In many societies that live under pressure and cultural denial, music is often the only space and form of resistance. This is particularly true for the 11 million Uighurs in western China and for the many thousands now forced to flee their homeland.
To understand how music has become an essential source of visibility, I spoke with Elise Anderson, an expert on Uyghur language and music, who spent several years in Xinjiang and now works as a senior program officer for the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
Filip Noubel (FN): Music and dance have become a cultural battlefield between the Uyghurs and the state. Could you explain why?
Elise Anderson (EA): Over the past few decades, Uyghur music has been a means of political resistance as much as it has also been a form of entertainment and artistic expression, a well of spiritual nourishment, and an object of state institutionalization. To some extent, the Chinese state has been central in shaping Uyghur music: for the past seven decades, Uyghur artists and producers have had to work within the strict confines of what the censors allow.
Still, Uyghur musicians have long used metaphor and symbolism to make political messages through their music. Whereas these messages could be more explicit in the 1990s, when Kuresh Kusen sang “Don't sell your land” to Uyghur farmers, increasingly hard-line state responses to political dissent from the late '90s on meant that Uyghur artists had to be more creative. Even as recently as 2015 and 2016 these messages appeared onstage and in recordings, where Uyghurs performers sang of “the homeland” and “my people.” These coded messages seem to have disappeared since 2016.
The Chinese state has long stereotyped non-Han peoples like the Uyghurs as “musical.” A positive of the stereotyping is that it has allowed musical spaces to flourish as a forum for expression, making performance events a rare civil society-like space for Uyghurs. A negative outcome of this stereotyping is that it has often served to reduce Uyghur music to flat, sketchy versions of itself, and to erase Uyghurs from their own music-making to an extent. We’ve been seeing this lately in videos from state-run social-media accounts sharing videos of singing, dancing Uyghurs – as if singing and dancing are inherently Uyghur or somehow disprove the fact of China’s oppression. Many diaspora Uyghurs find these depictions deeply problematic and offensive.
Elise Anderson (EA): In recent decades, Uighur music has been a means of political resistance and also a form of entertainment and artistic expression, a sustenance for the spirit and an object of state institutionalization. To some extent, the Chinese state has been instrumental in shaping Uighur music: for the past 70 years, Uighur artists and producers have been working within the narrow limits of what is allowed by censorship.
Still, Uighur musicians have long used metaphor and symbolism to spread political messages through their music. Although these messages might have been more explicit in the 1990s, when Kuresh Kusen sang “Don't Sell Your Land” to Uighur farmers, increasingly harsh state responses to political dissent since the late 1990s meant that the Uighur artists had to be more creative. Without going any further than 2015 and 2016, these messages continued to appear on stage and on recordings, when the artists sang of the “motherland” and of “my people”. Those coded messages appear to have been missing since 2016.
For a long time, the Chinese state has stereotyped non-Han, such as Uiguirs, as “musicals”. One positive side of this is that it has allowed musical spaces to flourish as spaces of expression, making performances a rare space for civil society for them. The downside is that it has often served to reduce Uyghur music to its flat and schematic versions, and in a way to alienate Uyghurs from their own music. Lately, we have seen this on state social media accounts that broadcast videos of Uyghurs singing and dancing, as if the singing and dancing were inherently Uyghurs or somehow refuting the fact of China's oppression. Many Uighurs living abroad find these depictions deeply problematic and offensive.
FN: Your priority is Uighur pop music. Could you explain its origins and how it is interpreted and circulated?
EA From the start, my academic research and performance focus were on what we could think of as “traditional” or “classical” music, the genre known as the “on ikki muqam” (The twelve muqams). Yet, from my earliest encounters with Uyghur music, I found myself drawn to popular idioms as well. Uyghur pop has diverse influences, some of which link it to the broader whole of Uyghur music. For instance, the folk repertoire, which boasts thousands of songs with often playful and rhyme-driven lyrics, remains a source of content for the pop-style music performed and beloved at wedding celebrations and nightclubs. The technical aspects and melodic characteristics of muqam are similarly an influence in the melodic lines of some pop, and there is a lot of crossover between musicians who perform across genres and styles.
But “international” pop musics have long been sources of inspiration for Uyghur pop, with influences from Uzbekistan, Turkey, and other lands to the West of the Uyghur Region. Other sources of influence are perhaps less intuitive: flamenco, reggae, diva ballads, K-pop, jazz, rap. These borrowings and fusions began in earnest with the arrival of cassette technologies to the region in the 1990s and then accelerated in the 2000s and 2010s, particularly as the internet helped sound and video to make their way around the world with speed and ease. We could say that Uyghur pop is, for at least some of its practitioners, a cosmopolitan practice.
EA: From the beginning, my performance and academic research focused on what we could consider as “traditional” or “classical” music, the genre known as the “on ikki muqam” (the twelve mugam). However, from my very first encounter with Uyghur music, I was also drawn to popular idioms. Uyghur pop has different influences, some link it to the whole of Uighur music. For example, the folk repertoire, which features thousands of songs with often playful and rhyming lyrics, continues to be a source of content for performed pop-style music and much loved at wedding celebrations and nightclubs. The technical aspects and melodic characteristics of muqam also influence the melodic lines of some pop songs, and there are many crossovers between musicians who play in different genres and styles.
However, “international” pop musics have long been a source of inspiration for Uyghur pop, with influences from Uzbekistan, Turkey and other lands west of the Uyghur region. Other sources of inspiration, perhaps less intuitive, are: flamenco, reggae, ballads, K-pop, jazz or rap. These loans and mergers began in earnest with the arrival of cassette technologies in the region in the 1990s and then accelerated in the 2000s and 2010s, particularly as the internet helped sound and video make their way into the region. everyone quickly and easily. We could say that Uighur pop is, at least for some of its practitioners, a cosmopolitan practice.
Here is an example of a Uighur rock musician, Perhat Khaliq, who sings with his group Qetiq in the Uighur language and also in Kazakh with mixtures of different styles in music:
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qppxeJDIo40 (/ embed)
FN: Some of the Uyghur musicians and singers enjoy cult status. While some are allowed to perform and sell their music officially, others are in exile, have self-censored or are in detention. Could you give us some examples and what do they represent for the Uighur public?
EA Undoubtedly, Abdulla Abdurehim has the highest cult status among all performers of Uyghur pop. Abdulla, who is a master of puraq, the melodic ornamentation central to Uyghur musical aesthetics, has been performing since the 1990s. While he doesn’t appear to have performed much over the past few years, he has released some new music and recently even livestreamed an entire concert via Douyin, the domestic Chinese version of TikTok.
Abdurehim Heyit, a singer-songwriter and performer of the dutar (a two-stringed long-necked lute), is not quite as beloved but is perhaps held in even higher regard. Abdurehim was detained by authorities in early 2017. In February 2019, after a rumor spread from Turkey that he had died in detention, Chinese authorities responded to international outcry by circulating a proof-of-life video.
Sanubar Tursun, also a highly regarded singer-songwriter and master dutar player, disappeared into detention as well. She went silent in 2018, when she was slated to perform a series of concerts in Europe. Authorities in China neither confirmed nor denied her detention, however, despite international pressure. Sanubar, who studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and collaborated widely with Chinese and international artists, resurfaced in public performances in Urumchi in late 2019. Countless other beloved musicians, including but not limited to Parida Mamut, Rashida Dawut, and Ablajan Awut Ayup, have disappeared at one point or another.
Self-censorship has been heart-breaking to see. I have seen examples of Uyghur musicians “performing loyalty” by setting political lyrics in Chinese language to Uyghur-style melodies, singing entire songs in praise of Xi Jinping, and penning pro-Party essays. Live concerts, which had already decreased drastically in frequency after 2014, appear almost non-existent.
Of course, Uyghur musicians in the diaspora have long been performing outside China. Prominent examples include Kuresh Kusen, who lived in Sweden, and Sultan Memet, a Uyghur who grew up in Uzbekistan and moved to the United States. In recent years, musicians have formed ensembles in Australia and Europe, and Uyghur youths are performing rap and other styles of music across the globe. Performers are also active in Central Asia, where there have long been large Uyghur communities: Saniyam Ismail (Kazakhstan) and Nazugum Ayupova (Uzbekistan) immediately come to mind.
EA: Without a doubt, Abdulla Abdurehim has the highest cult status among all Uighur pop performers. Abdulla, who is a master of the puraq, the central melodic ornament of Uighur musical aesthetics, he has been performing since the 1990s. Although he doesn't seem to have performed much in recent years, he has released some new music and recently broadcast an entire concert live through Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
Abdurehim Heyit, singer-songwriter and performer of the dutar (lute with long neck and two strings), does not have the same cult status but is perhaps held in higher esteem. Abdurehim was detained by the authorities in early 2017. In February 2019, after a rumor spread from Turkey that he had been detained, the Chinese authorities responded to the international protest with a video as proof of life.
Sanubar Tursun, another highly esteemed singer-songwriter and teacher of the dutar, also disappeared while in detention. He fell silent in 2018, when he had several concerts scheduled in Europe. Despite international pressure, authorities in China neither confirmed nor denied his detention. Sanubar, who studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and collaborated extensively with Chinese and international artists, reappeared during a public performance in Urumchi in 2019. Countless other beloved musicians, such as Parida Mamut, Rashida Dawut and Ablajan Awut Ayup, have disappeared at one time or another.
The self-censorship has been heartbreaking to watch. I have seen examples of Uyghur musicians “interpreting loyalty” by putting political lyrics in Chinese to Uighur-style melodies, singing entire songs in praise of Xi Jinping, and writing pro-Party essays. Live concerts, which had already declined dramatically and frequently after 2014, seem almost non-existent.
Of course, Uighur musicians abroad have been performing outside of China for a long time. Important examples are, for example, Kuresh Kusen, who lived in Sweden, and Sultan Memet, a Uighur who grew up in Uzbekistan and later moved to the United States. In recent years, musicians have formed groups in Australia and Europe, and young Uyghurs are performing rap and other styles of music around the world. Interpreters are also active in Central Asia, where large Uighur communities have long existed: they immediately come to mind. Saniyam Ismail (Kazakhstan) and Nazugum Ayupova (Uzbekistan).
FN: As China systematically attacks Uighur culture and language, what role can Uighur pop music play today?
EA Uyghur pop can play several roles as the culture continues to be under attack: as a vehicle for expression and production in the Uyghur language. While the space for Uyghur language in formal schooling has been so drastically reduced that it remains only as a token gesture, musicians do appear to have continued making music in Uyghur. The environment in which they make that music is changed, and the circumstances of censorship I mention above pose difficulties, yet the language remains alive.
Pop can also continue to play roles as a source of both entertainment and rich inner life. These are deeply important for the millions of Uyghurs who are experiencing unimaginable trauma. And this point holds for Uyghurs in the diaspora as much as for Uyghurs in the homeland.
Another role pop music can play is in humanizing and amplifying Uyghur hopes, aspirations, and lives. Increasingly, I’m convinced that we get so caught up in arguing about the precise number of the detained that we forget about the human lives being destroyed in this crisis. Pop music can give us ways to understand those lives, to see who Uyghurs are and how they aspire to be part of the world. Similarly, pop can also help us to see that Uyghurs are so much more than the happy-go-lucky song-and-dance people of Chinese stereotypes. To be Uyghur can mean many different things, and the diverse influences and content of Uyghur pop give voice to some of those differences.
EA: Pop Uyghur can play a number of roles while continuing to attack culture: as a vehicle for expression and production in the Uighur language. While the space for the Uighur language in the formal school has shrunk so dramatically that it remains only a mere symbolic gesture, musicians seem to have continued to make music in Uighur. The environment in which they make that music has changed and the circumstances of censorship, which I mentioned earlier, pose difficulties, but the language lives on.
It can also remain a source of entertainment and inner wealth, which are profoundly important to the millions of Uighurs who are experiencing unimaginable trauma; This point is valid both for Uighurs abroad and for those who remain at home.
Another role that pop music can play is to humanize and amplify the hopes, aspirations and lives of Uyghurs. I am increasingly convinced that we are so caught up in the discussion about the exact number of detainees that we forget about the human lives that this crisis is destroying. Pop music can give us new ways of understanding those lives, of seeing who and how they aspire to be part of the world. Similarly, pop can help us see that Uyghurs are so much more than the easygoing singing and dancing so typical of Chinese stereotypes. Being Uighur can mean many things and the various influences and content of Uighur pop give voice to some of those differences.