In a simple studio tucked into the shadows of a wealthy Rangoon neighborhood, a leading member of Burma's underground political art movement lights a Red Ruby cigarette, smoke curling into the hollows of his cheeks. Thein Soe (not his real name) is 61 years old and probably weighs less than 100 pounds. The paintings spread across the studio walls, desk and floor could bring a prison sentence in this military dictatorship, where freedom of expression has not existed for 46 years, since the military took power in a coup. "It's very difficult to show our inner sense, our expression," says Soe. "There are many censors for art here."
Things took a turn for the worse in September, when an uprising of monks and civilians was crushed by the military. Poets, bloggers and comedians have been targeted in the last few months for their political commentary. Arrests are more frequent. Despite the crackdown, Burma's underground political art movement is growing. In secret, artists buy and sell portraits of the detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and share ideas and inspiration. Young artists are also joining the fold. For lack of traditional materials, several youths have turned to installation and performance art to speak their minds. One young man recently walked a busy street with a birdcage on his head before dropping it and fleeing. "We paint what we suffer and what we feel," says Soe, speaking for a group of a dozen or so master artists. "It's very dangerous for us."
Across town Rangoon's latest music sensation, emcee J-Me, also deals with daily censorship of his work. Spoon-deep in a bowl of pasta at a trendy café, J-Me is proof that Burma's xenophobic government is no match for the globalization of popular culture. Officially, U.S. sanctions prevent American exports to Burma, but hip-hop is difficult to stop at the borders. "It's a big thing for us," says J-Me, who is dressed in baggy shorts and a T-shirt, with a fake diamond bling watch and a crucifix around his neck. "It may not be a big thing for everyone outside, but we've created the Myanmar Hip-Hop Association. Not the sissy-ass songs that you dance to on TRL [a pop hits show on MTV], you know what I'm sayin'? The real Wu-Tang stuff."
Burmese hip-hop may be slightly old-school in style and struggling to define itself, but it's sweeping the nation nevertheless. Teashop stereos that were locked into '80s hair metal for two decades are now thumping a different beat. The rapping of J-Me and his friends is revolutionary in that unlike other musicians who sing in refined, polite Burmese, these emcees rap in the slang of the streets.
For the hip-hoppers, of course, political lyrics are out of the question. "Hip-hop just started here," says J-Me's fellow emcee Bigg-Y. "If we go and rap about politics, they'll stop us." Rapper G-Tone was arrested two months ago when he revealed a tattoo on his back that included images of folded palms and prayer beads. G-Tone insists the design was inspired by the Joker hip-hop clothing line, but the police thought it was a symbol for September's monk-led Saffron Revolution. They let him go but banned him from performing for a year. Censors are paying particular attention to lyrics after September's uprisings. "They watch my lyrics with a big magnifying glass," J-Me says.
The government mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, ran an editorial in January denouncing the Western influences changing the face of Burma. It warned the youth to "stay away from decadent costumes, words incompatible with Myanmar [Burmese] custom, and behaviors that lack modesty." The booty girls in Burmese hip-hop videos, which are bought and sold in pirated copies on the streets of Rangoon, dance with their midriffs and miniskirts digitally blurred.
The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon has helped the artists' underground. In December the embassy sponsored an art exhibit that featured Burmese and American painters. Diplomats, local artists and members of the public came. (The same exhibit will be shown later this year in San Francisco, where it will feature politically themed paintings that would not be tolerated by the censorship board in Burma.) Although the scope of U.S. Embassy projects is limited inside Burma, the Embassy carries on cultural exchange programs that feature American art and music. "We have good relations with the people of this country," says the U.S. chargé d'affaires for Burma, Shari Villarosa. "We want to have a full, open relationship with this country."
Last winter, Villarosa hosted a hip-hop show on the grounds of her private residence in Rangoon. The American hip-hop group Timeless Voices of America performed, as part of the State Department's Rhythm Road program, which sponsors American music abroad. J-Me and some of his friends rapped alongside. "Basically, we don't censor art in the United States," Villarosa says. "This is a means of communication for the artists with the people. They have something to say, and we're interested in what they have to say."
Even with government censors looking over their shoulders, Burma's artists have found ways of getting their message through. Some political art pieces are made in private and sent out of the country to be displayed in international galleries. Other pieces are just subtle enough to escape censorship. One artist recently made a clay sculpture of a lock and key—"the key that will be used to unlock Burma's future," he says. He plans to tell the censors it signifies men and women. But the consequences of being found out are serious. In January a poet was sent to jail for a hidden message in a love poem he printed in a Rangoon daily newspaper. The message read: "Gen. Than Shwe is crazy with power."
Every painting displayed in a gallery or shop in Burma must first pass the scrutiny of the ministry of information's censorship board. Any sign of discontent or disloyalty to the government, or an unseemly political message can shut down the gallery and land the artist in jail. Musicians have to explain their lyrics to the censorship board before they can record. Policemen attend concerts to make sure nothing unsavory slips out onstage. The censors' scrutiny is especially severe after September's Saffron Revolution. Many artists, however, remained determined. "Artists have a responsibility to their people and country to express what happens," says one artist in Rangoon whose brother was jailed for 11 years and whose uncle died behind bars, both for their political poetry. "We are not angry; we are sad. All of these years have been wasted time."