The Politics of Pop: The Rise and Repression of Uyghur Music in China

Are they safe amid the global pandemic raging around all of us? He could sing pop in a way that sounded like the most skilled mu’ezzin reciting the call to prayer. 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). As we neared the end of the show, we were all given firm orders to sing in ana til, or the mother tongue. The next day I went out to run errands and heard murmurs everywhere I went: “Wait — is that her? “Xinjiang,” a Chinese name that means “new dominion” or “new territory,” is a colonial term. In the first round, I sang an English-language jazz standard. A member of the production team stood center stage, clipboard in hand. “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. 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. In early 2014, a close Uyghur friend and I were in the audience at one of his live concerts in Ürümchi. 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. 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. By the third round of the show, the producers began making all the coaches address their comments in Uyghur. CHECK OUT THE REST OF THE ISSUE HERE. FOR $10 A MONTH, RECEIVE IT IN PRINT. 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. 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. The diversity and openness of the music on stage belied the political realities outside of the auditorium. Large parts of the lexicon come from Arabic and Persian. 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. The state allowed almost no space for Uyghurs to discuss these changes, or the pressure they felt toward assimilation. 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. For decades, the Chinese state routinely denied Uyghurs access to passports and even the means to travel much farther than the XUAR’s borders. 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. Pop music has long allowed for a certain kind of spiritual resilience and political resistance in the Uyghur homeland. Musicians and groups who play in bars and nightclubs appear safe. 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. Hence, the Voice of the Silk Road. Second, remember propriety and don’t hug or even touch members of the opposite sex on camera. No one provided real-time translation for her. 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. And fourth, for anyone planning to speak Uyghur on-stage, do not, under any circumstances, mix Mandarin into your speech. Erkin Abdulla, a guitarist and singer from a village in Qarghiliq county, Kashgar Prefecture, introduced flamenco stylings in Chinese and Uyghur. The girl from TV? You will never find them in a dictionary, and you will rarely see them in formal print. First, be respectful by referring to the judges with kinship terms. 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. 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. 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. 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. Today, the words “Uyghurs” and “Xinjiang” are most likely to conjure up images of internment camps. 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. 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. In the 1990s, Ekber Qehriman sang love tunes and inspired a generation of young Uyghurs to pick up the guitar. 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. (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. In other cases, Uyghur speakers code-switch and mix languages in a way characteristic of people living in bilingual environments everywhere. While there’s some evidence that Muhtar has been released, there’s no reliable word about Memetjan or Zahirshah. 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. 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. What would it mean, instead, to produce something that could travel beyond the borders of the Uyghur Region? Abdurehim Heyit, King of the Dutar among Uyghurs, became a master of this style. 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 singers I knew also had an acute sense that there was little market for their music outside the Uyghur Region. My appearance on the show brought me overnight fame. Dutarist, singer, and songwriter Sanubar Tursun disappeared in 2018 and resurfaced again only a year later. Language — specifically the way that the Uyghur language was used to frame television and other performance events — was a significant part of that. 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. Küsen was exiled to Turkey and nabbed by the CCP when he was touring in Kyrgyzstan. Modern educational developments in the XUAR are partly responsible for this contemporary anxiety of linguistic purity. 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. IN ORDER TO CONTINUE PROVIDING FREE COVERAGE OF THE BEST IN WRITING AND THOUGHT, WE ARE RELYING ON YOUR SUPPORT NOW MORE THAN EVER. 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. 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. ¤
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. 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. ¤
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. 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. 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. As best I can tell, the more “Western-style” and modern a singer is, the safer they seem to be. 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. 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 these ways, Uyghur pop is not wholly separable from classical and folk tradition. 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. 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. 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. Undoubtedly, these lyrics only pushed past the censors because of plausible deniability. Han in-migration was making Uyghurs a minority in their own homeland. Producers even stopped in the middle of filming if necessary. In 2014, then-XUAR Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian was sowing the seeds of the repression we know today. 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. Unlike “Ürümchi folksong,” “New Folk” was (and remains) explicitly political in some of its themes. 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. How could music help to bring other parts of the world to the Uyghur Region — and vice-versa? Scott, a “hidden transcript” by which to register their discontent. We had singers who performed Turkish- and Azeri- and Uzbek-influenced songs, drawing on Central Asian styles. 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. 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. 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 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 producer began giving instructions to the hopeful singers sitting before him. “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. Both gained popularity throughout the PRC. On our walk home, tears continued to roll down her face. Next came his more substantive reminders. 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. 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. I responded in kind: answering the judges’ questions with proverbial sayings and singing a brief excerpt from a muqam suite. 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. 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. 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. Do they have enough to eat? 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. 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. Are they on the outside? 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. The wife of another of our castmates was unsurprised. “If only we were equal,” she said to me. My fluency in the Uyghur language seemed to be the real accomplishment, delighting the judges and audience. I’d gone onstage with Erkin Abdulla in mind as my first-choice coach and so chose to join his group. Even a young Han woman, who had competed and communicated exclusively in Chinese, was addressed by the judges in Uyghur. 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. “Ours is an economical language,” a tutor once told me with a wry grin. 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. 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. Oh my god, it’s her.” I made it all the way to the semifinals, almost certainly because of the ratings. 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. ¤
In hindsight, this open embrace of linguistic purity seems remarkable, even unfathomable today. Dozens of would-be pop stars were sitting in the stadium-style seats, waiting to learn about their upcoming blind auditions. 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. 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 show was canceled after its third season in 2016. 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. The role that music plays in institutional racism and stereotyping in China can also make it a tricky subject to talk and write about. Do they still sing? 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. The Uyghur Justin Bieber, Ablajan, disappeared in February 2018; there is still no word of his whereabouts. 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. I was an anomaly: the other participants were largely Uyghur — and primarily men. The color and sparkle of his voice seemed different; the puraq of his melodic line duller and plainer than ever before. 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. Remarkably, King of Pop Abdulla Abdurehim, now visibly middle-aged, remained prolific and beloved, his skill at puraq greater than it had ever been. “Beautiful Xinjiang” seemed to mark a detour from the long arc of this career. But we all understood; we knew the meaning of the hidden transcript. If there was hope for continued production in the language, the stage was a space where that hope could be fulfilled. DONATE $5 A MONTH, RECEIVE  THE POP ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL AS AN EPUB OR PDF. 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. Some performed in a more traditionally “folk” style. I think often of my friend and of this moment. Mehmut Sulayman incorporated jazzy rhythms into love songs. ¤
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
  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. This campaign, while horrifying and absurd, is a logical extension of the relationship patterns Beijing long forged between itself and the XUAR’s peoples. My definition of pop — both in regard to pop in general and Uyghur pop in particular — is broad. Abdulla’s cousin, Möminjan Ablikim, followed in his footsteps, forging a lucrative career. 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. These days the Voice of the Silk Road itself seems unfathomable, as well. 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. 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. ¤
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. 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). MAY 31, 2020

LIKE SO MANY NONPROFITS AND LITERARY COMMUNITIES, MANY OF LARB’S FUNDRAISING SOURCES HAVE BEEN UPENDED. 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. This was not a problem particular to Uyghur folk music, they said, but an issue inherent in folk music around the world. 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. 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. But it’s true — a truism, even — that music and dance play important roles in Uyghur society, as in societies elsewhere. He rolled his eyes. We message one another occasionally, checking in on each other’s lives. Parida Mamut, performer of “playful” folksongs, disappeared into a camp in 2018 and reemerged in 2019, visibly thinner and aged. I wanted to see firsthand what had been going on. Several other Uyghur singers have managed to forge successful careers in China proper from the 1990s onward. None of us knows much about the rest of our “brothers.” How are their lives? Uyghurs have long faced a set of structural inequalities similar to those faced by minority peoples in other parts of the world. At that time, I’d been living and conducting doctoral dissertation research in Ürümchi for almost two years. 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. 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. 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. 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. Significantly, though, Chinese loans are generally not formally lexicalized into the Uyghur language. ¤
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. Others wanted to bring K-pop and R&B idioms to Uyghur music — not to mention all the guitarists, rockers, and aspiring jazz singers. The agglutinating feature of Uyghur is just one of the many things that distinguish it so broadly from Chinese. 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. Surely the singer was prepared to tell anyone who asked that the homeland he sang of was the People’s Republic. 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. Brother farmer, I beg of you,
do not sell your land. 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. 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. ¤
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. The novelty of seeing an American perform in Uyghur was enough to draw an audience. But the environment in which they make their music is undoubtedly, irrevocably changed. The grammar, the syntax, the fundamental logics and principles: they share no common roots, nor do vocabularies overlap except for very recent loanwords. Such a format would have been too sensitive for this particular political context. 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. 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. Producers Muhtar Bughra and Memetjan Abduqadir were both detained, sent away perhaps to detention centers, perhaps to internment camps, perhaps to prisons. 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. 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. 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. He was one of the strongest singers on our show, a master of puraq who drew inspiration from Turkish and Azerbaijani musical styles. 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. They appear to have later released him, likely due to intense international pressure. 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. 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. Third, be succinct, but genuine and natural in interactions. 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. 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. But judges and contestants alike were scolded for accidental Mandarin use. “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. From its earliest days in the 1990s, Uyghur pop has drawn from a diverse set of influences. For others, certain technologies — electronic instruments, auto-tone — are the definitive factors. 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. 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. My friend sat next to me and cried. Since then, I have watched from afar as Uyghur pop music has taken some surprising turns. Zahirshah Ablimit, runner-up in the first season, was interned in a “re-education” camp in Atush in 2018. What did it mean to be a citizen of the world in a context like this? Musicians have been detained along with other members of the Uyghur cultural and intellectual elite. 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. If there’s one thing to hope for, it’s that people keep listening. 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. 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. The song had stirred something inside her. Some scholars, wont to complicate matters as they deconstruct them, define pop as commodified music produced for and consumed by the masses. Parida Mamut performed schmaltzy Ürümchi folk songs alongside the “playful” (and mildly scandalous) Kashgar folksong repertoire she sang and played on dutar. 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 comparison to current political realities, 2014 seems like the good old days. 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. 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. The American? Chinese histories offer a similar narrative about all of the country’s contested regions, including Taiwan, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. I can’t bear to think about how many of them might have disappeared, about what has become of their lives. On the Voice of China, though, he didn’t make it past the first round. 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. 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. He was brought back to prison in China, and later exiled to Sweden, where he died of a heart attack in 2006. “Xelq naxshisi bop ketti,” one of the producers told me once as we talked about “New Nawa.” It got all folksong-y. And yet, the musical styles were extremely diverse. But these were exceptions: most Uyghur pop musicians suspected that their work had a different audience, and they weren’t wrong. Uyghur pop began to encompass an even wider, broader stylistic range than before. 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. 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). In many instances, these genres bleed into one another. Some Uyghur performers are still making Uyghur pop music; music videos and other recordings continue to make their way out of the region. ¤
Uyghurs are a culturally Turkic and predominantly, though not exclusively, Muslim people.