The Ninety One Series |||

Part 10: Ninety One as Nazarbayevean Realists

How an idol-pop group in a country with no freedom of speech might still have something to say.

Image of ZaQ with an eagle from the “Men Emes” MV

By this point you’ve sampled quite a bit of Ninety One’s oeuvre. You’ve seen them be goofy and defiant, and anguished, and uncertain to nearly the point of despair, and resolute, and sexually frustrated, and concerned primarily with having a good candy time, and politically ambivalent. With the exception of Ah! Yah! Mah!” way back in Part 1, however, you have not seen them flex. And now Ninety One is going to flex, in classic idol-pop style. It is time for suits, and sponsorships (Samsung, this time), and expensive cars turning circles for no good reason whatsoever, and music video sets being partially on fire for no good reason whatsoever, and young women lying around in less-than-standard amounts of clothing for no good reason whatsoever. It is time for Men Emes,” the first single off of last year’s EP of the same name.1

This is the rare case of the guys themselves being less interesting than the props they’ve surrounded themselves with.2 And it is with those props that we’ll start. Because this is also the rare case of an idol-pop group including a few historical associations with all that flexing.

Let’s start with Alem showing off some presumably expensive sculpture:

Image of Alem with his hand on top of a small stone head mounted on a pedestal

Only that’s not just any presumably expensive sculpture–it’s almost certainly not even expensive: it’s a reproduction of an 8th-century statue that, if my understanding is correct, is in the collection of the National Museum of Mongolia in Ulaanbataar. The person depicted is Kul Tigin3, a prince and successful general who lived from 684 to 731 CE, the time of the Second Turkic Khaganate, which is to say a time when a bunch of different groups retrospectively known as Turkic roughly banded together and controlled an area greater than that of Tang Dynasty China to the south.4 One of the earliest known monuments of Old Turkic rune writing is a three-and-a-half-meter-high stele memorial commemorating Kul Tigin’s accomplishments in the defense of Turkic rule.5 The most populous modern-day peoples that describe themselves as Turkic are the Turks, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Uyghurs, Turkmens, Tatars, and Kyrgyz. In other words, Alem is casually showing off a symbol of pan-Turkic pride.

The nods to Kazakh traditions continue throughout the video. ZaQ starts his first rap with Nomads are here!” and delivers all of his lines while standing in a yurt, the portable round houses that Central Asian nomadic groups used for approximately three thousand years. He and AZ both have harnessed eagles, a reference to a long traditional form of hunting.6 Bala leads around a tazy, a now-endangered dog breed native to Kazakhstan, while the runes behind him read QAZAQ.” And then there’s the photograph mounted on the wall behind Alem:

Image of Alem sitting behind a desk, feet propped up, with an early 20th-century picture of a group of men in suits behind him

Keep that photograph in mind; we’re going to return to it. For now let’s pick up a thread ZaQ drops: My misery is my people moving slowly like a snail.


Before debut (and Ace’s arrival) the group was known as KTI Boys. The name Ninety One was chosen in honor of the year 1991, a birth year—not of any of the members themselves but of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which was officially formed on December 16, 1991. Yerbolat Bedelkhan chose the name to reflect that the group was made up entirely of Kazakhstanis who had been born into this new republic, who had no possibility of remembering Soviet times, who represented an independent country’s future. The members of Ninety One are part of what is now being referred to as the Nazarbayev generation,” the first group to grow up under the reign of the republic of Kazakhstan’s first president.7

It is impossible to talk about Kazakhstan’s experience as a post-Soviet independent country without talking about Nazarbayev, who until he stepped down in March 2019 was the only president the republic had ever had. He remains head of Nur Otan, which is Kazakhstan’s only political party allowed to actually exercise any power, and retains the self-bestowed title of Elbasy, which very roughly translates into leader of the nation,” only this leadership position is non-transferable. In his honor, Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana—which was basically created out of nonexistence by Nazarbayev in the late 1990s, by the way—was officially renamed Nur-Sultan.8 Says his official website, elbasy.kz: It can be said without exaggeration that all modern successes and achievements of Kazakhstan are directly related to the activities of the country’s main party and its leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev.”

Another perk that Nazarbayev received upon retirement was lifelong immunity from legal prosecution for himself and his family. This is no small thing, given how many millions of dollars the Nazarbayev clan is believed to have hoovered up. The assets of Dariga Nazarbayeva, Nazarbayev’s daughter, were estimated at over half a billion dollars seven years ago, and have hardly diminished since then, especially given her offshore holdings in Kazakhstani sugar factories as revealed in the infamous Panama Papers. Her assets also reportedly include a great deal of expensive London real estate, including 221B Baker Street. Earlier this year a British high court ruled against the British government’s efforts to get Nurali Aliyev, Dariga Nazarbayeva’s son (and president of Nurbank, one of Kazakhstan’s biggest private banks), to explain how he accumulated enough money to buy an underground-pool-equipped London mansion worth an estimated $104 million. Meanwhile, Dinara Kulibaeva, Dariga’s sister, and her husband are presently believed to be worth about $3 billion, with their assets largely in banks and oil wells.

In short, Nazarbayev is a tinpot dictator, who adds insult to injury by insisting that Kazakhstanis revere him even as he picks their pockets. He has a better international reputation than that for a couple of reasons. One is that, relative to all the other tinpot Central Asian post-Soviet dictators—including Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, known for boiling people alive, or Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, who banned dogs from the capital and required anyone taking a driving test to read his autobiography—Nazarbayev seemed decidedly the lesser evil. Another is that the Kazakhstan of the early 1990s neither collapsed into civil war nor got swallowed up by Russia, both of which were real risks. The new country had 125 different ethnic groups, including a large Russian minority that had not necessarily ever planned to live in an independent Kazakhstan, and an economy not designed to function outside the Soviet system: in the first few years it cratered, with inflation over 1,000% in 1994.9 Nazarbayev can fairly claim that things could have been worse.

One could say that what kept Kazakhstan together, and also what plagues it now, is that it became a democracy without having any actual democrats at the helm. It was actually the last of the former Soviet Socialist Republics to declare its independence. Nazarbayev had worked his way up through the Soviet system, joining the Communist Party of Kazakhstan in 1962 and being named its leader in 1989. He was close to Mikhail Gorbachev: as the coup attempt of August 1991 was breaking down and Gorbachev was able to get back on the phone, Nazarbayev was one of the first people he called.10 As head of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, Nazarbayev agitated for greater autonomy, but that doesn’t mean he wanted to see the whole system collapse. He did not so much abandon Soviet methods of repression and control as localize and personalize them.

And so the history of the Nazarbayev regime is one of gradually increasing repression and squeezing out of any political power that is not Nazarbayev, or any public opinion that might not be completely worshipful of Elbasy.11 One former opposition leader, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, was assassinated in 2006; another, Mukhtar Ablyazov12, has been granted political asylum in France; and anyone in Kazakhstan believed to be (or simply conveniently accused of being) sympathetic to his Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party is in high danger of arrest and jail time. Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Information and Communication, created in 2016, controls journalist accreditations, ensuring that the only media most Kazakhstanis get access to is that which flatters the state. This summer a Kazakhstani TV journalist, Erbol Mandibek, publicly quit his job; he told Radio Liberty that all editorial decisions for Qazaqstan, the channel he worked for, were made by state government.13 Public protests need permits to be allowed, which means in practice they are pretty much always illegal. On the rare occasion that they happen anyway, they are met with mass arrests, as happened in the spring of 2019, or outright violence, as in Zhanaosen in western Kazakhstan, where oil workers went on strike in 2011 to protest for better working conditions; at least 14 were shot.14

Through it all, Kazakhstan continued to have elections, of a sort. In 1999 Nazarbayev won re-election with a reported 80% of the vote; by 2005 his share had increased to 91%. Zamanbek Nurkadilov, who had been mayor of Almaty under Nazarbayev before resigning from the government and becoming a critic, was supposed to challenge Nazarbayev in the latter, but he mysteriously committed suicide” by shooting himself twice in the chest and once in the head less than a month before the vote.15


For an idol-pop group, Ninety One’s discography is oddly lacking in reassurances. They have plenty of songs that fit into the idol-pop mold without much trouble, as we’ve seen, such as E.Yeah” and Bayau” and the kiss-off song Sau bol and the prom song Koilek and the enjoyably tropical-house-influenced O_o.” But a good many of their songs are neither confined to concerns of love and sex nor optimistic about the future. Think the corrosive despair of Yeski Taspa Bii’,” or the laments and decidedly modest hopes of Mooz,” or the even greater uncertainty of Why’m.” Or Olar,” the final song of the Men Emes EP, in which a low, distorted voice (AZs, I think) mutters Seek, seek, have enough faith and you will find the truth, then gives way to Alem’s near-whisper and Ace’s near-wail.16

Idol pop is supposed to be escapist, full of youth and energy, suffused with hope. That’s why AKB48 encouraged its Japanese audience to put its collective national grief and fear aside in favor of disco dancing, and why a veteran Korean idol group such as Super Junior will encourage its audience to stop paying attention to bad news and have fun instead. And it’s why most idol pop is primarily preoccupied with falling in love, or being in love, or being reassuring about love, or lamenting lost love. What adversities there might be are described as vaguely as possible, and met by expressions of confidence.17

As such aspiring idol-pop stars usually don’t expect to be Rage Against the Machine, and aspiring Tom Morellos generally don’t enter idol pop. Songs with overt political commentary are rare. When the Korean group f(x) presented the dystopian single Red Light,” it took over a year for songwriters to confirm that the lyrics were related to the infamous sinking of the Sewol in the spring of 2014. Am I Wrong,” generally regarded as BTSs most blatant act of political criticism, was presented as a cheery dance number.

And then there’s Bari Biled,” the second single from Men Emes.

Now, idol pop can get away with political commentary if said commentary is vague and universalist enough to be hard to pin against any one particular politician or group: think of Justin Timberlake, only a couple years removed from *NSYNC, crooning the chorus on the Black Eyed Peas’s Where Is the Love?” which complains that the whole world’s addicted to the drama.” At first glance Bari Biled” looks similarly toothless. Its main concerns seem to be littering, depression, and hair-chalk-wearing children getting upset. AZs and ZaQ’s raps are both carefully general, with AZ mutter-yelping in his usual style about Mother Earth having rights and ZaQ concluding with the assertion that seven billion makes one nation.” True, his section does reference freedom of speech—“‘What’s the point of freedom?’ say the lips that never tasted it”—while actors remove the duct tape from their mouths. But Kazakhstani officialdom (whose recent track record includes detaining a person for holding up a blank piece of paper, and jailing an activist for two months and eventually sentencing her to 18 months’ limited freedom for knocking a policeman’s hat off his head) has apparently been perfectly fine with Ninety One performing Bari Biled” at official concerts.

And yet there are plenty of hints that the critique of Bari Biled” is more specific, if one cares to look for them. Alem’s sequences, for example: youth suicide is a long-standing problem in Kazakhstan).18 Or the mushroom clouds:

Image of Ace standing in front of a stack of TVs, several of them showing mushroom clouds

If your universal appeal is meant to be about general environmental trauma—which would explain the use of stock footage of belching smokestacks, benighted beaches, and an Italian climate-change protest—then the emphasis on mushroom clouds seems a little odd, outdated. We simply don’t fear nuclear-bomb explosions as massive environmental crimes as much as we did in the 1970s and 1980s. There are exceptions to the rule, and one of them is Semey, a city in northeastern Kazakhstan.19 Known in Soviet times as Semipalatinsk, it stands about 120 kilometers (about 74 miles) from the USSRs nuclear testing site, named the polygon,” where some 456 bombs were detonated between 1949 and 1989. The result was, unsurprisingly, elevated levels of cancer (a 2008 study found the risk of contracting thyroid cancer was 25% higher for those living near the testing site than elsewhere in Kazakhstan) and birth defects, in addition to large swathes of irradiated land. (Lavrentiy Beria, who was heading the Soviet atomic-bomb project in 1947, chose the site in part because it was uninhabited.”20) It is now possible to go to the polygon as part of a tour group, wearing protective clothing, and visit the Museum of the Test Site, which features displays of deformed animals.

Talking about the destruction of the polygon isn’t necessarily anti-establishment, not in the Kazakhstani context. One of Nazarbayev’s first prominent acts as head of the Kazakh SSR was to declare a moratorium on testing in the polygon, and since Kazakhstan became independent he has occasionally returned to the theme of Kazakhstan as victim of and crusader against nuclear violence. A commemorative ceremony in Semey in 2009 featured Nazarbayev declaring that Kazkahstan had earned the absolute historic and moral right to act as one of the leaders of the world anti-nuclear movement,” while crowd organizers encouraged chants of Kazakhstan! Nursultan! Semey! Otan!”21

But: the Kazakhstani context, is the point. All along this group has been trying to take part in a global pop genre while keeping in as much of their local context as they could manage. Hence writing songs in Kazakh, when English or Russian would seemingly give them more of an audience. Hence Ah! Yah! Mah!” includes the galloping of horses’ hooves and Nice Weather,” from the most recent EP, ends with a dombra. Hence they went, however ambivalently, out to the steppe in Why’m.” Hence they sprinkle their songs with references to Kazakhstani folklore.22 And hence even their seemingly universalist laments are rooted in the context of their country and its particular troubles, however vaguely or subtly referenced.

By the way: ZaQ is from Semey.


I haven’t given you quite enough context, though.

Pop stars in Japan and Korea have enough trouble expressing political opinions, and they at least get to work in functioning democracies. There is no country worse than Japan in terms of artists, actors and athletes who don’t talk about politics,” wrote soccer player and coach Keisuke Honda, in response to a controversial bill before the Diet that had attracted an unusual amount of criticism from celebrities, followed by a more-usual backlash to the celebrities’ daring to comment. But at least there’s no evidence in Japan of a government-kept blacklist of outspoken artists, as there was in Korea between 2008 and 2015, under successive presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. One idol group, 24K, made the list—and subsequently got frozen out of appearing on state-owned TV networks—for singing on behalf of the campaign of then-opposition candidate and now-president Moon Jae-in.

This is the downside of the Korean state’s support of idol pop and cultural exports more generally: what the state gives, the state can take away. But even at its most intrusive and demanding, the Korean state has nothing on the Kazakhstani one as Nazarbayev constructed it. In addition to turning good portions of Kazakhstan’s GDP into his children’s personal fortunes, Nazarbayev also made a very rich man of his younger brother Bolat. In the United States, Bolat is best known for having prolonged fights with his ex-wife over multimillion-dollar properties in New York and Miami. But in Almaty, according to Radio Liberty, he’s known for demanding kickbacks on most commercial activity, including the entire entertainment industry. Yes, I said the entire entertainment industry.

Bolat Nazarbayev reportedly has more than twenty wives of various degrees of legitimacy. Unsurprisingly, he has a few children. You do not need a deep knowledge of Kazakhstani politics to figure out that what Bolat Nazarbayev’s children want, Bolat Nazarbayev’s children are probably going to get.23 And one of said children decided she wanted to become a pop star. And at some point, in some fashion, this desire was communicated to Juz Entertainment.

Alba ended up releasing four singles over the course of a year; of those one had music co-written by Bala and another had lyrics by ZaQ and music co-written by Alem. She got the full star treatment, including an eight-episode slice-of-life series. What she apparently didn’t get was the advice to keep the evidence of her father’s and uncle’s grift as much off camera as possible: a lot of said series is Alba filming in her marble-walled bathroom or her Oriental-rug-and-flat-screen-TV-equipped bedroom. How much did your father help your initial success?” an offscreen interviewer asked her in the first episode. At the beginning,” she replied. Later I took up the reins.” (She was fifteen at the time of the interview. Poor kid.)

It did not work out; Yerbolat Bedelkhan was only willing to commit to a one-year contract24, and Alba, according to her Instagram, is now at performing-arts school in England. Whether or not she has the skill and tenacity to support a long-run musical career, and whether anyone in Almaty thought she had the skill and tenacity to support a long-run musical career, is impossible to determine under the circumstances. It also doesn’t make much sense to talk about whether Juz Entertainment, and Ninety One, worked with her grudgingly or enthusiastically. The request was coming from a bunch of murderous thugs with the power of the state behind them. How could Ninety One have said no?


In the year since Bari Biled” was released, Kazakhstan’s fortunes have not improved. The economy was already faring poorly before the pandemic hit—ZaQ rapped about the value of the tenge dropping in Lie” for a reason—and the need for two separate lockdowns, the cessation of international flights (including to Russia), and the drop in oil prices have all made things considerably worse. The World Bank is calling the pandemic the worst shock to Kazakhstan’s system in two decades.25 Coronavirus has shown,” a Kazakhstani political scientist told Radio Attazyq, that we have no economy, no effective state apparatus, no reserves and no healthcare system.”

And then there is the question of Nazarbayev: retired but not out of power, absent but present. He has spent most of 2020, including Kazakhstan’s various lockdowns, off-camera, reportedly catching and recovering from coronavirus himself. How much power his hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has is anyone’s guess. Even seasoned commentators are largely reduced to reading tea leaves, such as when Dariga Nazarbayeva was abruptly removed from her position as chair of Kazakhstan’s Senate this past May. There’s some speculation that Tokayev is trying to carve out his own style of rule, without doing much to make Kazakhstan freer or more transparent, and that this fall’s unrest in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan is making Kazakhstani officials nervous. But no one can say for certain, just as no one can say for certain what will happen to the country’s political and administrative functioning once Nazarbayev, who is 80, dies.

All of this would be more tolerable if Kazakhstan were continuing the growth in economic activity and quality of life Nazarbayev managed to pull off for the first couple decades of his post-Soviet rule. And it would be less tolerable if there was an obvious alternative. But even the most committed democrat put in charge would still share borders with the Russia of Vladimir Putin, with his long track record of encouraging Russian separatist movements in former Soviet states26, and the China of Xi Jinping, who would not at all welcome a Kazakhstan where people had greater leeway to speak their minds. (One of the rare recent mass protests that happened outside Almaty, in Atyrau in 2016, was sparked by beliefs that the Kazakhstani government was unfairly scooping up land to sell to the Chinese.)27

And even without that set of pressures, there would still be the essential questions: what is Kazakhstan? What should its economy look like, and its social infrastructure? What binds the people who lives within its borders together? Nazarbayev answered the question by writing his own name in the answer blank, and has spent a great deal of energy since 1991 insisting that his is the only correct answer. And in doing so he has made it that much harder for anyone else to solve the problems he will leave behind.

In this, I think, lies the explanation for Ninety One’s unsually gloomy discography. The late music critic Mark Fisher wrote a book called Capitalist Realism28, in which he argued that pop culture had been so thoroughly crippled by capitalism as to be unable to imagine alternative systems. What we are dealing with now,” he wrote, is a deeper, far more pervasive, sense of exhaustion, of cultural and political sterility.” Along those lines, Ninety One are Nazarbayevean realists. They don’t talk hopefully about the future because the country they love, and want to represent, isn’t allowed to have one.


The research so far suggests that the Nazarbayev Generation is not exactly a force of seething discontent. A series of polls of Kazakhstanis conducted in 2012 found that younger respondents were more in favor of economic liberalism, but less interested in democracy and less bothered by political nepotism than their elders.29 They could be represented by the 23-year-old who chatted with Joanna Lillis at a trendy Almaty café in 2014: I voted for our president, of course. I looked at his track record and what he’s done for the country…. We’ve been progressing very well all this time, thank God.”30

There are exceptions: the group Oyan, Qazaqstan!, which formed last May and advocates the formation of a parliamentary republic with freedom of speech and assembly, is often referred to as a youth movement”. Oyan, Qazaqstan! translates as Wake up, Kazakhstan!” The group took its name from a famous book of poetry, Oyan, Qazaq!, published in 1909 and written by the Kazakh writer Mirjaqyp Dulatuli.31

You likely haven’t heard of Dulatuli before—but you have seen him. Remember that photograph I told you we’d get back to?

Image of ten men dressed formally, five standing and five sitting, in two rows looking at the camera.
I believe Dulatuli is in white (source: Wikimedia Commons)

It was taken in 1918, in now-Semey, then-Semipalatinsk, which just the previous year had been declared the capital of a new, independent Kazakhstan. The group who sat for the photograph included Dulatuli and his friends Akhmet Baitursynov and Alikhan Bokikhanov; together, five years earlier, they had founded the independent newspaper Qazaq, one of the first newspapers to be published in Kazakh. And together, they helped form the political party Alash, which hoped to establish the Alash Autonomy, a government of the Kazakh region by and for the Kazakh peoples.

Dulatuli, Baitursynov, Bokikhanov, and their peers grew up not in a clearly defined Kazakhstan but in a region that was under Czarist Russian control, the culmination of a slow and not always coordinated process of military conquest and colonization that began under Peter the Great and solidified after the death of Kenesary Khan, he of the disputed head, in 1847. By the 1880s the Kazakhs were under the control of a Russian government that regarded them as primitive and contemptible.32 Dulatuli, Baitursynov, and Bokikhanov were three of the most prominent of the Kazakh intellectuals trying to figure out how to win greater autonomy and make a better situation for Kazakhs. They were interested in promoting Qazaqtyq—“Kazakhness”—in the face of both the traditional historical divisions and the Russian government who neither recognized nor respected those divisions.33

Now, the Alash members were not reflexively conservative. They thought of themselves as Westernizers” and made distinctions between those Kazakh traditions they thought particularly valuable and necessary to the survival of the general culture, such as the Kazakh language or the use of poetry to convey ideas and contribute to dialogues, and those which they no longer saw as vital, such as the nomadic lifestyle.34 The Alash members were arguing that a Kazakh nation could be Westernized” in some respects but still be Kazakh; could benefit from technical progress (a theme in Oyan, Qazaq!) without losing an essential Kazakh identity—in fact could use technical progress to enhance their Kazakh identity. Their approach was similar to that of the New Culture Movement developing in China at the same time, in which Chinese intellectuals combined an interest in ideas introduced by Western sources, including democracy, with a renewed appreciation for local folklore.

After Czar Nicholas II resigned in 1917, ending the Romanov dynasty and the Russian monarchy, Alash seized the moment, declaring an independent state. The moment did not last very long: in the ensuing civil wars, Alash had few resources to keep its new power, and by 1920 a Soviet republic had been established on what is now Kazakhstan.35 Alash was not initially anti-Bolshevik—Baitursynov was writing relatively friendly, if wary, letters to Lenin in 1920—but the Bolsheviks turned anti-Alash: there was no place for Kazakh nationalism in the new united Soviet system. By 1938 Dulatuli, Baitursynov, and Bokeikhanov were all dead, the first dying in a hard-labor camp, the latter two shot by firing squad. Wrote Mambet Koigeldiev, a Kazakhstani historian: …the pre-revolutionary national elite was destroyed, both in the literal sense and in terms of what they stood for, by the very government in which a long-suffering nation had placed its hopes.”36

Which is of a piece: for as badly as the Romanovs treated the Kazakhs, the Soviet government was worse. It was not just the suppression of the Kazakh language in favor of Russian and the dictating of what could be taught in Kazakh schools, which had begun in the nineteenth century (though arguably the Romanovs’ administrators were more lenient in that respect).37 It was the violent enforcement—Koigeldiev estimates that between 1929 and 1933, some 3,000 people were shot after trial by the OGPU, the precursor the the KGB, and another 13,000 put in concentration camps—and the whole-scale resettling, in which individuals or entire populations thought politically troublesome could be shipped to the Kazakh SSR. And the presence of the gulag: there were 11 different camps in present-day Kazakhstan that made up part of the gulag network; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, future author of The Gulag Archipelago, was imprisoned near Karaganda. And the destruction of the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world, drained by Soviet irrigation projects to 10% of its former size. And the previously mentioned rampant nuclear testing. Oh, and did I mention the famine? There was famine: it lasted from 1930 to 1933, and can be blamed entirely on Stalin’s insistence on collective farming, and killed 1.5 million people, or a quarter of the Kazakh population at the time.38 Whatever the Alash group had planned for an independent Kazakhstan, it’s hard to imagine they would have moved so quickly and easily to such callous, deadly, destructive overreach.

It stands to reason that the post-Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan would regard the Alash members differently than did the Soviet government. And to some degree, Dulatuli, Baitursynov, Bokeikhanov, and their peers have been recognized for their efforts, memorialized in stamps and statues and street names. My first guess, upon seeing the Men Emes” video, was to think the Alash photograph on par with American iconography of the Founding Fathers, such as Turnbull’s Declaration of Independence or Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. We’ve already established that Ninety One are Kazakhstani patriots; it would make sense for them to use imagery that their Kazakhstani viewers would see and instantly recognize as a celebration of an independent state.

Only I was wrong.39 Alash and its members are recognized in Kazakhstan, but not nearly to the same degree as the United States’s Founding Fathers, or determined self-determinists in other countries, such as Bolívar or Italy’s Garibaldi or Mexico’s Miguel Hidalgo. The Alash movement is taught in schools, but apparently not strongly emphasized as a point of national pride. Admittedly, the difference might lie in Alash’s inability to hold on to the independent state they created for more than a couple of years. But also: a narrative that lionizes the Alash members is also a narrative where the drive for Kazakhstani independence and the modern self-sufficiency of the Kazakh people begins in the 1890s—which is to say, well before Nursultan Nazarbayev entered the historical picture.

In other words, to talk about Alash is to conceptualize a modern, democratic Kazakhstan separate from Nazarbayev: to find an alternative to Nazarbayevean realism. This is probably why the protesters of 2019 drew from Dulatuli’s Oyan, Qazaq! to name their movement. And in putting Alash together with the bust of Kul Tigin and the runes and the eagles and the tazy, Ninety One is claiming modern democratic thought as a homegrown Kazakh, and Kazakhstani, tradition, and claiming space for themselves—performers, performing largely for teenagers, singing and dancing and wearing eyeliner—in said tradition.

Picture of a Twitter exchange in which Fatima Bile writes, “YO ZAQ. What’s one thing you love about Eaglez?” and ZaQ answers, “Freedom”
(by the way the Eaglez talking to ZaQ here is Fatima Bile, a.k.a. Ami B, who was one of the first people I know of to post Ninety One reaction videos; I interviewed her in 2017)

I have been talking about power this whole time, trying to poke beneath the top fluffy layer of idol-pop music, at heart uncomfortable with the idea that something so conspicuously consuming, so invested in appearances, so eyelinered, so silly, so juvenile could have power. Surely we had to talk around idol pop, to poke at what its performers or fans might be doing when they’re not performing or listening, to decode and classify, because it seemed embarrassing to suggest that the act of performing idol pop could be worthwhile, full stop. Maybe I’ve been wrong all this time. Maybe Ninety One has known better all this time.

You know what? We need to wrap this up.


Back to Part 9: Ninety One Went to Xinjiang

On to Part 11: Conclusion



  1. Last obscene pun of the series: AZs first two lines apparently are constructed to contain the Kazakh equivalent of sit on my dick.”

  2. Credit to Q for Qazaq for introducing me to a lot of the background I’ll be discussing here, in their original discussion of Men Emes”; see also the follow-up post on Old Turkic rune writing.

  3. Also sometimes romanized as Költegin.

  4. The Second Turkic Khaganate was succeeded by the Uyghur Khaganate, which itself was in power for about a century. In 2019 China’s State Information Council Office published a white paper claiming that the Uyghur Khaganate was only able to take power with the help of the Tang, and that after the fall of the Second Turkic Khaganate, Ever since the Turks have disappeared from China’s northern regions.” Wikipedia’s page on the Uyghur Khaganate, presumably not written by China’s State Information Council Office, tells a different story.

  5. See this translation, published by Abai Kazakh National Pedagogical University and Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Culture and Information. An excerpt: You, Turkish [read: Turkic] and Oguz lords and peoples, hear this! If the sky above did not collapse, and if the earth below did not go away, what could destroy your state and power? О Turkish people, regret and repent!”

  6. There’s an additional sentimental interpretation: Men Emes” is the only Ninety One single both written and composed by AZ and ZaQ, and the video suggests that fans—Eaglez—are standing by them.

  7. See the book The Nazarbayev Generation: Youth in Kazakhstan, edited by Marlene Laruelle (Lexington Books, 2019).

  8. From everything I’ve read, you can keep on calling the city Astana” in casual conversation without fear of reprisal. I thought about getting cute for this series and calling it The Capital Formerly Known as Astana, but actually astana is the Kazakh word for capital city,” so the joke, in addition to being unoriginal, doesn’t actually work.

  9. See Joanna Lillis’s Dark Shadows, Chapter 1: Arise, Kazakhstan!” Also: remember when I said Ace, Alem, and AZ were all 22 when Aiyptama” was released in 2015, and thus were all born in 1993? Imagine yourself in a situation where a $5 item now costs $5,000, and then you try buying diapers.

  10. The story is from William Taubman, Gorbachev: His Life and Times (W.W. Norton and Company, 2017), Chapter 17: The Coup: August 1991.” The other people Gorbachev was calling at the time were Boris Yeltsin, Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk, and American president George H. W. Bush.

  11. Again, see Dark Shadows: Nazarbayevean repression is the topic of the book’s first third.

  12. It’s a long story, but Ablyazov, a former head of the Kazakhstani bank BTA, has been accused of stealing millions from said bank, and possibly furrowed some of the money to Trump-owned properties.

  13. For more background on the Qazaqstan channel (and its tendency to run pro-Nazarbayev, pro-state, anti-protest content), see Issatay Minuarov, Understanding Tazabek, a Kazakh Islamic Celebrity,” The Diplomat, October 27, 2020.

  14. Lillis covers the Zhanaosen massacre in Dark Shadows, Chapter 4, Fault Lines in the Feel-Good Factor.” By the way, at the time Nazarbayev was employing Tony Blair Associates as a PR firm; Tony Blair himself gave Nazarbayev advice on how to talk to the Western media in early 2012, writing, …but in any event these events, tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made.”

  15. See the respective Wikipedia pages for the 1999 and 2005 elections.

  16. The translation (of the line that starts around 1:02) was posted in the YouTube comments (by a translator who went by Haru), but has since been deleted.

  17. From reading (fellow Singles Jukebox writer’s) Ryo Miyauchi’s work I get the impression that Japanese idol pop has a wider range of potential subjects, and more room for the lyrics to present dilemmas related to the idols’ actual experiences—songs about being worried about growing older, for example, or songs that function as a meta-commentary on the group’s trajectory.

  18. Kazakhstan’s suicide rate in general since 1990 has been higher than that of the world average, the United States, or even its fellow Central Asian former Soviet states: see this comparative graph from Our World in Data. Again, credit to Q for Qazaq for drawing attention to this point.

  19. This paragraph draws largely from Chapter 24 of Dark Shadows. See also this 2018 Al-Jazeera special report.

  20. If you’ve seen the 2017 black-comic movie The Death of Stalin, Beria is the repellent figure played brilliantly by Simon Russell Beale, and if anything the movie soft-pedals how awful he was. And if you haven’t seen The Death of Stalin, you should. As of this writing, it’s still banned in multiple countries, including Kazakhstan.

  21. The rally is described in Dark Shadows, which translates otan as fatherland.”

  22. In addition to ZaQ’s invocation of Aldar Kose in All I Need,” the song Sol Ui,” from AZs mixtape, contains the line Let’s not argue like Birzhan and Sara,” a reference to a nineteenth-century aitys (performed verbal duel) which later inspired a 1946 opera by Mukan Tulebaev. Credit to translator Didi for her translation and for highlighting the reference; for more on aitys and women performing as bards in Central Asia more generally, see the liner notes to the 2007 CD Bardic Divas: Women’s Voices in Central Asia, produced by Smithsonian Folkways and the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia.

  23. I don’t have a good excuse to get into the story of Bolat’s stepson Daniyar Kassikbayev here, but hopefully someday Vanity Fair will. Kassikbayev has been accused of, among other things, forging his high school diploma to get into Columbia University and helping his mother steal the Hermès bags given out as favors for his wedding, which by the way was to the daughter of the first Malaysian prime minister to go to jail for corruption.

  24. See about 8:30 of this interview montage, originally broadcast by NTK and given English subtitles by Qpop Translations.

  25. Kazakhstan Economic Update: Navigating the Crisis, Summer 2020.

  26. In 2014 Putin made some disparaging remarks about Kazakhstan’s history of statehood—in essence, suggesting that there had never been a Kazakhstani state before Nazarbayev, which, as we’re about to see, isn’t true—which was so unpopular even the normally diplomatic Nazarbayev had to push back. See Farangis Najibullah, Putin Downplays Kazakh Independence, Sparks Angry Reaction,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, September 3, 2014.

  27. See Dark Shadows, Chapter 17, Lure of the Land.”

  28. Zero Books, 2009.

  29. See Barbara Junisbai and Azamat Junisbai, Are Youth Different?: The Nazarbayev Generation and Public Opinion in Kazakhstan,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 67, No. 3 (2020); also Marlene Laruelle’s introductory chapter to The Nazarbayev Generation.

  30. Dark Shadows, pp. 19-20.

  31. His last name is sometimes romanized as Dulatov.

  32. A very good book on Russian attitudes towards the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, and how they paralleled the American government’s contemporaneous treatment of Native American tribes, is Steven Sabol’s The Touch of Civilization: Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonization (University Press of Colorado, 2017).

  33. See Tahir Anuar, The Alash’ Party and Its Contribution to Kazakh Identity,” published by the Abai Center, a joint project of George Washington University’s Central Asia Program and Kazakhstan’s Embassy to the United States.

  34. See Gulnar Kendirbaeva, We are children of Alash…’ The Kazakh intelligentsia at the beginning of the 20th century in search of national identity and prospects of the cultural survival of the Kazakh people, Central Asian Survey, Volume 18, No. 1 (1999).

  35. It was initially called the Kirghiz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, because 19th- and early 20th-century Russian bureaucrats generally did not make it a high priority to distinguish between Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. It was renamed the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925, and the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936, which it remained until 1991.

  36. The Alash Movement and the Soviet Government: A Difference of Positions,” Slavic Eurasian Studies No. 14: Empire, Islam, and Politics in Central Eurasia (2007), translated by David Cassidy and edited by Uyama Tomohiko.

  37. Sabol discusses this (in comparison with schools run by the American government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs) in Chapter 6 of The Touch of Civilization.

  38. Joanna Lillis includes all of this in Dark Shadows: see Chapter 12, Death to the Past,” about the 1930s famine; Chapter 13, The Gulag Archipelago,” about the impact of the Soviet prison-camp network on the Kazakh SSR; and Chapter 23, The Shrinking Sea,” about the Aral Sea (and efforts to revive it, including the Kokaral Dam). See also Nazira Nurtazina, Great Famine of 1931–1933 in Kazakhstan: A Contemporary’s Reminiscences,” Acta Slavica Iaponica, Volume 32 (2012), with a forward by Uyama Tomohiko, and this 2016 interview with Sarah Cameron, author of The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan (Cornell University Press, 2018), which I will confess to not having read yet.

  39. Many, many thanks to the folks at /r/kazakhstan for giving me feedback on this point.

Up next Part 9: Ninety One Went to Xinjiang Part 11: Conclusion
Latest posts Part 11: Conclusion Part 10: Ninety One as Nazarbayevean Realists Part 9: Ninety One Went to Xinjiang Part 8: Starlust, the Sasaeng, and the Servant Part 7: Theodor Adorno vs. the Poptimists vs. Zhanar Dugalova Part 6: But Maybe Our Faves Are Awful Part 5: The Loyalties of Little Fresh Meat Part 4: Bring Them the Head of Kenesary Khan Part 3: Idol Pop and the Languages of Love Part 2: The Art of Adorkable Part 1: Introduction