A rising expat star explains why progress begins with programming.
On August 15, 2013, as American troops were pulling out of Afghanistan, the city of Bamiyan played host to a four-hour celebration of young Afghan music acts, sponsored by the United Nations. For centuries, Bamiyan had been famous for the standing Buddha statues—once the tallest Buddhist effigies in the world—carved into the mountains on the outskirts of the city. By the time of the Bamiyan Music Festival, they had been reduced to a pile of rubble, bombed over the course of a week by the Taliban in 2001, who'd declared them to be idolatrous.
Now, 12 years after the destruction of the Buddhas, thousands of people gathered under their husks for a day of music and celebration. A large outdoor stage lined with LED lights had been set up, and a state-of-the-art sound system blasted rock, pop, hip-hop, and traditional Afghan music across the mountain walls into fertile farmlands at their feet. One particular concert mainstay, however, remained absent from the Bamiyan Music Festival: no music was played between acts.
When organizer Basir Hamid tweeted about the festival, Shuja Rabbani, an Afghan electronic music producer, took the opportunity to weigh in: "Looks fantastic, but where's the DJ?" Two years later, and Rabbani is still asking that same question: "DJing is alien to Afghan music," he tells me over Skype. "Even music composed by assembling samples together is unknown as a form of music. I'm working to change that."
A Kabul native now working a full-time corporate job in Dubai, the 35-year old Rabbani moonlights as a producer and political blogger. He is a son of the late, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was assassinated in 2011 at his residence by Taliban suicide bombers. His brother is Afghanistan's current minister of foreign affairs. Rabbani's relationship to his own family history is complicated: when it comes to talking about how he ended up leaving Afghanistan and living the expat life, he's tight-lipped, and asks me to keep references to his family to a minimum—the better to shine light on the music. "My background is certainly not a secret but I also don't want to bank on it," he writes me via email. "I guess my personal principle in life is that if I didn't earn it, I don't deserve it and that's why I only mention my father in rare political blogs where I have to." Instead of going into politics himself, Rabbani has undertaken an unlikely crusade: to bring EDM to a state not only absent of electronic music, but at least to Rabbani, suspicious of it as well.
Earlier this month, the producer released the Alpha Male LP on his own label, Rabbani Records. Falling somewhere between EDM and dubstep, with hints of Indian music sprinkled in, Alpha Male sounds like it could fit right at home in a Mumbai club. But while India and even Pakistan are home to a thriving club culture, Kabul is a city where contemporary dance clubs are ad hoc, rare, and hidden within heavily secured compounds in Kabul's Diplomats Quarter. Driving this concern for safety is fear of the Taliban, who aggressively oppose popular or non-religious music. In 2012, 15 men and 2 women were beheaded by Taliban militants after they were caught dancing at a party. In July, a musicologist named Ahmad Sarmast was maimed by a Taliban suicide bomber attack during a performance by the Afghanistan Symphony Orchestra.
"DJing is alien to Afghan music. Even music composed by assembling samples together is unknown as a form of music. I'm working to change that."—Shuja Rabbani
This violent opposition to the very goal Rabbani is trying to achieve gives his mission a quixotic quaity. If EDM does catch on in Afghanistan, will it ever be safe enough for people to perform it live? Rabbani, for his part, has never played a gig. "That's my next big goal," he says: "to put together a live performance." For now, however, the producer is readying his live set-up from the remote safety of the United Arab Emirates, a thousand miles away from his native Afghanistan.
Truth be told, Alpha Male's oceanic synth washes, metallic melodies, and punchy beats feel better suited to driving with the top down around the Palm Island of Dubai than steering through traffic-clogged streets of Kabul. "Afghan music doesn't actually influence my work," Rabbani says with a laugh, admitting that he has turned down offers to remix Rabab music, an indigenous genre based upon the guitar-like instrument from which it takes its name. Indian music, he says, is a bigger influence on Alpha Male, with peak moments sounding like a diffident David Guetta scoring a Bollywood film. "I love Indian music," he says citing the massive aesthetic influence of Afghanistan's most powerful political ally and biggest humanitarian aid provider. "Afghans are 100% aware of the music industry of India and their celebrities. If EDM and DJing culture suddenly exploded in India, it would be only a short time before it made its way to Afghanistan."
For now, bringing club culture to his home country has been Rabbani's solo battle, and even with his large social media following, he knows that it will take more than a hit song to have an impact in his native country. "We have an inconsistent contemporary culture," Rabbani tells me. As an example, he cites the thriving Afghan hip-hop scene emerging from Berlin—Slaimon, sadiQ, and Kaliban are among many artists I found going down a YouTube hole—only to have been met with deaf ears back in Kabul. "The general public," he says, "still maintains traditional tastes that run counter to the growing Westernized influences that expat Afghans are bringing in." Popular music television shows like Afghan Star (a American Idol-inspired program) and The Voice Afghanistan bring people on stage who play traditional instruments and sing folk songs. "There's nothing wrong with that," concedes Rabbani, "but I feel an artistic prerogative to break through that box."
Still, there is increasing evidence that young people are using Western musical forms—and especially rap—to breathe new life into Afghanistan's sonic traditions and inspire political activism in their peers. An artist who made international headlines was the female rapper Sonita Alizadeh, who in 2014 released a video of herself spitting verse in a wedding dress, decrying her mother's attempts to sell her into marriage. The video went viral, and earned Alizadeh a scholarship to study music in the US. Female rappers have, in fact, been the most successful of the Afghan rap genre, with Soosan Firooz and Paradise using hip-hop to advocate for women's rights.
Over the phone, I ask Rabbani if his mission to bring Western dance music to Afghanistan is in any way politically motivated. "Not especially," he replies, "though politics tends to make its way into my work." He mentions releasing tracks during the 2014 Afghanistan elections—or in his word, "selections"—that mocked the candidates by auto-tuning clips of their speeches. His albums, moreover, can feel like an attempt to dismantle firm gender barriers that cut through Afghan culture, playfully subverting hyper-masculine themes by contrasting them with feminine imagery. Gracing the cover of Alpha Male is an armed Afghan woman with a rose potted into the nozzle of a gun. Contradicting the apparent peace of that message are macho track titles like "Warlordick," "Sextremist," and "Snitch Bitch." Rabbani claims to be playing with dichotomies invented by the media: "Afghan society is judged by how international media portrays it." he says. "I gave my album a feminine cover and a macho theme, but neither of these [stereotypes] reflect what the younger generations are embracing."
Rabbani himself has a complicated relationship with the media. He has instant name recognition, but that in turn becomes a double-edged sword. "I'm constantly being judged based on my last name," he says. "And I'm trying to make people understand that I am Shuja before I am Rabbani. But because my last name is attached to a strong political figure, it just becomes difficult to separate the two." Despite this frustration, Rabbani appears proud to have amassed a large social media presence. "I've got everyone from ambassadors to celebrities following me," says Rabbani with a slight hint of braggadocio. His most recent music video for the single "
Prisoner Of My Dance Floor," a pastiche of 3D-generated angels, devils, skulls, and animals, was released late last month; as of this writing, it has wracked up over 30,000 views on YouTube. When he's not responding to Afghan current affairs to his 300K followers on Twitter, or writing about Islamic reform or Afghan president Ashraf Ghani on his blog, he's promoting the hasthag #EDMA (EDM Afghanistan). Sometimes just the hashtag alone is enough to galvanize over 2000 retweets. Clearly, he is finding his audience.
On his CV, Rabbani claims that his label is the "first-ever Afghan-owned and online-registered record company." "Before I founded my Rabbani Records, I did my research and discovered to my dismay that no Afghan artists were on bigger music platforms such as iTunes, Google Play, and Beatport. You had huge Afghanistan music celebrities that weren't doing much to make themselves available to the outside world. It's easier to download their music illegally on torrent sites." Currently, Rabbani is the sole artist on his label, though he has sent several open calls for new Afghan talent that would fit the label's electronic dance aesthetic. Still, he says that finding that talent has been slow a process. He recalls reading how Kabul Dreams—"the biggest post-9/11 Afghan rock band," Rabbani tells me, were still unsigned to a label. "I wanted to help, but I had to acknowledge that our genres were just too different."
Still, Rabbani recognizes that his dream of a thriving EDM scene in Kabul won't come true overnight. Electronic music production tools still are not very widespread in Afghanistan, a country in which less than 50% of the population have access to the internet. "I have had an unfair advantage over a lot of people," he says, recalling his early access to computers and music programs. "But I also see these tools becoming more widely available now to Afghanistan's youth." And if rock bands like Kabul Dreams, rappers like Sonita Alizadeh, and producers like Shuja Rabbani are any indication, the next generation of Afghan musicians have begun expressing themselves through more modernized sounds. Rabbani acknowledges Afghanistan's growing musical diversity with a sense of pride, and is encouraged to keep up his part: "I want to help pave the way for others to do what I'm doing," he tells me near the end of our conversation. "Either by inspiring them through my art, or by guiding them to a worldwide audience. This is how I'd like to help bring change to Afghanistan."
[Editor's note: A previous version of this article misused the term "Afghani," a currency, for "Afghan," the national term for a citizen of Afghanistan. The article also incorrectly stated Rabbani's business employer as Australian, and that Kabul Dreams, the Afghan band, had approached Rabbani for distribution help when they did not formally do so.]
- shuja rabbani