A musical expression of Kazakhstan’s national and global identity – The Diplomat


Q-pop is the latest phenomenon to hit the airwaves in Kazakhstan. The musical genre features contagious pop tunes, tightly choreographed dance routines, and flamboyant fashion and makeup trends. Behind this seemingly fun and frivolous veneer, however, Q-pop offers a more in-depth commentary on how Kazakhstan attempts to embrace the forces of globalization while simultaneously establishing a renewed sense of national identity, and in turn forging a new image of himself to present to the rest of the world.

The development of Q-pop is inextricably linked with the rise of its South Korean counterpart, K-pop. In the late 2000s and 2010s, South Korean K-pop TV shows, K-drama, and other cultural products experienced a surge in popularity worldwide. The explosive success of the hallyu, or “Korean wave” was mainly attributed to the South Korean government support for the cultural industry – which helps finance high production values ​​and marketing campaigns – and the diffusion of digital technologies to expose South Korean media to a wide audience.

Hallyu also reached Kazakhstan during this time, which boosted a substantial fan base for K-pop music across the country. Yerbolat Bedelkhan, a Kazakh music producer, decided to capitalize on the popularity of K-pop by creating a Home-made K-pop group. In 2015, Bedelkhan helped train Ninety-One, a pop group nominated for the year of Kazakhstan’s independence. Ninety-One shares more than a fleeting resemblance to a K-pop boy group: the musical arrangements of Ninety-One’s songs are inspired by the K-pop playbook, and the group’s aesthetic choices reveal a southern influence as well. -Korean.

Since its inception, Ninety-One has faced a fair amount of controversy. For example, as he embarked on a nationwide tour in 2016, Ninety-One faced backlash in a number of cities in Kazakhstan. In more socially conservative cities like Kyzylorda, Shymkent and Aqtobe, the group were forced to cancel their performances after groups of protesters gathered to prevent Ninety-One from making their scheduled appearances. Protesters argued that the group’s androgynous style, exemplified by their colorful hairstyles, makeup, earrings, and sartorial choices, was effeminate and therefore offended the patriarchal ideal of Kazakh masculinity. Additionally, Ninety-One has been criticized for allegedly challenge other standards of Kazakh society, including religious values, family morals and the glorification of foreign cultures over national Kazakh influences.

Despite the backlash Ninety-One received from some communities, he also racked up huge success across Kazakhstan. The songs of the group, which frequently refer to various social problems, have helped to initiate discussions on these topics. Additionally, Ninety-One paved the way for other Q-pop groups to gain traction in Kazakhstan, and the genre is gaining prominence across the country.

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Q-pop has clearly been shaped by the influences of globalization: it pays immense homage to K-pop, and its aesthetic and lyrical content sometimes contradicts traditional Kazakh motifs. That being said, Q-pop has also played an important role in encouraging Kazakhs, especially the country’s youth, to be proud of the Kazakh heritage.

The most obvious area in which Q-pop encourages pride in Kazakh cultural identity concerns the use of the language. When Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991, decades of Soviet educational policies who favored Russian as the main medium of communication subjugated the use of Kazakh in the public sphere. Many Kazakhs associated russian language with the educated, urban and mobile ascending classes, while Kazakh was considered the backward vernacular of rural villages. While Russian continues to be widely used throughout Kazakhstan, the national government has attempted to re-energize the prestige of the Kazakh language by promote its use 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 raising 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 after 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 of promoting Kazakh patriotism. At the same time, Q-pop has continued to gain international attention. Its appeal, coupled with the worldwide popularity of other Kazakh artists such as Dimash Kudaibergen, Daneliya Tuleshova, and Yerjan Maxime, broadened the Kazakh music scene to a global audience and helped make Kazakh “cool”.

The development of Q-pop reflected larger internal changes in Kazakhstan: namely how the country adapted to the twin forces of globalization and strengthened national sentiments. Now that Q-pop has grown into a more established institution, it could play a key role in how Kazakhstan projects itself globally.

Kazakhstan has embarked on seismic efforts to reinvent itself over the past three decades. For example, he sought to change his written writing from Cyrillic to Latin by 2025, moved its capital from Almaty to Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) in 1997, and broaden its level of international engagement. These official initiatives have succeeded in increasing the level of international attention on Kazakhstan. However, innovations in Q-pop and other Kazakhstani cultural industries could also play an influential role in boosting the country’s global notoriety, as South Korea’s hallyu has shown. Research indicates that Q-pop groups are starting to attract a global fan base, and many of these fans are expressing 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 help the national rebranding of Kazakhstan and project a positive external image of the country to the rest of the world.

Q-pop thus symbolizes the complex balance of Kazakhstan in terms of reconciling its identity: one that values ​​globalization, values ​​its national traditions and seeks to actively engage with the rest of the world. The genre has both its fans and its detractors, but it has secured its place as a major player in the Kazakh pop culture scene. As Q-pop continues to gain popularity, perhaps more fans will sing and dance to the tunes – in Kazakhstan and beyond.

This article was originally published by the ERA Institute and is republished with permission.

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