DVD Review

Benj Binks. 2012. Mongolian Bling: Discovering the Roots of Hip Hop in the Heart of Asia. Flying Fish Films. DVD. 90mins. Available from:

Reviewed by: James Cox, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

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Keywords: gender; global hip hop; Mongolia; national identity; post-Communist

For those interested in global hip hop, Mongolian Bling provides viewers insight into the ways in which hip hop has been taken up in contemporary Mongolia. The documentary engages an emerging area of research in global hip hop, that of hip hop in former Soviet/Communist states. In focusing on eight hip hop artists, all based in the capital Ulaanbaatar, the documentary explores the themes of national identity, gender, politics, and the underground/mainstream debates that are familiar to hip hop studies in a global context.

The film documents the early 1990s origins of hip hop in Mongolia through interviews with local artists. Their early influences included MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and Kris Kross, all artists heard on television and radio. The first Mongolian hip hop group was Black Rose, and while their status as hip hop artists is debated by other hip hop artists in Mongolia, all agree and respect the fact that they were the first to begin recording songs and rapping in Mongolian. The debate about Black Rose’s status as a hip hop group in Mongolia follows one of the most familiar debates in hip hop studies: that of authenticity and the mainstream/underground divide. While being respected as originators in the Mongolian hip hop community, some artists feel that Black Rose are not “true” hip hop, but sound more dance or pop. This debate is not just confined to the status of Black Rose; authenticity and “being real” is a theme that reoccurs throughout the film around discussions of other Mongolian hip hop artists.

Despite the title, Mongolian Bling, there is a distinct lack of bling in the film. Viewing the film from a Western perspective, the word bling connotes high levels of wealth displayed in the form of jewellery, cars or clothing. While the back cover of the DVD suggests that the film “jumps into the thriving music scene in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and follows stars as they rap nationwide with their bitches, cars and jewels”, this stereotype is not dominant in the documentary. While some of the artists in the documentary have adopted stereotypical hip hop styles and fashions from the late 1990s, this has not extended to the adoption of the stereotypical imagery of “bitches, cars and jewels”. Indeed, one scene in the documentary follows the emerging artist Gennie as she rides public transport to get to a studio. While the lyrics to every song used in the documentary are not translated, those that have been translated are songs that discuss politics and national identity; again, not themes typically associated with the stereotype mentioned above. Whilst some of the artists in the film admit to being inspired by Western rappers who could be seen as exemplifying this stereotype, all discuss how, when it comes to their lyrics, they are inspired by traditional Mongolian poetry, or want to talk about issues that affect them.

Though few artists wear Western-style bling, MC Gee’s “bling” takes the form of an ancestral shamanistic amulet worn around the neck. The only artist to explicitly discuss shamanism in the documentary, Gee focuses on the connections between shamanistic ritual chants and lyrical delivery. These scenes on shamanism are typical of the way in which the artists in the documentary engage aspects of pre-communist Mongolian culture. For Gee, who does not practise shamanism, wearing an ancestral amulet represents a connection to the pre-communist era that many hip hop artists are bringing to the fore through their music.

The documentary’s strength is in exploring how artists use hip hop as a means to investigate what it means to be Mongolian today. Popular music, the documentary claims, was important to the return of democracy in Mongolia; one song, ‘Ring the Bells’ by the Hongk, is cited as instrumental in the overthrow of the communist party. This song, along with traditional Mongolian songs and poems, demonstrates a continuum of political and nationalistic popular music in the country. Black Rose, for example, discuss how they incorporated traditional poetic and musical elements into their music, often for a specific nationalistic purpose. Black Rose began in 1992, the same year Mongolia introduced a new constitution and dropped the “People’s Republic” from the country’s name. Given the group’s emergence at this time, it is not surprising that Black Rose incorporated nationalist elements into their music; they are very open about their desire to imaginatively reclaim a Mongolian identity they believe to have been eliminated during the Communist era. There is strong use of archival footage within these scenes, showing Black Rose wearing Mongolian national dress on stage. Black Rose go on to discuss how they wanted their music and performances to remind Mongolians of their proud heritage, and specifically linking this to historical figures like Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan).

While not all artists consider Black Rose to be “hip hop”, their approach—linking hip hop in Mongolia to the project of post-communist nation-building—has become a blueprint that most hip hop artists featured here follow. While the next generation might not trace the same explicit links with Mongolian history, many continue to use their music to address issues in Mongolian society using strong references to cultural expectations.

The documentary also explores gender and social class within the Mongolian hip hop community. While the community is overwhelmingly male, like many global hip hop scenes, the documentary does follow the journey of Gennie, a hip hop artist and mother. Gennie is shown in both studio and home environments, a contrast to the way in which other artists in the docu­mentary are portrayed, largely in studios, on stage or in venues outside of the home. Gennie therefore provides another important dimension to the story. The documentary demonstrates that Gennie, who uses her music to address issues of domestic violence, is well supported in the hip hop community. People from the poorer Ger district are also using hip hop to express themselves, but they see the music as a means to escape poverty and chronic un- and underemployment. Here, hip hop is imaginatively connected with its American origins. As Enkhtaivan, a member of War & Peace, suggests, when hip hop entered Mongolia it “represented similar conditions and ideas to the situation we were in”, and for that reason it was quickly established.

While the artists all note the American origins of hip hop, some of the most interesting moments in the documentary occur when traditional Mongolian folk singers and shamans claim hip hop originated in Mongolia. To justify this claim, they cite the existence of long-form poems, as well as the traditions of fighting games, ode and praise singing, traditional proverbs, fast spelling games, and other kinds of oral literature they perceive to be similar to rapping. Overall, Mongolian Bling provides rich insight into hip hop culture in Mongolia. It furthers the study of how hip hop is embraced around the world, and particularly in former Communist states. Scenes from this documentary would be very suitable for use in any class that teaches aspects of global hip hop, with a particular focus on identity formation. While the title of the documentary may be slightly misleading, the film demonstrates how hip hop can be used by artists and fans to navigate the complex issues of identity, politics and nation.