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On the evening of September 7, 2014, I sneaked into an auditorium on the campus of the Xinjiang Arts Institute in Ürümchi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. Over the course of several preceding days, I’d watched as crews from Xinjiang Television (XJTV) poured in and out of the auditorium, working to transform the space from its everyday function as a student performance venue into a much more exciting, if temporary, role as the set for the Voice of the Silk Road, a new reality singing competition. I wanted to see firsthand what had been going on.
Inside the auditorium, young crew members scurried around, yelling at one another as they built out the red, rotating judges’ chairs now iconic to the Voice franchise. A member of the production team stood center stage, clipboard in hand. Dozens of would-be pop stars were sitting in the stadium-style seats, waiting to learn about their upcoming blind auditions. The first round of the show would be filmed in front of a live audience at the Arts Institute over the course of several days in September and was slated to air on XJTV-2 later that fall.
The producer began giving instructions to the hopeful singers sitting before him. He explained the practical things first: how to walk onto the stage, how to hold the microphone (much closer to the mouth than most people think!), and how to signal “ready” to the sound engineers. Next came his more substantive reminders. First, be respectful by referring to the judges with kinship terms. Second, remember propriety and don’t hug or even touch members of the opposite sex on camera. Third, be succinct, but genuine and natural in interactions. And fourth, for anyone planning to speak Uyghur on-stage, do not, under any circumstances, mix Mandarin into your speech. “My team and I will have to spend 30 minutes scrubbing each Chinese word you use,” the producer said, imparting both gravitas and anticipated annoyance.
At that time, I’d been living and conducting doctoral dissertation research in Ürümchi for almost two years. I was there to study muqam, a form of “classical” Uyghur music with an older history in Sufi practice and a more recent history as a project of state symbol-making. I was in my second semester as a student of muqam performance and research at the Arts Institute and had grown increasingly interested in understanding how muqam fit into the Uyghur performing arts world as a whole. Language — specifically the way that the Uyghur language was used to frame television and other performance events — was a significant part of that.
By the next evening, September 8, inspired in part by my classmates at the Arts Institute and in part by what I’d seen transpire in the auditorium the night before, I signed up to audition for the show.
Uyghurs are a culturally Turkic and predominantly, though not exclusively, Muslim people. The vast majority live inside the borders of what is formally known as the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” or simply “Xinjiang.” The region, autonomous in name only, is located in China’s far northwest, where it occupies a full sixth of the PRC’s landmass. The region is strategically and economically significant, too: it sits atop precious reserves of oil, natural gas, and minerals, and serves as China’s western gateway to the Eurasian supercontinent.
“Xinjiang,” a Chinese name that means “new dominion” or “new territory,” is a colonial term. The region has been known by this toponym only since the 1880s, when official documents of the Qing empire began to use it, though the name wasn’t fully adopted even after it began to appear in the official record. Indigenous Turkic inhabitants of the region continued to call different parts of this same land by different names: Altishahr, or the Six Cities, denoting the oases that dot the rim of the Taklamakan Desert in the south; Jungharia, denoting the alpine north; and East Turkistan, denoting sometimes a larger whole that still doesn’t exactly correspond to the borders of Xinjiang today.
Rule of the region passed between multiple powers in the first half of the 20th century as a dizzying array of governing powers — including Uyghur groups that established two short-lived independent republics — scrambled for control. Similar to its stance toward Tibet, the Chinese Communist Party claims that it “peacefully liberated” East Turkistan from this turmoil in 1949, when People’s Liberation Army troops occupied the region and formally declared it the Xinjiang Province. The area became “autonomous” — on paper more than in real fact — in 1955 when it was given its current euphemistic name: the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The abundance and complexity of these names underscore the colonial contours of the region’s relationship to the central Party leadership in Beijing, who have long been worried about the legitimacy of their governance of the XUAR. As an index of this anxiety, virtually every officially sanctioned history of the region begins with a variation on the statement that Xinjiang has been an inseparable part of the Chinese motherland since time immemorial. Chinese histories offer a similar narrative about all of the country’s contested regions, including Taiwan, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet.
Today, the words “Uyghurs” and “Xinjiang” are most likely to conjure up images of internment camps. Since 2017, the XUAR government has pursued a comprehensive campaign of ethnic repression and cultural assimilation targeting Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Huis, and other Turkic and/or Muslim peoples. These policies include multiple forms of extrajudicial, extralegal detention, internment, and incarceration; family separation; forced labor; religious repression; daily political indoctrination; and on and on and on.
This campaign, while horrifying and absurd, is a logical extension of the relationship patterns Beijing long forged between itself and the XUAR’s peoples. Through the 1990s, when Han settlers began pouring into the XUAR en masse as part of China’s plan to develop the region, Uyghurs and other local inhabitants bristled at the realization that China’s policies were poised to benefit ethnic Hans more than themselves. Han in-migration was making Uyghurs a minority in their own homeland. The authorities responded to protest and unrest by increasing pressure: “Strike Hard” campaigns and increased Han settlement; a move toward monolingual Chinese-language education in the early 2000s; the labeling of Uyghurs as terrorists beginning in 2001; the state’s violent response to the Ürümchi unrest of 2009; the declaration of a “People’s War on Terror” in 2014. These were all displays of force, used to show Uyghurs that the state could and would make them second-class citizens, reducing every bit of space for civil action that they might try to occupy.
The Chinese idiom Neng’ge shanwu, meaning “able singers and good at dance,” is one that many people throughout China associate automatically with the country’s ethnic-minority peoples. While the Chinese state villainizes and represses peoples like the Uyghurs, it also celebrates their song and dance through common stereotypes, creating an image of Uyghurs as a happy-go-lucky, if backward and poor, people who might just break into song and dance at any moment. The song-and-dance stereotype, a familiar tactic all over the world, is just one of the many ways in which Uyghur is a marked and special category, one of the many ethnic “others” against whom the majority population can measure itself.
The role that music plays in institutional racism and stereotyping in China can also make it a tricky subject to talk and write about. But it’s true — a truism, even — that music and dance play important roles in Uyghur society, as in societies elsewhere. In the Uyghur context, state stereotyping has further helped music and other forms of artistic expression to flourish in ways that we might deem political. Since the 1990s, pop music has played a particularly significant role in Uyghur society thanks to the ways in which a repressive and illiberal Chinese state has helped to define the possible contours of cultural commentary, expression, and critique.
My definition of pop — both in regard to pop in general and Uyghur pop in particular — is broad. Some scholars, wont to complicate matters as they deconstruct them, define pop as commodified music produced for and consumed by the masses. For others, certain technologies — electronic instruments, auto-tone — are the definitive factors. In more common parlance, pop can be a denigrating and even derogatory term, referring to a bubble-gum aesthetic that many people love to hate, at least publicly. I like to think of pop as a broad term encompassing many possible definitions, but mostly as what is popular: what people actually listen to, what makes people talk.
Uyghur pop draws on a constellation of aesthetic concerns common to the whole of Uyghur music: puraq, or “scent,” which refers to ornamented, melismatic lines; an emphasis on melody over harmony that is tied to the practice of puraq; mung, or sorrowfulness, a sense of melancholy and longing expressed through timbre; instrumentation, utilizing the stringed lutes that form the organological core of Uyghur and other Central Asian tradition; and lyrics that often rhyme, driven by poetic and folk-literary conventions. In these ways, Uyghur pop is not wholly separable from classical and folk tradition. In many instances, these genres bleed into one another.
The arrival of new technologies to the XUAR in the 1990s and beyond opened up entirely new realms of musical possibility as music was copied and circulated and listened to on cassette, then on video CD (VCD), on mp3, and on cell phones. From its earliest days in the 1990s, Uyghur pop has drawn from a diverse set of influences. In the 1990s, as cassette and VCD recording technologies reached the region and brought with them distant musical influences, Uyghurs began performing folksongs in pop style on electronic instruments while also incorporating styles like reggae, rock, and flamenco into longer-established, indigenous forms of music-making.
The 1990s also saw the rise of what some people ironically called “Ürümchi folksong” — a joke that hinged on the idea that a modern urban center like Ürümchi couldn’t possibly have proper folk music. Ürümchi folksong, perfected by the likes of Rashida Dawut, set popular folk tunes in a lyrical, ballad-like style accompanied by keyboard and other electronic instruments.
At the same time, musicians trained in more traditional idioms created another popular form that some scholars writing in English have called “New Folk.” This music uses nationalist poetry set to folk-like melody and form, performed on traditional instruments like the dutar (a long-necked two-string lute). Unlike “Ürümchi folksong,” “New Folk” was (and remains) explicitly political in some of its themes. Abdurehim Heyit, King of the Dutar among Uyghurs, became a master of this style. In the face of state-led Han migration and the incentivization of land sale, Küresh Küsen, another popular New Folk singer, sang,
The land is great, the land is mighty,
the land is the source of life.
Brother farmer, I beg of you,
do not sell your land.
Küsen was exiled to Turkey and nabbed by the CCP when he was touring in Kyrgyzstan. He was brought back to prison in China, and later exiled to Sweden, where he died of a heart attack in 2006.
At the same time, younger Uyghur musicians in Beijing, privy to the more cosmopolitan influences coming into China’s capital, began drawing on international forms of popular music-making. Esqer Huilang (“Gray Wolf”), born and raised in Beijing and more fluent in Chinese than in Uyghur, made a name with songs that celebrated a Uyghur identity juxtaposed against mainstream Han culture. Erkin Abdulla, a guitarist and singer from a village in Qarghiliq county, Kashgar Prefecture, introduced flamenco stylings in Chinese and Uyghur. Both gained popularity throughout the PRC.
In the 1990s, Ekber Qehriman sang love tunes and inspired a generation of young Uyghurs to pick up the guitar. Mehmut Sulayman incorporated jazzy rhythms into love songs. Parida Mamut performed schmaltzy Ürümchi folk songs alongside the “playful” (and mildly scandalous) Kashgar folksong repertoire she sang and played on dutar. Abdulla Abdurehim, a master of puraq, began carving out what would become his space as the King of Uyghur Pop with repertoire that included love croonings, nationalist metaphors, and didactic commentaries on social ills. His 1998 hit “Sirliq Tuman” (“Mysterious Fog”) addressed the negative impacts of drug use at a time when heroin consumption had reached a high, causing an alarming level of HIV infection among Uyghurs.
In the 2000s and 2010s, as the state’s early patterns of repression against Uyghur discontent tightened and took firmer shape, the already-small space for civil society shrank further, and music turned less explicitly political. Popular musicians who had previously commented openly on politics turned their expression inward, relying on metaphor — sometimes thinly veiled — to convey, in the parlance of political scientist James C. Scott, a “hidden transcript” by which to register their discontent. Throughout the 2000s, pop albums often revolved around what appeared to me to be a trifecta of themes: romantic love and loss, filial piety, and patriotic love for the homeland, a common combination throughout Central Asia. (In this way, some aspects of Uyghur pop struck me as similar to country music beloved in the rural US South, where I was born and raised.)
By the 2010s, as state oppression of Uyghurs was ramping up, the internet and globalization seemed to be erasing some borders and shrinking the world. Uyghur pop began to encompass an even wider, broader stylistic range than before. Ablajan Awut Ayup styled himself as the “Uyghur Justin Bieber.” “Six City,” a group whose name pays homage to Altishahr, a historical name for the southern Uyghur oases, introduced Uyghur-language rap to young audiences. Gulmire Turghun, trained as a dancer at the Arts Institute, experimented with a “bad-girl” aesthetic similar to — if still decidedly tamer than — early Britney Spears. Adile Sidiq, infamous for a “perfect” rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” in her student days at Xinjiang University in the early 2000s, emerged as a talented singer-songwriter, crafting diva ballads that combined Western pop sensibilities with themes from Uyghur literature and history. Shir’eli El’tekin, one of the first graduates of the Arts Institute’s muqam program in 2001, incorporated classical techniques and styles into pop. Remarkably, King of Pop Abdulla Abdurehim, now visibly middle-aged, remained prolific and beloved, his skill at puraq greater than it had ever been. Abdulla’s cousin, Möminjan Ablikim, followed in his footsteps, forging a lucrative career.
Throughout, popular music — produced and consumed at concerts, in recordings, at weddings, at nightclubs — gave Uyghur musicians and audiences a range of ways to express different senses of community and self, and to explore cosmopolitan ideas about belonging. It would be too simplistic to reduce every aspect of Uyghur musical life to politics, but the political realities of life in the XUAR made Uyghur music and the ideas it engendered always, on some level, laden with political implications.
When the Voice of the Silk Road came onto the scene in 2014, its producers envisioned it as a platform for what they considered truly modern, cosmopolitan musical forms. This was in contrast to an earlier attempt by XJTV to produce a reality singing competition, “Yéngi Nawa” (“New Song”), which had turned into a platform for mostly folk-style and classical music.
“Xelq naxshisi bop ketti,” one of the producers told me once as we talked about “New Nawa.” It got all folksong-y. He rolled his eyes. While he and others were proud of folk music and even performed it in their own repertoires, they also worried about its limitations: namely, how difficult it is for that kind of music to travel far beyond its own borders. This was not a problem particular to Uyghur folk music, they said, but an issue inherent in folk music around the world. What would it mean, instead, to produce something that could travel beyond the borders of the Uyghur Region?
In this way, the Voice of the Silk Road was another iteration of the cosmopolitan desire I saw manifest in so many different parts of Uyghur musical life in my three and a half years in Ürümchi. Uyghurs have long faced a set of structural inequalities similar to those faced by minority peoples in other parts of the world. For decades, the Chinese state routinely denied Uyghurs access to passports and even the means to travel much farther than the XUAR’s borders. What did it mean to be a citizen of the world in a context like this? How could music help to bring other parts of the world to the Uyghur Region — and vice-versa?
Uyghur pop singers and musicians had a strong sense of their homeland, their music, and their lives as distinct from what they called “the interior,” i.e., the rest of China. Once, at a dinner with several of my castmates from the Voice of the Silk Road, one singer told us about his own attempt to make it big on the Voice of China. He was one of the strongest singers on our show, a master of puraq who drew inspiration from Turkish and Azerbaijani musical styles. He could sing pop in a way that sounded like the most skilled mu’ezzin reciting the call to prayer. On the Voice of China, though, he didn’t make it past the first round. The wife of another of our castmates was unsurprised. “Well, they do love stick-straight things, after all” (alar tüp-tüz bir nersi’ge amraq bolghankin) she said, matter-of-factly, referring to Hans and what she perceived to be straighter melodic lines in Chinese pop.
The singers I knew also had an acute sense that there was little market for their music outside the Uyghur Region. Uyghur rocker Perhat Khaliq made waves with his rock sensibilities on the 2013–’14 season of the Voice of China, where he was runner-up in the final round of the competition. Several other Uyghur singers have managed to forge successful careers in China proper from the 1990s onward. But these were exceptions: most Uyghur pop musicians suspected that their work had a different audience, and they weren’t wrong. Hence, the Voice of the Silk Road.
Abdulla Abdurehim, Mehmut Sulayman, Nurnisa Abbas (the lone woman in the group), and Erkin Abdulla served as the coaches for the first season of the show. The format was modeled after the broader Voice franchise: singers walked onto a stage to do a blind audition while the four judges sat in chairs facing the audience, their backs to the stage. If they wanted to invite a singer to join their group, they hit a button that turned their chair around, at which point they could watch the remainder of the performance.
In the first round, I sang an English-language jazz standard. I fretted over whether this was the right thing to do, but I’d signed up so last minute — only three days before my audition, long past the original deadline for participation — that I didn’t have time to work up a Uyghur song.
All four of the judges turned their chairs around for me in the first round, surprised and delighted to find a foreign face as they faced me on stage. My audition hadn’t been very good, as I was shaking from nerves and over-sang a bit, meaning I was on the sharp side of in-tune. But I think something about the style, and likely their suspicion that I was one of only a few non-Uyghurs auditioning for the show, made them turn their chairs around for me. My fluency in the Uyghur language seemed to be the real accomplishment, delighting the judges and audience. I responded in kind: answering the judges’ questions with proverbial sayings and singing a brief excerpt from a muqam suite. I’d gone onstage with Erkin Abdulla in mind as my first-choice coach and so chose to join his group.
My appearance on the show brought me overnight fame. The night my episode aired, in early December, my WeChat lit up with congratulations from friends and acquaintances, along with an invasively high number of new friend requests. The next day I went out to run errands and heard murmurs everywhere I went: “Wait — is that her? The girl from TV? The American? Oh my god, it’s her.” I made it all the way to the semifinals, almost certainly because of the ratings. The novelty of seeing an American perform in Uyghur was enough to draw an audience.
I was an anomaly: the other participants were largely Uyghur — and primarily men. And yet, the musical styles were extremely diverse. My group alone — called “Buraderler,” or “brothers,” which was only slightly awkward for the six of us women who made it into the group — included a surprising array of pop styles. We had singers who performed Turkish- and Azeri- and Uzbek-influenced songs, drawing on Central Asian styles. Some performed in a more traditionally “folk” style. Others wanted to bring K-pop and R&B idioms to Uyghur music — not to mention all the guitarists, rockers, and aspiring jazz singers. To my own delight, after experimenting with songs in English and Uyghur, I found that I had a knack for singing the schmaltzy Ürümchi folksongs of the 1990s.
The diversity and openness of the music on stage belied the political realities outside of the auditorium. In 2014, then-XUAR Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian was sowing the seeds of the repression we know today. Following high-profile attacks blamed on Uyghur groups in and outside the XUAR in 2013 and 2014, Zhang declared a People’s War on Terror and a new Strike Hard campaign. In summer 2014, the regional government put in place an internal passport system known as the bianmin ka, or People’s Convenience Card, that institutionalized apartheid-style policies of ethnic difference and drove Uyghurs out of Ürümchi and other urban centers. Zhang also revived the Cultural Revolution–era practice of “sending down” intellectuals to the countryside, increased the state’s surveillance apparatus, and began experimenting with short-term re-education camps. Uyghurs were increasingly bound into place.
Not a single episode of the Voice of the Silk Road was broadcast live, even in the final rounds. Audience members were never able to vote for their favorite performers, as is the customary format for the final rounds of the Voice in most other iterations. Such a format would have been too sensitive for this particular political context. But still, as the show progressed into its semifinal and final rounds, the producers policed participants’ onstage language in a way that was consistent with the ideology of purity that the producer had laid out prior to the first taping. Anyone who could not sing or speak in Uyghur was free to speak in his or her own language (the Kazakhs and Uzbeks participating in the show, whose languages are mutually intelligible with Uyghur, could speak Kazakh or Uzbek). But judges and contestants alike were scolded for accidental Mandarin use. Producers even stopped in the middle of filming if necessary. As we neared the end of the show, we were all given firm orders to sing in ana til, or the mother tongue. By the third round of the show, the producers began making all the coaches address their comments in Uyghur. Even a young Han woman, who had competed and communicated exclusively in Chinese, was addressed by the judges in Uyghur. No one provided real-time translation for her.
This insistence on speaking Uyghur on stage arose within a broader cultural fervor for the language and its alleged “purity.” Like most other languages, Uyghur — Uyghurche or Uyghur tili — isn’t “pure” at all. It’s a member of the Turkic language family, and therefore fully intelligible with certain other Turkic languages like Uzbek but less intelligible with others like modern Turkish, even though they share similar grammatical, syntactical, and other features. Large parts of the lexicon come from Arabic and Persian.
Like all Turkic languages, Uyghur is an agglutinating tongue in which suffix upon suffix can attach to words to mark grammatical case, denote person and time, and show other elements of aspect and nuance. What might be an eight-word statement in English, in Uyghur might be rendered as a two-word verbal phrase containing five or more suffixes. “Ours is an economical language,” a tutor once told me with a wry grin.
The agglutinating feature of Uyghur is just one of the many things that distinguish it so broadly from Chinese. Absurd, revisionist nationalism aside — some scholars in China have claimed that Uyghur is actually a dialect of Chinese, and that Uyghurs themselves have no relation to the Turkic peoples — Uyghur is indeed a completely different language from Chinese. The grammar, the syntax, the fundamental logics and principles: they share no common roots, nor do vocabularies overlap except for very recent loanwords.
Uyghurs in Xinjiang have long lived in at least a partially bilingual environment, and many Uyghur speakers mix Mandarin loanwords into their everyday speech, even in locales like Kashgar and Khotan that are considered the most culturally “authentic,” the “most Uyghur.” This kind of linguistic mixing makes sense: to many people, Chinese words for “refrigerator,” “television,” and “ID card,” for just a few examples, were introduced along with the items themselves. In other cases, Uyghur speakers code-switch and mix languages in a way characteristic of people living in bilingual environments everywhere. Significantly, though, Chinese loans are generally not formally lexicalized into the Uyghur language. You will never find them in a dictionary, and you will rarely see them in formal print.
Modern educational developments in the XUAR are partly responsible for this contemporary anxiety of linguistic purity. For the past two decades, authorities have experimented with diminishing the space for instruction in Uyghur at all levels of education, from primary to tertiary. By 2016, there were two primary modes of education in the region: one was Mandarin language instruction, which enrolls predominantly Han students alongside minority students who become known as minkaohan, a Chinese term that literally means “minorities testing in the Han language.” The second was “bilingual” instruction, which is about as bilingual as the autonomous region is autonomous: most classes are taught in Mandarin, but literature and music are taught in the non-Mandarin mother tongue, often using materials translated into Uyghur from Chinese. The state allowed almost no space for Uyghurs to discuss these changes, or the pressure they felt toward assimilation.
Performance events, many of which were centered on the arts in one form or another, thus represented one of the final spaces in which the Uyghur language was used extensively and in a “pure” form free of Chinese-language creep. If there was hope for continued production in the language, the stage was a space where that hope could be fulfilled. Uyghur performing artists — and the producers of the Voice of the Silk Road — self-consciously staged events as “pure” in an attempt to push against Chinese cultural dominance. In demanding that everyone on the show speak Uyghur, the producers were working within the framework allowed by a broad and varied set of language and education policies.
Back in the Arts Institute auditorium in September 2014, the producer had articulated an artistic and moral ideology of linguistic “purity” with precision and clarity. In what was already an era of cultural loss for Uyghurs, stage performance was a “final frontier” for Uyghur language survival, for the viability of that tongue as one of production and consumption. Looking back, it seems to me that Uyghur performing arts events and the linguistic space that they made possible, including backstage negotiations and debates, were one of the closest things that Uyghurs in China had to a civil society.
In hindsight, this open embrace of linguistic purity seems remarkable, even unfathomable today. Since 2017 and the acceleration of Party Secretary Chen Quanguo’s campaign of repression, Chinese language — recast from Hanyu, the Han language, into Guoyu, the national language — has crept gradually into programming on the Uyghur-language channels of XJTV. Tahir Hamut, a Uyghur film producer and poet now exiled in the United States, said in a November 2017 interview that he fears Uyghur-language programming will disappear completely within a few years.
These days the Voice of the Silk Road itself seems unfathomable, as well. The show was canceled after its third season in 2016. Producers Muhtar Bughra and Memetjan Abduqadir were both detained, sent away perhaps to detention centers, perhaps to internment camps, perhaps to prisons. Zahirshah Ablimit, runner-up in the first season, was interned in a “re-education” camp in Atush in 2018. While there’s some evidence that Muhtar has been released, there’s no reliable word about Memetjan or Zahirshah.
I left Ürümchi for the United States in mid-2016, only a couple of months before the political situation in the XUAR took a clear turn for the worse. Since then, I have watched from afar as Uyghur pop music has taken some surprising turns. In the spring if 2017, Shir’eli El’tekin, famous for singing muqam in pop, released a song titled “Shi Jinping’gha béghishlanghan küy” (“A song for Xi Jinping”), comparing the leader to a sun that has brightened the lives of the people. The color and sparkle of his voice seemed different; the puraq of his melodic line duller and plainer than ever before. That same spring, pop icon Möminjan Ablikim penned an essay praising the Party and it all it has done for him and his family. In early 2020, the XUAR Chinese New Year gala featured several Uyghur artists but not a single song in the Uyghur language, a stark departure from previous years.
Musicians have been detained along with other members of the Uyghur cultural and intellectual elite. Master dutarist Abdurehim Heyit disappeared into the region’s vast detention network in 2017 and did not surface again until 2019, when China released a proof-of-life video of him in response to allegations that he had died in state custody. They appear to have later released him, likely due to intense international pressure. Dutarist, singer, and songwriter Sanubar Tursun disappeared in 2018 and resurfaced again only a year later. Parida Mamut, performer of “playful” folksongs, disappeared into a camp in 2018 and reemerged in 2019, visibly thinner and aged. The Uyghur Justin Bieber, Ablajan, disappeared in February 2018; there is still no word of his whereabouts. After having already spent a year interned in a camp, the beloved singer of Ürümchi folksongs Rashida Dawut was sentenced to a rumored 15 years in prison on unknown charges in a secret trial in December 2019.
Some Uyghur performers are still making Uyghur pop music; music videos and other recordings continue to make their way out of the region. As best I can tell, the more “Western-style” and modern a singer is, the safer they seem to be. Musicians and groups who play in bars and nightclubs appear safe. But the environment in which they make their music is undoubtedly, irrevocably changed.
Several of my Buraderler groupmates, as well as our coach, are living in the diaspora in places as far-flung as Switzerland, Australia, and Southern California. We message one another occasionally, checking in on each other’s lives. None of us knows much about the rest of our “brothers.” How are their lives? Are they on the outside? Do they have enough to eat? Do they still sing? Are they safe amid the global pandemic raging around all of us? I can’t bear to think about how many of them might have disappeared, about what has become of their lives.
In June 2018, on what might have been my last-ever visit to the Uyghur Region, I was surprised to learn that a beloved singer had released a new Chinese-language song titled Meili Xinjiang, or “Beautiful Xinjiang.” The singer had tried to break into the Chinese market once before, at the end of the 1990s, but focused on producing music primarily for Uyghur audiences after that attempt fell flat. “Beautiful Xinjiang” seemed to mark a detour from the long arc of this career.
That the singer refers to his homeland as “Xinjiang” in the 2018 song is no insignificant matter, not least of all because it contrasts to the kind of language he used in reference to the Uyghur land just several years before. In early 2014, a close Uyghur friend and I were in the audience at one of his live concerts in Ürümchi. That night he debuted a song titled “You Have a History,” the lyrics of which included the lines:
Oh homeland, you are dearer than my soul,
let come what may; I will sacrifice my life for you.
When he sang of the “homeland” (weten) that night, everyone in the largely Uyghur audience understood exactly what he meant: not China or even Xinjiang but the Uyghur homeland, separate, special, and apart. Undoubtedly, these lyrics only pushed past the censors because of plausible deniability. Surely the singer was prepared to tell anyone who asked that the homeland he sang of was the People’s Republic. But we all understood; we knew the meaning of the hidden transcript. My friend sat next to me and cried.
On our walk home, tears continued to roll down her face. The song had stirred something inside her. “If only we were equal,” she said to me. “If only they treated us equally.” Today, of course, Uyghurs are less equal than they were then, less free than even the most pessimistic ever imagined they could be. In comparison to current political realities, 2014 seems like the good old days.
I think often of my friend and of this moment. I still marvel at the ability of pop music — so easy to dismiss — to open up minds and hearts, and open up entire regions to change, the way that Uyghur pop has for decades. Pop music has long allowed for a certain kind of spiritual resilience and political resistance in the Uyghur homeland. If there’s one thing to hope for, it’s that people keep listening.
Elise Anderson is a rights advocate, scholar, translator, and performer currently based in Washington, DC, where she works in human rights documentation and capacity-building as Senior Program Officer for Research and Advocacy at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. Follow her on Twitter @AndersonEliseM