Q-pop is the latest phenomenon hitting the airwaves in Kazakhstan. The musical genre features infectious pop tunes, tightly choreographed dance routines, and flamboyant fashion trends and make-up. Behind this seemingly fun and frivolous veneer, however, Q-pop offers a deeper commentary on how Kazakhstan is attempting to embrace the forces of globalization while simultaneously establishing a renewed sense of national identity, and in turn forge a new image of itself to present to the rest of the world.
The development of Q-pop is inextricably linked to the rise of its South Korean counterpart, K-pop. In the late 2000s and 2010s, K-pop, K-drama television shows, and other South Korean cultural products experienced a global surge in popularity. The explosive success of the hallyu, or “Korean Wave,” has been primarily attributed to the South Korean government’s backing of the cultural industry — which helps fund high production values and marketing campaigns — and the spread of digital technologies to expose South Korean media to a widespread audience.
Hallyu reached Kazakhstan during that time period as well, which spurred a substantial fanbase for K-pop music throughout the country. Yerbolat Bedelkhan, a Kazakh music producer, decided to capitalize on the popularity of K-pop by creating a “homegrown” K-pop band. In 2015, Bedelkhan helped form Ninety-One, a pop group named for the year that Kazakhstan achieved independence. Ninety-One shares more than a passing resemblance to a K-pop boy band: the musical arrangements of Ninety-One’s songs draw influence from the K-pop playbook, and the aesthetic choices for the group also reveal a South Korean influence.
Since its inception, Ninety-One has dealt with a fair share of controversy. For example, while embarking on a national tour in 2016, Ninety-One faced backlash in a number of cities throughout Kazakhstan. In more socially conservative cities such as Kyzylorda, Shymkent, and Aqtobe, the group was forced to cancel their performances after groups of protesters rallied to prevent Ninety-One from making their scheduled appearances. The demonstrators argued that the group’s androgynous style, as exemplified by their colorful hairstyles, make-up, earrings, and clothing choices, were effeminate and therefore offended the patriarchal ideal of Kazakh masculinity. Furthermore, Ninety-One faced criticism for allegedly challenging other norms in Kazakh society, including religious values, family morals, and glorifying foreign cultures over domestic Kazakh influences.
Despite the backlash Ninety-One received from certain communities, it has also amassed a massive following throughout Kazakhstan. The group’s songs, which frequently reference various social issues, have helped open up discussions about these topics. Furthermore, Ninety-One paved the way for other Q-pop acts to gain traction in Kazakhstan, and the genre is gaining increased prominence throughout the country.
Q-pop has clearly been shaped by the influences of globalization: It pays enormous homage to K-pop, and its aesthetic and lyrical content occasionally counters traditional Kazakh motifs. That being said, Q-pop has also played a significant role in encouraging Kazakhs, particularly the country’s youth, to take pride in Kazakh heritage.
The most obvious area in which Q-pop encourages pride in Kazakh cultural identity regards the use of language. When Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991, decades of Soviet educational policies that favored Russian as the primary medium of communication subjugated the use of Kazakh in the public sphere. Many Kazakhs associated the Russian language with the educated, urban, and upward mobile classes, while Kazakh was looked down upon as the backwards vernacular of rural villages. While Russian continues to be widely used throughout Kazakhstan, the national government has attempted to revitalize the prestige of the Kazakh language by promoting its usage in government and educational institutions.
Q-pop artists, along with their colleagues in the Kazakh music and film industries, have played a key role in elevating the status of the Kazakh language by singing their songs in Kazakh. In addition, some musical groups incorporate symbols of traditional Kazakh culture, such as costumes and folk instruments, into their songs and music videos. For example, the duo RaiM & Artur released the song “Saukele,” which is named for the hat that women wear on their wedding day, to praise the feminine charms of Kazakh women. Q-pop portrays Kazakh linguistic and cultural identity as a point of pride, and thus serves as a means to promote Kazakh patriotism. At the same time, Q-pop has steadily been gaining international attention. Its appeal, coupled with the global popularity of other Kazakh artists such as Dimash Kudaibergen, Daneliya Tuleshova, and Yerzhan Maxim, has expanded the Kazakh musical scene to a worldwide audience, and has helped make being Kazakh “cool.”
The development of Q-pop has reflected broader internal changes within Kazakhstan: namely, how the country has adapted to the twin forces of globalization and strengthened national sentiments. Now that Q-pop has become a more established institution, it could play a key role in how Kazakhstan projects itself on a global level.
Kazakhstan has embarked on seismic efforts to reinvent itself in the last three decades. For example, it has sought to switch its written script from Cyrillic to Latin by 2025, moved its capital from Almaty to Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) in 1997, and expand its level of international engagement. These official initiatives have successfully increased the level of international attention on Kazakhstan. However, innovations in Q-pop and Kazakhstan’s other cultural industries could also play an influential role in strengthening the country’s global prominence — as South Korea’s hallyu has shown. Research indicates that Q-pop bands are starting to attract a global fanbase, and many of these fans express their admiration for the Kazakh language and their desire to learn it. Thus, Q-pop has the potential to serve as a soft power instrument to assist in Kazakhstan’s national rebranding and project a positive external image of the country to the rest of the world.
Q-pop thus symbolizes Kazakhstan’s complex balancing act in terms of reconciling its identity: one that values globalization, prizes its national traditions, and seeks to actively engage with the rest of the world. The genre has both its fans and detractors, but it has secured its place as a major player in the Kazakh pop culture scene. As Q-pop continues to grow in popularity, perhaps more and more fans will sing and dance to the tunes — in Kazakhstan and beyond.
This piece was originally published by the ERA Institute and is republished with permission.