll through the gallery to see more images from professional photographer and filmmaker Alex de Mora’s task, “Straight Outta Ulaanbaatar.” Credit: Alex de Mora

” We didn’t have recording studio– there were very couple of and (they were) extremely pricey. The start of my rap career was really hard,” he said. “We didn’t have a way to make great cash, to make top quality audio and video, or to work with huge companies. Tv and radio stations blocked our music and videos. They believed hip-hop was a bad thing.”

Now, more than twenty years later on, the 37-year-old, recognized professionally as Big Gee, is one of the nation’s best-known MCs. A routine component on Mongolian tv, and even the star of a KFC advertisement, he is the heavily tattooed, sports car-driving embodiment of the rags-to-riches hip-hop tale.

However he and Mongolia’s rap community are little-known outside the landlocked nation. This is, in part, what triggered British professional photographer and director Alex de Mora to catch some of the scene’s colorful characters in “Straight Outta Ulaanbaatar,” a documentary and book that profile a choice of the city’s teams and artists, too B-boys, a record shopkeeper and a tattooist.

” When the majority of people consider Mongolia, they think of big open stretches, and perhaps they’ve heard of a two-humped camel or have seen people riding around on horses … however they’ve never ever thought about contemporary culture in a metropolitan environment,” De Mora stated on a video call from London. “That’s what I wished to reveal– that throughout the world there are various things going on where cultures are crossing over.”

Mongolian rap artist Maberrant, imagined by photographer Alex de Mora in the guest seat of a cars and truck. Credit: Alex de Mora

Taking on social issues

Describing himself as “consumed with music and subcultures,” De Mora has previously photographed prominent US rappers like Pusha T, MF Doom and members of the Wu-Tang Clan. He often avoids the cliched tropes of hip-hop photography, a technique maintained during his self-funded trip to Mongolia. While a few of the pictures show regional rappers flaunting their jewelry or positioning in– or on top of– their automobiles, lots of are warmer and more spirited than the genre normally determines.

” I try and avoid the obvious bravado-type portraits,” he said. “It’s rather funny when you get your cam out and a person begins presenting, which is great to have a few of. But with this project I wished to find more intimate and individual minutes.”

Huge Gee, whose image features on the cover of De Mora’s book, also acts as the documentary’s main figure and narrator. The issues he resolves tell a larger story about the difficulties of life in Ulaanbaatar.

” In Mongolia we have great deals of problems– social issues, unemployment, alcohol addiction corruption and much more,” Munkherdene informed, adding: “The federal government isn’t taking care of the Mongolian people, they’re just looking after themselves.”

Among Ulaanbaatar’s vast ger districts. Credit: Alex de Mora

The rapper is understood for speaking up about corruption and abuses of power. But if these styles are common to hip-hop all over the world, then a number of the other subjects he raps about specify to his homeland: battles in the ger district and the pride of his Mongolian origins (Munkherdene has the word “Mongol” tattooed in conventional script underneath his left eye). He has actually likewise used his lyrics to rally against Chinese-operated mines for their alleged mistreatment of local workers– controversially so, due to his use of a negative racial slur (his manager told that the rap artist had actually not utilized the word in referral to Chinese individuals, though the video in question has nevertheless been deleted from YouTube).

And, like many Mongolian folk tunes, there’s another crucial theme woven through his music: nature.

” I’ve done some songs about protecting nature, (and I have one called) ‘Leave My Nation to United States.’ What’s the real richness? Cash? Gold? In my viewpoint, it’s not cash not gold, not bling-bling things, not big chains or big cars. Real richness is humans and pure nature.”

Portrait of a city

Fittingly, nature is likewise a central character in De Mora’s images. Mountains, dune and– on uncontaminated days– rich blue skies are never ever far away in Ulaanbaatar. One shot sees Huge Gee holding an eagle and sitting proudly on the back of a Bactrian camel; others replace the metropolitan backgrounds typical of hip-hop photography with the vast, empty landscapes discovered at the city’s outskirts.

” They call (Mongolia) the ‘Land of the Blue Sky’ for excellent reason,” De Mora said. “It’s something that makes the photographs themselves extremely brilliant. I’ve never seen a lot sun and blue sky in my life.”

Though De Mora’s task assumes the point of view of a particular subculture, it is, in truth, a broad portrait of the Mongolian capital. His pictures paint a larger image of the city’s diverse homeowners, total with kids playing in the streets and an elderly accordion player.

Big Gee presents in front of a Genghis Khan statue in Ulaanbaatar. Credit: Alex de Mora

In the documentary, on the other hand, video footage of rappers is sprinkled with shots of Soviet-style murals, identikit tower blocks, public statues and smokestacks. The mix of English graffiti and Cyrillic signs mean the differing cultural forces at work in the city.

Aside from a song by the young Mongolian rap artist Maberrant, played during the closing credits, the soundtrack aims to folk instruments, wind chimes and spooky natural noises rather than hip-hop.

” I didn’t desire individuals to enjoy the film and judge individuals by the music,” stated De Mora. “I desired them to watch the film and comprehend the city and the character of the people and the location … It was constantly a picture of a city, and a culture within a city. It was never going to be a review or a review of the music.”

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