Young Thai rappers deliver blistering critiques of ruling junta, defying strict censorship
- In Thai schools, students are expected to learn most subjects by rote and are taught deference to age, status as well as army-scripted rules
- As Thailand gears up for elections early next year, dissent is spilling out across subcultures from pro-democracy punks to graffiti artists
“A country killing the people … doesn’t give a damn about its children,” spits 17-year-old Elevenfinger, one of a legion of acerbic young rappers ripping into Thailand’s politics, dire education system and calcifying social mores.
Thailand’s hip-hop scene used to be anodyne, imitating the swagger – and profanity – of its American forefather but not the socially charged lyrics. But that has started to change as pugnacious, political rhymes replace the bubblegum verses, taking swipes at the ruling junta and the kingdom’s sharp social hierarchies.
YouTube videos by teens and schoolchildren in uniform – some as young as 12 – have garnered massive social media followings.
“You’ve built the skytrains but education’s a dead end,” says one of Elevenfinger’s lyrics – in a video called Equality about Thailand’s poor education system, which is ranked among the worst in Asia.
“It’s like governments don’t want people to think,” says Elevenfinger, whose real name is Thanayut Na Ayutthaya.
His videos presaged the extraordinary success of RAD – Rap Against Dictatorship – whose lyrical attack on the junta has racked up over 30 million views on YouTube.
The song Prathet Ku Mee (What My Country’s Got?) delivers stinging verses against censorship, corruption and the lack of elections since the military seized power in 2014.
“We want people who listen to the song to come out and speak their minds,” said Jacoboi, a co-founder of the group, whose neck boasts a tattoo of unbalanced scales of justice.
In Thai schools, students are expected to learn most subjects by rote and are taught deference to age, status as well as army-scripted rules covering everything from the length of haircuts to the educational curriculum. That has cramped their ability to problem-solve, Jacoboi says.
“Thais are not taught to think critically,” he says.
Like many Thais brought up under that system, rappers usually did not engage in political conversations, he added. But that changed as the country lurched deeper into crisis.
A decade-long power struggle between the deeply conservative royalist elite and a grass roots movement loyal to billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra has led to two coups and countless rounds of bloody street protest.
While older Thais have wearied of the conflict, anger at the ageing political class governing their lives has intensified among many young people. And the ruling generals have provided ample material, as they clumsily try to control dissent.
“The young generation feel frustrated and want to express themselves against hierarchical teachings, social boundaries and the order to be ‘good’,” explains Anusorn Unno, a sociologist at Thammasat University. “And rap has given them the space to rebel.”
At a Bangkok state school around 30 students, aged between 12 and 15, rehearse rhymes in a club founded by Elevenfinger.
The session begins with the apprentices taking turns answering a question designed to trigger discussion: “What do you want to see improved in this school?”
Then come the rap battles: covering everything from the mundanity of school life and unrequited love to harder-edged issues like growing up in slums and bullying.
“Without rap, I would not be so willing to talk about these things,” said one 13-year-old rapper named Peachfullz, wearing boy scout attire.
Elevenfinger, known for his verses on the social stigma of living in the Thai slums where he was born, started the club a year ago as a way to “break the walls” of Thai education.
“I know these students have got something to say. And I want this room to be their safe zone to say whatever they want,” he explained.
As Thailand gears up for elections early next year, dissent is spilling out across subcultures from pro-democracy punks to graffiti artists mocking the rich and powerful. But rap has brought social critiques mainstream. And with the success of RAD’s viral anti-junta rap, analysts say the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
Sociologist Anusorn says rap could be a game-changer for Thai society and “take down Thailand’s old hegemony and create new cultural possibilities”.
In a small recognition of its power, junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha backed down from veiled threats about Prathet Ku Mee as the RAD video went viral. But risks remain for rappers who want to denounce the strongmen. Authorities have threatened to probe the musicians for possible violation of laws on spreading “false” information.
“I am a little scared of the authorities,” says 22-year-old K. Iglet, the youngest member of RAD. “But I can testify that these are my views on how I see my country. It’s my truth. And I will keep on rapping.”