What the “Uyghur Justin Bieber” Tells Us About the Subtle Politics of Pop

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6:00 PM HKT, Thu June 22, 2017 6 mins read

The pop star Ablajan hates it when people refer to him as the “Uyghur Justin Bieber.” When I interviewed him in 2015 he said: “People just have a certain image of who I am, but actually I built my image out of my own style.” He said that it was just happenstance that he and Bieber share the same aesthetic: black leather jackets, chains, a perfectly quaffed high fade. Ablajan said, “Actually I cut my hair short like this before Bieber. When I saw him doing it, I was surprised. We all joked that he was copying me. Actually I haven’t seen any of his work for over two years.”

To Ablajan’s thinking, it was an older icon that drew him (and perhaps Bieber) to the style of glamorous pop that he tries to emulate in his work. That icon was Michael Jackson.

He still remembers the day in 1999 when he saw the video Thriller for the first time. It was on a big-screen TV in a restaurant in Turpan. He had no idea that the video was as old as he was: 17. To him it seemed completely fresh and immediate. It felt like something he had been waiting his whole life to see.

“I thought right away that ‘MJ’ was my soulmate,” he said. “I really identified with everything about him.”

That day he started to learn Michael Jackson’s choreographies. He began to volunteer to perform whenever he could so that he could show off his new dance moves. It is no accident that even today Ablajan refers to himself as “AJ.”

Ablajan is an interesting figure in the Uyghur pop scene. He talks in a soft voice. He gestures with his hands constantly. He walks with a practiced coolness. Everything about him breathes celebrity. He has his own studio. His own brand. His own entourage of cool urban kids. It really does feel as though he has spent decades studying and practicing Michael Jackson’s mannerisms.

As I walked down the streets of Ürümchi with him and his backup dancers, little kids and their parents broke into broad smiles. He played the role of the celebrity graciously. Kneeling down with small children to take selfies, he was the fun uncle they had always adored.

Ablajan said that when he first came to the city he was really “backward.” “In Uyghur we would say ‘mening sapayim bek nachar’ (my quality was very bad),” he said. “People would just ignore me in the city. It was like they didn’t see me. Now people are really nice to me. It is totally different. Now they all notice me. Some of them don’t like me. But they all see me. Now I have to consciously be very gracious toward them or else they will think I am ‘stuck up.’ People over the age of 15 don’t approach me, but the kids always mob me.”

Here, too, Ablajan’s appeal follows the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s turn toward children’s music. “I really don’t know why my music is so popular with kids,” he said. “Parents tell me all the time that the first word their kids say is ‘Ablajan.’”

Ablajan likes to perform for kids because of the spontaneous joy they bring to the music. He said he has always loved “those little people,” and that ever since his first album he has wanted to use their sense of imagination and energy in his music.

Of course, like the King of Pop, in more recent years Ablajan has also been accused of infantilizing his music, of being stuck in a perpetual childhood. He said: “Now some people are telling me that it is not natural for a man to sing children’s music.” He said that in more recent years adults have been accosting him, telling him he is too effeminate – that entertaining children should be the domain of women.

Some of them are even more confrontational, telling him that he is misleading their children. “They tell me I am teaching their children lies,” he said. And here is where the the Uyghurness of his context and his relationship with Michael Jackson’s music appear to confront an impasse. Ablajan is attempting to be a pop star in the midst of widespread Islamic religious revival among his target audience; he is singing songs about joy and secular education in the midst of the so-called People’s War on Terror. This call to good citizenship and belonging within the Chinese nation in the midst of widespread state violence and fear often sounds like collaboration to Uyghur listeners.

Indeed, following the release of his first Chinese language record in 2012, Ablajan, like many Uyghur pop performers, has found himself put in the service of anti-religious extremism concert tours. As Uyghur society turns toward forms of Islam that frowns on music, dance and interactions with the non-Muslim world, Abalajan’s music,to many Uyghur listeners, has started to sound like music of the state.

Yet, of course, Abalajan’s music is not this. Of course he has to consider the view of the state when he performs, particularly following the notoriety he received following his profile in Time magazine. But he is deeply concerned with bringing Uyghur cultural thought and practice to the world stage. He imagines that people outside Uyghur society see Uyghurs as traditional and backward.

“Actually, people are just like people everywhere else,” he said. “We are all contemporary people. So I wanted people in Eastern China to see that Xinjiang is not backward. We might not all be rich, but still we are developing.”

But even more than this, he wants Uyghur kids to realize their full potential as Uyghurs that are living now, in the present. He wants to inspire Uyghur children to reach for the stars. “I hope that people can understand the feeling I have in my heart,” he said. “Other people here might think I am crazy, but I really feel like this is my gift.”

Images from Ablajan’s official WeChat feed

Since the early 2000s, Ablajan has written more than 400 songs. Many of them are aimed at inspiring young Uyghurs to bring Uyghur values into the present. In many, he focuses on the games and songs Uyghur kids used to play in the countryside and reinterprets them or gives them new meaning in the urban context. One of his most recent singles called “Dear Teacher” (video above, with English subtitles) doubles down on this, by privileging Uyghur-language instruction (in the Uyghur version of the song) as the first and primary subject of Uyghur education.

As one Uyghur listener to the Uyghur-language version of the song told me, “I was struck by how he emphasized the importance of learning the Uyghur mother tongue, although he did not explicitly frame it that way. He presented it as a subject in school, but he devoted two stanzas to that, whereas other subjects received only one. It also stands in stark contrast to the way he talked about learning Chinese, which was simply mentioned as one of the other languages that students need to learn. Of course, we know that all other subjects are now taught in Chinese.”

By beginning the song with an emphasis on the “pearls” of Uyghur language literacy (45-second mark), Ablajan is taking a stand, standing up to the state’s push to transform Uyghur education into Chinese-only curriculum. Although subtle, for Uyghur listeners it stands out as a small sign of refusal.

If we read through the Chinese translation of the lyrics Ablajan has provided, the subtly of his messaging is made more explicit. While the Uyghur version of the first two stanzas emphasizes the importance of learning one’s mother tongue, the Chinese version of the lyrics highlights the characteristics of Chinese language and Han culture by emphasizing things like strokes, pronunciation, and the Great Wall.

Below is the English translation from the Uyghur of the first two stanzas. The parts in parentheses are translations of the equivalent Chinese lyrics.

The class is language and literature,
(This class is important)
Read the texts with passion.
For each new word you encounter,
(Take a good look at the strokes of a character and pay attention to pronunciation)
I will provide the explanation.
(I will explain them now)

Learn the rules of your language,
(The text will bring us)
Fluently read the books.
(To the nation’s glorious journey)
May your handwriting be very beautiful,
(To the Great Wall that awes the world)
May your words look like pearls.
(And to the Four Great Inventions [compass, gunpowder, papermaking, printing])

Clearly Ablajan does not need to talk about the importance of correct pronunciation of the Uyghur language to Uyghur kids who speak Uyghur as their native language. Instead, in the Chinese lyrics, Ablajan is emphasizing the assimilationist policies that now dominate Uyghur education. In doing so, he is demonstrating a remarkable deftness in bilingualism. He is telling his potential Uyghur audience and potential state censors what they expect him to say. Thinking in terms of W.E.B. Du Bois, what we see here is the art of double consciousness – of being forced to perform multiple forms of self-expression for multiple audiences.

Yet, perhaps more significantly, Ablajan is also standing against the resurgence of religious education, or the refusal of Uyghur parents to send their children to Chinese-language medium schools. He does this by not mentioning Islam at all, even as it has come to dominate everyday life in Northwest China. The closest he comes to referencing Islamic values is when he admonishes Uyghur children to respect their elders – who he portrays as a white bearded (aq saqal) old man (2:20).

The most explicit reference in the song is still Michael Jackson (2:03). There, in an homage to Jackson’s dance style, he asks Uyghur children to dance with passion like the great pop icon. He is telling the current generation that the way to get through this period of Xinjiang’s history is to throw yourself at life. He is asking Uyghur children to hold onto their values, but to live for a future life in which Uyghurs are recognized on their own terms as self-determined members of the world.

This is how Ablajan sees himself. “I don’t see myself as an ethnic singer,” he said. “I am just a singer. Of course, I am proud of being a Uyghur. And I carry that in my heart all the time. But I don’t see myself as only restricted to ethnic music. I dream of sharing the stage with world-famous singers everywhere.”

Yet despite his disavowal of ethnicity as the primary guide in his music, it is nevertheless impossible not see that he is entangled in a complicated political moment. And it is hard to take him at his word when he says things like, “Actually I am just a singer, not a politician. I only know about music.”

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