A Country to Be Proud Of: The Transformative Power of Rap Against Dictatorship’s Protest Music

A Country to Be Proud Of: The Transformative Power of Rap Against Dictatorship’s Protest Music

Thursday, December 31, 2020 - 10:33am
Josh Guo


For almost a century, Thailand has been caught in a political “vicious cycle” of coups, military juntas, and manipulated elections. Throughout it all, the Thai government has consistently failed to properly address issues of socioeconomic inequities and human rights violations. This has provoked a small but vocal minority of artists, who have historically incorporated political messages, overt and subliminal, into their music to aid the work of activists and express collective frustrations and struggles, especially those of the oppressed working class. 2014 marked another turning point in Thai history, as Prayut Chan-o-cha and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) staged a coup on the government. The ensuing years have been characterized by manipulation of the Constitution, voters, and elections to secure their newfound power. These abuses of power have once again elicited artist responses. But this time, with the help of Internet and hip hop culture, they have expressed themselves and made change more effectively than ever before. One particularly notable example has been hip hop collective Rap Against Dictatorship, which has crafted music that is provocative, accessible, and universally resonant. What exactly distinguishes Rap Against Dictatorship from the protest artists of the 1970s and 80s? How were they able to appropriate Internet and hip hop culture to mobilize ordinary citizens and gain the political leverage they have now? Through this paper I analyze several protest songs and videos throughout Thai history, and carefully examine a wide range of local and international news sources, as well as other academic literature that provide important background on the history of protest music tradition in and out of Thailand to answer these questions.

Keywords: protest, human rights, government corruption, hip hop, activism

Nestled within Khon Kaen University in northeastern Thailand, there is a small white bridge covered in rows of red Fanta bottles. Many say that this arrangement is a tribute to the student activists who were brutally murdered in October 1976 at Thammasat University. The Thai government has gone to great lengths to suppress any record of this massacre; nevertheless, traces of it remain in memory, in art, or in this shrine. Even more traces of this tumult and violence can be found in the current Thai political climate, which eerily resembles the events of 1976. The main difference between then and now? Previous outbursts of resistance have mostly ended swiftly with an authoritarian regime in power. But today, the fight has continued on. Since the most recent coup in 2014 that put army general turned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in charge, the work of musical artists and their protest songs have applied unprecedented pressure on the current military government and royal family. While protest music has been prevalent since the 1970s, it wasn’t until the recent boom in Thai hip hop culture that protest artists and collectives like Rap Against Dictatorship have truly begun to make change on a societal level, through the provocativeness, accessibility, and sense of struggle in their music.

Beginning in the 1970s, early Thai protest music responded to authoritarian forces and reached a small portion of the general public, but was never able to have a substantial, consistent political impact. For much of the 20th century, Thailand has been defined by a conservative political structure that has continuously mishandled matters of socioeconomic equity or basic human rights and freedoms. For most of the 20th century, Thai artists were never able to confront these issues head-on. For instance, a luk thung (country) artist was murdered in 1968 for refusing to play a concert for a military official. But by the 1970s, citizens began to gain more awareness of progressive ideas, whether it be through rural-urban migration, radio and television, or increased American presence in Thai culture. At this time, musicians began to incorporate more Western folk rock influences to create an exciting, novel genre of “Songs for Life” (phleng phuea chiwit), which authentically reflected the realities of struggle and suffering for working people. Bands like Caravan began to empower student activists and soon, the government retaliated with violence, which culminated in one of the bloodiest massacres in Thai history in October 1976. Caravan’s 1978 song, “Kon Gap Kwai” (Man and Buffalo), encapsulates the brilliance of their artistry, posing a metaphor of a rice farmer and a water buffalo to decry social injustices against the poor. Their gritty vocals, accompanied by sparse but urgent instrumentation, deliver raw lyrics that speak directly to the working class: 

Here is the song of death,

The death of our humanity.

The rich eat our labor,

Set one against the other,

As we peasants sink deeper in debt.

And they call us savages!

We must destroy this system!

But soon, as the chaos and violence began to calm down heading into the 1980s and 90s (although oppressive forces remained), bands like Carabao began to usurp the controversial, bare-bones folk of Caravan with a more polished, popular rock style. They diluted Caravan’s message into subtler forms of protest that brought about more commercial success. All in all, despite their different approaches to protest, Caravan and Carabao’s influence was limited to progressive students and rural activists, with neither truly wielding power against authoritarian regimes. Nevertheless, their music set important precedents that have influenced hip hop protests today.

The current Thai political climate has marked the beginning of yet another “vicious cycle”, setting the stage perfectly for musical protests to flourish. This “vicious cycle” (wongchon ubat) generally consists of three steps: 1) the staging of a coup and implementation of martial law, 2) the abolishment of the constitution and the writing of a new interim constitution banning political parties and elections, and 3) the writing of a permanent constitution that supposedly will bring about democratic elections, but not before another coup is staged and another military regime comes into place. In 2014, soon-to-be Prime Minister Prayut and his military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) staged a coup—setting into motion step 1 of the cycle. Since then, Prayut has implemented the same structural continuities that have defined previous military juntas—most notably a powerful military-monarchy alliance capable of intervening in democratic processes, by appointing officers in legislatures, barring constitutional revision, or designing hidden measures to legally overthrow elected officials. By 2018, after a new permanent constitution had solidified Prayut’s power, many citizens sensed that the upcoming election he promised would only legitimize the military’s stranglehold on the government. In response to this unease, Prayut and the NCPO attempted to gain voters’ favor by handing out cash and seeking foreign government legitimation. Many Thai citizens saw right through their actions, causing tension in the country to boil over, to be channeled and released through a forceful artistic statement. 

This increased political and social unrest, coupled with the influx of hip hop culture in Southeast Asia, created a perfect storm for groups like Rap Against Dictatorship to make change through their music. Since its origins in the Bronx, hip hop has always been a vital vehicle for protest, whether it be rap group Public Enemy denouncing police brutality in the 1990s, or Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” defining the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Beyond a genre of music, hip hop is a distinct culture of struggle that has created a global form of expression against social injustice or elitist institutions. Hip hop culture, besides music, includes art forms like fashion, film, and street art, giving it the incredible ability to cross social barriers and invigorate unique rap scenes in myriad countries across the world. Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, is no exception. The growth of Internet culture and streaming has built a budding rap tradition, which has even caught the attention of multimillion dollar record labels. Def Jam in particular (home to Kanye West and Jay-Z) has poured a flurry of resources into signing and developing young artists in the region (although most are apolitical). But no amount of corporate influence or dollars has replicated the seismic cultural shift that hip hop collective Rap Against Dictatorship (RAD) has created, since the release of their song, “Prathet Ku Mee” (What My Country’s Got) in October 2018. Racking up 24 million views in a week, the song’s vicious attacks against Prayut’s regime made it an instant cultural phenomenon. According to one of RAD’s leaders, Dechathorn Bamrungmuang, their goal is to foster political engagement within a traditionally disconnected electorate and bring awareness to fundamental rights of free speech and democracy. In the past two years, RAD has achieved great progress towards these goals, certainly not by accident, but by harnessing a few key characteristics in their artistry.

The provocative, direct nature of Rap Against Dictatorship’s music and accompanying videos has led to unprecedented public attention to politics, which was only heightened by government retaliation. For decades, hip hop has served as the most truthful reflection of society. This candor has fostered a sense of trust between marginalized listeners and rappers, facilitating community organizing in the process. “Prathet Ku Mee” does just that, transforming rawness of Caravan’s music in the 70s into incendiary, seething lyrics that directly address topics like corruption, election fraud, and violence against protesters. And what makes the lyrics even more effective towards enacting change is how RAD makes specific demands, rather than just observations: for the resignation of Prayut, the rewriting of the constitution, and the overhauling of the monarchy. One particularly inflammatory section berates government suppression of free speech:

The country that points a gun at your throat,

Claims to have freedom but have no right to choose.

You can’t say shit even though it’s full of your mouth,

Whatever you do, the leader will see you.

The country that assholes own the sovereignty,

You must choose to either eat the truth or bullets.

The country that big fish eat little by squads of motherfuckers,

Which is my country?

In keeping with the multimedia nature of hip hop culture, the music video is just as provocative as the lyrics of the song. It takes a further stance against censorship with a brutal scene reenacting the beating of a lynched student’s corpse with a chair, recalling a Pulitzer-winning photo of the October 1976 massacres. The Thai government has attempted to wipe the massacre from history, but the video educates the public on this tragedy. Somewhat ironically, the government attempted to censor the song and video by threatening anyone sharing or supporting it with the controversial Computer Crimes Act. Other government responses included numerous police investigations into RAD members, conspiracy theories that foreign enemy powers were behind the song, and direct accusations towards RAD rappers themselves for wanting to destroy their country—an uncannily similar rhetoric to that of the 1976 massacre. These forms of retaliation, however, have generally backfired and only propelled RAD to new levels of viral attention and social capital.

Rap Against Dictatorship’s meteoric success has been further fueled by the accessible nature of their music, allowing ordinary people to encounter, understand, and appropriate their message for themselves. Hip hop has always thrived off of its ability to tell stories not just through music, but also through video, art, and now social media. This in particular has made hip hop easier to consume and more difficult to censor. But this accessibility extends beyond the ability to view or listen to the music. Hip hop’s emphasis on lyrics, rather than instrumentation, has made it easier for artists to convey their message, and for audiences to internalize the music for themselves. RAD has embraced this philosophy in their protest songs; a quick overview of their music shows that they usually employ a single, unobtrusive instrumental loop and trap beat underneath their vocals. This uncomplicated musicality maintains the focus on the lyrics and makes it easy for casual listeners to comprehend the meaning. It also makes it easy for ordinary people to emulate popular songs like “Prathet Ku Mee,” since no instrumental ability or expensive recording studio is needed to compose a beat and rap over it. In fact, this practice has been used by collectives in more local capacities than RAD across Southeast Asia, such as by Borneo Menace—two brothers who create and send out beat packs for anyone in the community to lay a vocal track over. RAD has leveraged this accessibility, especially to young voters who have come of age since the 2014 coup. Even after the 2019 elections, they’ve forced Prayut and the government into an inescapable dilemma, as cracking down on RAD would only alienate their young voter base, but allowing them to proceed would still expose the government’s flaws and corruption. 

The final, intangible element to Rap Against Dictatorship’s success traces back to the origins of hip hop: a sense of struggle that makes their music both uniquely intimate and universally resonant with working people from all over Thailand. In the United States, hip hop operates under a place of pressure, whether it be institutional racism in the music industry or racist criticism from the media. As a result, hip hop songs have always contained a certain grit and toil against elitism. RAD songs are no different: its members all hail from lower class backgrounds of struggling architecture students or scavengers in the slums of Khlong Toey. Their own personal struggles encapsulate collective hardships and anxieties about healthcare, poverty, or human rights, drawing the masses to their message. Their attacks on elitism in celebrity culture or luxury government accommodations provide common enemies for the public to unite against. And as the government has threatened and prosecuted members of RAD, the fear and pressure they feel has only strengthened the emotional power of their music. A striking example of this exacerbated sense of struggle can be found in their latest song, “Patiroop” (Reform), in which they rant against government violence and corruption over an ominous piano loop and skittering beat:

Tens, hundreds, thousands of the people’s party, enraged and marching,

A thunderous thong, three fingers salute, arms stretching.

Release our friends, you bastard, we ain’t prostrating,

It’s my fucking tax you’re squandering for boning,

Shut down the media, shut your ears and eyes, shut down the lights,

Let it end in my fucking generation, we won’t live like slaves in plight!

The video builds upon the suffering described in the lyrics, depicting scenes of actual protests and police firing water cannons towards demonstrators. Meanwhile, the Thai government has attempted to respond to RAD with rap songs of their own. The differences between the two songs are clear, through the outdated synths, cheery beat, and startlingly vapid lyrics in the government-sanctioned “Thailand 4.0”:

Do your best today and tomorrow,

Things will be better if we agree,

Do good. Be cool, you can do it,

Just understand the new world, then you’ll be cooler, cooler!

Gen M, Gen Z, any Gen,

If you say yes, things are easier, easier!

Thai brains are all over the world,

It’s not a joke, Thais are smart!

This stark contrast is exactly why elite, higher powers such as the Thai government or even corporations like Def Jam will never achieve the same success and impact that RAD has with their music. Anyone can create a beat and rap over it, but the members of RAD have clawed their way from the ground up, barely surviving obstacle after obstacle in the process. Their grit and struggle makes listeners believe, feel, and truly connect to what they are saying.

From the 1970s on, artists like Caravan and Carabao rode the growing political awareness of the Thai people to create music that protested the social injustices, but did so in a manner that did not attract substantial government or public attention. Beginning in 2018, Rap Against Dictatorship took advantage of rising Internet and hip hop culture to create music that used provocative lyrics and accessible musicality to authentically capture the struggles of working Thai people. Since then, they’ve mobilized ordinary citizens and put unprecedented pressure on Prime Minister Prayut and the NCPO. Although the ensuing 2019 elections resulted in Prayut and his party retaining power, RAD has continued to inspire continuous protests that have shut down cities and deadlocked Thai legislature. And even as these young activists are met with waves of arrests, prosecutions, and government-backed counter protesters, RAD continues to produce powerful anthems like “Patiroop” for oppressed Thais across the country. What makes it all more remarkable is how despite the vitriol of their songs and videos, RAD’s passion stems from a place of love. Another RAD leader, Nutthapong Srimuong, put it best: “I love Thailand. I grew up in a province that is full of fruits and good soil. But sweet things are not enough. We need freedom. I want a country that I can be proud of.” It’s this love for country that will sustain this movement far into the future and cement Rap Against Dictatorship in history as the voice of an entire generation.


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