How hip-hop transformed the hairdos of young Cambodian women

A few lines of verse have led to an unprecedented fad for short hair. But what's really going on runs far deeper than a new coiffure, write Flamingo's Galathee Salze-Lozac’h.

Khmer rapper Brossla has led many young women to part with their long, flowing locks
Khmer rapper Brossla has led many young women to part with their long, flowing locks

Born after decades of war, reconstruction and instability, Cambodian millennials have grown up in an era of unprecedented economic progress, rapid social mutations and new global cultural references. They’ve been eager to adopt and reinterpret trends from the West, Thailand and Korea, although some Khmer traditions and habits have remained relatively untouched by foreign influence.

This was the case for young women’s long, flowing hair. For years, women’s hairstyles have mostly been a matter of age and life stage: Young women had long hair and it got shorter as they aged.

However, in the space of a few months, there has been an intriguing outburst of young ladies with short hair. While in other countries in the region, short hairstyles—even though they’re not the norm—aren’t a big deal, they never took off in Cambodia, no matter how strong the influence of foreign trends. What happened to convince all these young girls to go from hip-length straightened hair to bowl cuts in just a few months?

Hey hey girl, your short hair is so cool
When you’re dressed like a traditional Khmer girl you’re so pretty
When you’re dressed sexy, you’re so modern and stylish
I used to only like girls with long hair, I changed my mind when I met you
I wanna tell you I love you… you the girl with short hair
Short hair, long hair, I actually don’t care.

Those lines from a song by popular Khmer rapper Brossla, celebrating the beauty and character of a girl with short hair, have suddenly overthrown decades of tradition.

Saying that Cambodian hip-hop has a strong influence on popular culture would be an understatement. Not only does it illustrate and reflect various aspects of today’s society, it also actively shapes its evolution. So what is it in local hip-hop that has the power to shift enduring habits and traditions with a couple of verses?

An ode to Cambodia’s youth and optimism

The ’60s and early ’70s were the golden age of Cambodian music. Heavily influenced by the sounds of Western rock’n’roll, Cambodian rock emerged as a unique sound mixing various rock styles and traditional melodies. Artists such as Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron were its most famous and popular ambassadors. Many of them were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, during which music and all other art forms were abolished.

In the late ’90s, as Cambodia was opening up and re-discovering international pop music, another genre made its way from the West (and particularly from the US), mainly through the diaspora coming back to the country: hip-hop and rap music. Rappers like PraCh Ly, Dj Cake or Dj Sope had become the new music stars in Cambodia.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Today, thanks to local hip-hop, rap and pop, the Cambodian musical scene is flourishing for the first time since the early ’70s. It is carried by a generation that has opportunities like never before and wants to explore its lost heritage while jumping with two feet into a promising future. To millennials, hip-hop has become what rock’n’roll was to their grand parents’ generation: the celebration of life, culture, art and a lifetime of possibilities ahead.

A platform for self-expression

Some of its topics may seem as light-hearted as a hairstyle, but hip-hop has also become one of the strongest voices of Cambodian youth. While traditional music celebrates family, marriage, rural life, and conservative values, and pop music is all about romance and party anthems, Cambodian millennials use hip-hop as a platform to express their views, hopes and frustrations towards society and to bring attention to social phenomena and issues like corruption, oligarchy, impunity and inequalities. One example is a popular song by Khmer Rap Boyz that tackles the prevalence of cheating in school, teachers’ corruption and cheating in life. Another one denounces the bullying and discriminating behaviour of upper classes towards others.

While previous generations were more inclined to ‘tolerate’ these ongoing issues for the sake of economic development and political stability, Cambodian millennials are more prone to strongly question, object or protest against them. And while the hip-hop scene is still somehow stigmatised by the elders, its role is increasingly to speak out and call for change.

The vehicle of a unique identity: between past and future, local and global

What makes Cambodian hip-hop so interesting is how it has become this new, adaptable form of art that remixes popular pre-war Cambodian songs or ancient melodies and reinterprets them through more modern musical compositions, re-adapts the lyrics to today’s realities or mixes traditional instruments with modern beats (the KlapYaHandz label is a good example).

This musical trend has also been observed in other Southeast Asian countries. In Indonesia, the Jogja Hip-Hop Foundation raps in a local dialect inspired by Javanese poetry. But while in other countries, these movements are about exploring new artistic and cultural expressions, in Cambodia, it’s a real quest to retrieve this culture that was once lost and incorporate it into a new identity. While international hip-hop and music in general remains very popular, Cambodian hip-hop is part of a momentum toward bringing the Khmer heritage to the front of the scene while embracing a new global, contemporary identity.

This momentum can provide opportunities for brands which are able to understand not just the role of hip-hop but, more generally, the dynamics and impact of pop culture in Cambodia, how it’s evolving and the platforms that connect with millennials. There are a multitude of possibilities for brands to integrate these when crafting their discourse in the booming Cambodian market.

Galathee Salze-Lozac’h is project director at Flamingo Singapore

 

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