When you feel alone,
You can breathe with the world.
Just keep our rhythm,
One love, one rhythm.
In 2015, Kazakhstan’s music scene was transformed by the appearance of the scandalous Q-pop band Ninety One. It was a real breath of fresh air. The band immediately gained huge popularity, and its first music video led the local chart, Gakku Top Ten, for twenty weeks. However, the group also faced an immense backlash for its unconventional looks, sound, song themes, and similarities to South Korea’s K-pop.
How did such a genre—whose name comes from the local word for Kazakhstan, Qazaqstan—become popular in a predominantly Muslim post-Soviet Central Asian country, and what kind of social discourse did it produce?
The collapse of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan’s newly gained independence resulted in an influx of foreign cultural products and their gradual localisation. One such product was South Korean pop culture, which began spreading in the early 2000s. The Korean wave started with TV dramas and gradually shifted to K-pop, the genre of South Korean popular music that became a global phenomenon.
In Kazakhstan, social media played a huge role in shaping and mobilising the local fan base. There are many communities dedicated to Korean pop culture, including K-pop dance cover groups, which perform the dance routines of famous K-pop bands.
The localisation of K-pop
By 2015, a considerable K-pop fan base had emerged in Kazakhstan. Local producers Yerbolat and Yesbolat Bedelkhan cleverly targeted that audience and created Q-pop, as exemplified by the band Ninety One. The name was a homage to the year of Kazakhstan’s independence. Q-pop has many similarities to K-pop: both are characterised by danceable rhythms, catchy melodies, and a mixture of Western musical genres like rap, R&B, hip-hop, and reggae.
Despite the cultural differences between South Korea and Kazakhstan, Q-pop performers largely re-created K-pop stars’ distinctive appearance, dance moves, fashion choices, and music video styles. However, they regionalised the music by singing in Kazakh and dealing with topics relevant to local youth, to make themselves suitable for the region.
In March 2018, during an interview on local music TV channel Gakku, Yerbolat Bedelkhan described Q-pop as ‘something that comes from within the youth. We bring up things that are happening among the youth, even some social themes, and show it in musical form.’ Ninety One sings about depression, insecurity, integrity, self-expression, and being true to oneself, which resonates with many young people.
The controversy of Q-pop
The new Q-pop band made headlines by singing about controversial social issues. In a traditional Central Asian country, Ninety One adopted an alternative image of masculinity that included wearing make-up, earrings, and androgynous clothes as well as dying their hair. According to the producer, the band was accused of breaking religious norms and family values, promoting a non-traditional sexual orientation, and endorsing foreign culture.
In the first year of the band’s existence, there was a huge organised hater base, which consisted mostly of young men who demanded the cancellation of the group’s concerts. The hater base argued that the band ‘contradicts our traditions’ and that ‘their clothing and behaviour is not suitable for Kazakh men’. This controversy was much discussed in the news; in the film about the band, Ninety One, which premiered in 2017; and in the documentary Men Sen Emes, released in summer 2019.
In 2018, Ninety One band member Dulat Mukhametkali became a spokesman of Jas Otan, a youth wing of the ruling political party, Nur Otan. During a meeting of Jas Otan, the band performed and Mukhametkali made a speech suggesting that Q-pop had the potential to become a huge business for Kazakhstan, just as K-pop had become a business for South Korea. He also addressed the cancellation of the band’s concerts, saying, ‘Several cities [suggested] that singing, presenting a show, being a real modern artist is not suitable for a Kazakh of the twenty-first century. At that time we faced a stereotype that the twenty-first century and the Kazakh mentality [and] culture are incompatible. I completely disagree with that. Being uncultured is not suitable for a Kazakh, but being modern is.’ The band had exposed the clash between modernity and tradition in Kazakhstani society.
Ninety One raised the bar for high-quality, Kazakh-language cultural products. Arguably, the band has helped promote Kazakh among the youth, created slang terms, and enriched the language’s vocabulary. The band members say they even receive messages in Kazakh from their audiences around the world. The group’s fan base grows day by day, and there are now almost twenty other Q-pop bands. Similar K-pop-inspired music has become popular in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan as well. Each year, Yerbolat Bedelkhan’s production company organises Q-pop music festivals, where multiple Central Asian Q-pop artists perform.
Today there are no longer protests against the band, and the negativity towards it has significantly decreased. The band members claim that this is because Kazakhstan’s youth have become more liberated. However, it could also be because audiences have started to appreciate the group’s high-quality content, regular concerts, and live performances, and the topics of their songs. One thing is for sure: Ninety One is becoming popular not only in the region but also internationally.
Merey Otan holds a master’s degree in Eurasian studies and is a lecturer at M. Kh. Dulaty Taraz State University in Taraz, Kazakhstan.