Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan’s Zere Asylbek Back With a Moody Political Track

Zere Asylbek’s new single pushes Kyrgyz society to get over its political apathy.

Colleen Wood
Kyrgyzstan’s Zere Asylbek Back With a Moody Political Track
Credit: YouTube / Screenshot

On September 13, Kyrgyz singer and activist Zere Asylbek released a new song called “Suyunchu,” a Kyrgyz word that prefaces good news, often the birth of a baby.

“Suyunchu” hit the radio waves exactly a year after the video for Asylbek’s first song “Kyz” (the Kyrgyz word for girl) went viral. In an interview with Bishkek-based online magazine OKNO, Asylbek admitted that her mind was stuck on gender after writing “Kyz;” she struggled to come up with new material after the success of her controversial first hit.

Asylbek imagined “Suyunchu” as grown ups talking politics around the kitchen table while a baby sleeps in the room next door. “It’s as if phrases from the song are taken from such conversations,” Asylbek told OKNO. The song’s lyrics reflect the Janus-faced emotions of parenthood: The joy of bringing a baby into the world morphs into anxiety about the world that child will inherit.

The video for “Suyunchu” does not explicitly map onto the lyrics’ focus on parenthood, and the visual narrative instead plays out in a courtroom. A child-judge presides over the court, where Asylbek — wearing a simple white dress with long sleeves adorned with traditional Kyrgyz designs — is on trial. Several people testify, including a journalist in a press corps vest, a police officer, a fictitious president, a nationalist in a kalpak, a religious man carrying prayer beads, and a woman who pulls the pale pink and blue flag of the transgender community from her purse.

While the various factions fight over a pile of money, the trans flag, and the child-judge’s attention, an audience of courtroom observers looks on, unengaged and with doubt on their faces.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

By tackling corruption, toxic nationalism, environmental degradation, and the LGBT’s tenuous position in Kyrgyzstan with a blend of explicit visual references and subtle symbolism, the video’s maximalism matches the volatility of Kyrgyz politics. Many in Kyrgyzstan have become disillusioned with domestic politics; 63 percent of respondents reported little or no interest in politics in a 2017 survey conducted by the International Republican Institute, up from 53 percent in 2011.

With “Suyunchu,” Asylbek acknowledges that Kyrgyz politics are overwhelming and at times exhausting, but argues that this can’t be a reason to lose interest and tap out.

Despite the contention that drives the first half of the video, Asylbek is ultimately an optimist. “If crisis awaits, then there are two ways these events can play out,” she told Kloop. “Either we wallow in the crisis, or it will push us to unite.”

In Asylbek’s vision of politics, society overcome internal divisions and takes matters into their own hands.

“We will not wait until tomorrow, apparently we’re starting today,” she sings. The second half of the video leaves the courtroom for a field, where the various factions come together to plant a tree while the child-judge — no longer wearing his robes — looks on with glee.

“Suyunchu” is catchy and its message is clear. But what impact can just one song have on Kyrgyz politics?

Lisel Hintz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, has argued that pop culture — including music, film, and street art — can serve as an incredibly effective mobilization tool. In a September 10 op-ed about two music videos with political undertones that went viral in Turkey, Hintz wrote, “Catchy and creative presentation of dissent can grab otherwise disinterested citizens’ attention, crystallizing grievances in an easily relatable and emotionally charged lyric or image.”

“Suyunchu” is chock full of emotionally charged images, almost too many to have a coherent argument. Despite the intense imagery and rich symbolism, the video does not yet appear to have struck a chord in the same way “Kyz” did when it was released.

While “Kyz” gave Asylbek a national platform to decry sexism and gender violence in her country, that platform was buoyed by violent rhetoric. She easily could have coasted on this publicity and churned out another single like “Kyz,” but Asylbek adroitly understood that that type of attention is neither desirable nor sustainable.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Before the credits roll, a block of text reminds viewers: “Change is only possible in our country when the fight against someone becomes a fight in the name of something.” By ending on this note, Asylbek pushes people to rally for some particular cause instead of getting stuck critiquing her image.

In this way, “Suyunchu” brilliantly invites those who criticized Asylbek in the past to join her in a march for meaningful change.