Special for The Armenian Weekly
Armenian culture has a historical wealth of musical contributions, but it’s only recently that Armenian influence has spread to the hip-hop genre. Since the early 2000’s, rap artists such as HT Hayko (Hayk Margaryan) have been active in Armenia. In addition to the typical hip-hop subject matter, his songs are often political in nature, documenting the daily struggles and injustice in the Republic.
Following Margaryan’s success, the number of Armenian hip-hop artists has increased both within Armenia and throughout the diaspora, especially on the West Coast of the United States. The 2013 “Armenian Emcee Cypher,” a showcase performance of West Coast Armenian rappers that took place in Los Angeles last summer, featured nine artists: One-2, Pknuckle, Apollo Poetry, Patrick Antonian, BlackJack, Nazo Bravo, A. Chilla, capital Z, and R-Mean. The event was organized by Pentagon Records, a label co-founded by Armenian rapper R-Mean (Armin Hariri) and his producer, and hosted by Los Angeles radio station Power 106’s DJ Vick One. R-Mean is also well known in the Armenian community for his Open Wounds movement seeking recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Nazo Bravo (Naz Aslanian) is another artist for whom the genocide is a frequent theme. His songs “HyePower” and “Killing Fields,” produced by his label MightyHye Records, focus entirely on the Armenian Genocide and the political issues surrounding its recognition.
Born in Los Angeles to Armenian parents, Bravo appears perfectly at home in front of a camera. Maintaining an acting career on the side, he has appeared in a short film, “4 Minutes,” and in several episodes of the Armenian television series, “Dilemma.” His music videos have a uniquely cinematic quality to them, notably his song “James Bond,” an homage to the film series that features numerous clips from various Bond films. The video that accompanies “HyePower” is a dark and hard-hitting reflection, alternating between nightmarish dream sequences to uplifting, powerful scenes celebrating Armenian tenacity in the face of struggle.
The video screened at the Arpa Film Festival, and is dedicated in its final frame to “Victims of the Armenian Genocide and All Other Genocides.” The video is conscious of other genocides throughout, opening with a recording of Adolf Hitler’s 1939 Obersalzberg speech in which he infamously referenced history’s erasure of the Armenian Genocide.
Shortly after, the camera shifts to Bravo sitting in an armchair beside a set of railroad tracks, an open magazine in his lap with a cover photo of Tupac Shakur. A personal friend of the Shakur family, Nazo Bravo is highly aware of the origins of the genre in which he works. “I’ve come across some people who are legends in the game, you know, and I’ve soaked up some advice. I got a chance to meet, several times—and I would say have a relationship with—Tupac’s brother, and spend time with him and his family, and my family… It’s kinda crazy, you know, with Tupac being my biggest inspiration and favorite artist, that was amazing for me to be able to go from listening to someone and them being in this imaginary world at this point cause they passed away, to actually meeting someone who grew up with him and made music with him and kinda was with him along the whole journey.” “HyePower” is a remix of the song “HiiiPoWeR” by Kendrick Lamar, who Bravo also acknowledges as a source of inspiration in the song.
Having worked in the hip-hop industry for the last four years, Bravo describes it as an unregulated, cutthroat milieu. “A lot of people are drawn to music because they think that they will have an easier life if they’re successful as entertainers…but it’s actually one of the most difficult things you can do because everyone’s trying to do it… There’s a lot of traps, there’s a lot of people who wanna just take your money.” Bravo has nonetheless found considerable success. His recent single “Focus” has played on more than 80 radio stations and was featured on the prominent site AllHipHop.com; he also performed it recently on the main stage of the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
Bravo attributes some of his success to the “opening up” of the genre over the past several years, in which rap music has seen many non-traditional newcomers. “The game opened up and there’s all types of rappers now… Since that it’s still difficult but it’s definitely opened up. And the world of hip-hop, all the blogs and the media outlets, they’ve opened up to non-traditional rappers… That’s one of the exciting things about it. It’s a very exciting time right now. I think hip-hop matured a little bit, and you know, especially after certain rappers got killed, they wanted a change… They started bringing different content, different subject matter into the music, and I think that kind of opened up people’s eyes. It kind of pushed the culture forward…”
Initially, Bravo says the reaction of his family and friends to his musical pursuits was mixed, but that has since changed. “There’s definitely been almost a trajectory of acceptance, in different phases. At first it was like, ‘Oh it’s a hobby, that’s cool.’ Then it was, ‘Ok, when are you gonna get over this hobby?’… But after a while they saw that I was doing more and more… Especially with ‘HyePower’… Once I did the video to ‘HyePower,’ that changed everything… Visuals are very important, and I really realize that after ‘HyePower.’ Especially visuals for somebody like me, who’s different.”
Not yet satisfied, Bravo says his ultimate ambition is to be the first Armenian rapper to make it on the Billboard charts and to be the rap equivalent of Serj Tankian’s group System of a Down. In the meantime, the constant refrain of “Ayoooooooo!” in his songs serves as a call to all Armenians, and an introduction to the rest of the world.
Meanwhile in Germany, brothers Vahe and Ashot Akopian have been recording rap tracks since 2003 under the name “Armenios.” Based out of Koblenz, their songs appear in both German and Armenian, sometimes as a mixture of both. Like Nazo Bravo, the brothers began as fans of the genre and eventually felt compelled to make their own contributions to it. It was after Vahe survived accidental electrocution in 2003 that the brothers decided to make their hip-hop ambitions a reality. Vahe has gone by the moniker “15Volt” ever since.
Their songs are characterized by their distinctively deep voices and strong bass beats. Ashot’s professional background is in audio, while Vahe works in video production, expertise that has been very useful in their musical career. Their videos typically feature shots of the urban landscape interspersed with scenes of the brothers rapping. Their songs address themes of “politics, Armenian identity, and hope.”
The Akopian brothers were among the first artists to rap in Armenian, beginning as they did in 2003, around the same time as HT Hayko. The idea of Armenian hip-hop was a very new one at the time, and the brothers recall that it was “…unaccustomed for many to hear rap in Armenian.” Their early entrance into the genre is even more notable given their location in Germany. But in spite of their unlikely setting, “People very quickly identified with our music. The family, to be honest, did react a bit skeptically, they had never responded to this genre. But with time, they came to really enjoy our music. Among our friends, everyone was listening to us.” Later on, Vahe was featured in the song “Rap Drive By” by Illem, an Armenian rapper in California.
The goal of their music is to “Share our thoughts with the listener. We call on our people to stick together, to respect and to love each other… For us it’s always important to remember our roots, because in a strange land there is a big chance that you may forget your own identity. But it’s also not wrong to learn positive things from living abroad.”
Indeed, the immigrant experience is a recurring theme in their songs. The 2009 song “La Cosa Koblenziana,” in particular, paints a dark picture of immigrant life; the lyrics in German translate to, “Immigrant where are you going?/[Anti-immigrant slur] What are you looking at?/Here you better watch where you spit/The people are kind here, but not to everyone/We aren’t popular, and we’ll never be loved.” Ashot reflected, “As an immigrant, it’s generally always difficult. We definitely had some very hard times.”
Ultimately, however, the Armenios songs leave a powerful impression of hope and pride in the face of adversity. Their 2008 song, “Alles Für Die Brüder” (“Everything For The Brothers”), ends its final verse with the lines, “I grew up here/But wasn’t born here/Later came to Germany and have lost something here/…We all come from different families/But have the same heart/My country, my pride: Armenia.”