Sun, 24 Jan 2021

Thailand Rap Group Pens Soundtrack to Pro-Democracy Protests

Voice of America
02 Dec 2020, 00:05 GMT+10

KUALA LUMPUR - Thailand's most famous - some would say infamous - rap group is back with a vengeance.

Rap Against Dictatorship shot to fame in 2018 with its debut track, "What My Country's Got," a politically charged invective skewering the country's then-military junta. The video has garnered 94 million views on YouTube.

The musical group launched its latest track, "Reform," on YouTube a few weeks ago amid new anti-government protests roiling the capital, Bangkok. Its video has already attracted more than 7 million views.

While taking on the same broad themes of state oppression, impunity and hypocrisy, the new song, like the protests themselves, takes aim at not just the government but the country's once untouchable monarchy.

Message

Thailand's youth have been taking to the capital's streets by the thousands almost daily since July to demand the resignation of 2014 coup leader-turned-Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and a new constitution stripped of the privileges it gifts the military.

Since August, though, the "mob," as the protesters call themselves, has been turning its ire increasingly at a royal palace it accuses of working together with the military to keep Thailand's conservative elite in power and in wealth. They want King Maha Vajiralongkorn's assertive reign brought firmly in check by new rules that would keep him out of politics and open the ledger on a lavish lifestyle paid for with their taxes.

The protesters are flouting strict criminal defamation laws meant to shield the royal family from rebuke and a constitution that demands reverence to break through generations-old taboos.

"Reform" is their soundtrack.

R.A.D., as the music group is known, plays often to the protest crowds and performed its new track live for the first time at the "Mob Fest" event on Nov. 14. Fans at their latest shows already know the lyrics by heart.

Tattep "Ford" Ruangprapaikitseree is one of the protest movement's lead organizers and addresses the crowds on many days.

"We speak on the microphone.... They [R.A.D.] speak through the song. But [it's] the same idea," he told VOA.

"In the movement we have the demands," he said, "and this song is like the messenger ... to deliver [the] message in the protest."

The music track "Reform" brims with scorn for Prayut and thinly veiled jabs at the monarchy with references to pawns and kings, royal decrees and feudal rule. It hints at the protest movement's 10-point reform plan for the monarchy and makes repeated passes at how the government and royals are spending the people's tax dollars.

My generation

"This song is telling about [how] Thai people want to reform the monarchy, want to have a better life," said Skan "Skanbombomb" Aryurapong, who directed the video for "Reform."

At Least 55 Hurt in Thailand's Most Violent Protests Since New Movement Emerged Thousands of demonstrators converged on parliament to put pressure on lawmakers discussing changes to the constitution

Adding a dose of cinematic authenticity to the production, the group filmed most of the track on the frontlines of the Nov. 8 protests, the night riot police met a peaceful crowd of demonstrators marching on the Grand Palace with water cannon blasts.

"We want to record the situation in Bangkok right now, what people say, what [the] government did [to] us," said Skan.

In helping score the reform movement, R.A.D. wants to "record what people want, what people are talking about, what is happening; it's like historical evidence," said rapper Pongsatorn Dechanupad, who goes by the stage name Protozua.

At 12 members and counting, R.A.D. is more a collective of like-minded artists than a well-defined group. Four or five founding members make up the core, but no one has final say, Pongsatorn said, yet another echo of the protest movement, which claims to have no leaders.

The nine members featured on "Reform" each attack the main theme in their own way. Drawing on personal experience, Pongsatorn's verse reflects the strain the youth-led protests have put on families.

"The parents and older people agree to keep everything the same, and they say it's good now compared to the old days," he told VOA. "But we hope things can be better; that's why we come out."

The monarchy's legion of devotees, who skew older than the average "mob" member, have come out too, staging counter-protests to oppose any reform of the royal palace.

Skan said those ultra-royalists have turned their ire on R.A.D. as well, blasting their songs online, calling them liars and questioning their patriotism.

Authority song

The group has caught the attention of the authorities as well. Soon after R.A.D. released "What My Country's Got" in 2018, police opened an investigation into its lyrics for any possible breaches of law. Prayut addresses the song personally, telling local media at the time that anyone who "shows appreciation" for it "must accept responsibility for what happens to the country in the future."

No lawsuits followed from the probe. This past August, though, police did arrest founding member Dechathorn "Hockhacker" Bamrungmuang over a protest he attended the month before and charged him with sedition before releasing him on bail.

After a two-year hiatus, authorities have also started charging protesters again with royal defamation, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in jail. Skan and Pongsatorn said the group had a lawyer examine the lyrics to "Reform" for any potential legal traps. But the song is still raw and angry and vintage R.A.D.

"We say what's in people's minds," Pongsatorn said. "They want to say it but they don't dare to say it because nowadays we still have something that pressures us, like a big wall that stops people from saying what they think, like government or laws."

R.A.D. wants to tear that wall down. Pongsatorn admits it may be too much to expect one song to change any minds, but he hopes it will kindle the conversations that could.

"This can be a starter, because the song's name is 'Reform,'" he said, "and when people hear it, even [if] they are on [the] opposite side, they will have the idea of reform in their minds and later they will see other information and they can make judgments, they can make decisions later."

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