It’s hard to imagine that there are parts of the world that aren’t attuned to global pop’s conventions. But in the socially conservative country of Myanmar, The Me N Ma Girls are actually the first group of their kind. During their first performance in their home country, they turned a culture clash into a teaching moment. Speaking by phone, member Ah Moon recounted how their audience wasn’t quite sure what the group was up-to when they first took the stage. She remarked, “There were girl bands before us, but there were only two or three girls singing, and they didn’t dance to whole songs. People thought we were dancers. We had to explain to them that we were a girl band and that we all sang as well as danced. They didn’t think that we were singing actually even though we were holding mics.”
The most popular songs on radio stations in Myanmar are Burmese covers of international songs and the first album by The Me N Ma Girls, Year of The Tiger Girls (recorded under their first group name, The Tiger Girls) also followed this formula. The group had been put together in 2010 by an Australian dancer Nicole May and “marketing expert” U Moe Kyaw. Members Ah Moon, Cha Cha, Htike Htike, Kimi, and Wai Hnin were chosen after an audition process and then trained to perform with the same type of coordinated sass popularized by The Pussycat Dolls and Girls Aloud.
Yet, in Myanmar, this transformation took an added political tone, as freedom of speech has been slow to expand—the ban on YouTube, for example, was only lifted in 2011—and women are relegated to deferential positions to men in society. They are expected to live with their parents until they are married and never wear revealing clothes. The Me N Ma Girls have had to fight for allowances that most other girl groups might not be able to imagine. They were once told that they couldn’t wear colored wigs in one of their music videos. Their idea for a solution was to shoot the video in black-and-white, but the law was changed before the video was recorded and they proceeded with the original video treatment.
To some “girl power” can seem like an empty platitude, but in a country where education about women’s liberation and feminism is scarce, it’s a wonder that the Me N Ma Girls have taken as many steps towards independence as they have. Ah Moon commented, “We learned that it’s really important to be us and speak out loud. We [used to have] little time to create, because our ex-producer [U Moe Kyaw] forced us to sing copy tracks, which we didn’t want to do. We wanted to create our own original music, so after one year splitting with him we started doing our own beats, recording our own songs, and changed our name.”
Meanwhile, the K-pop music industry has become a dominant force in Southeast Asia in the past decade. While other non-Korean pop female acts like Blush and Mizz Nina are popular in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Myanmar, the sound and the aesthetics of all-Korean artists are most in demand and what most up-and-coming acts aspire towards. Me N Ma Girls are huge fans of K-pop acts like 2NE1, Wonder Girls, 4Minute. Nonetheless, in addition to sexism, they have had to deal with a racialized tension in the way that they are marketed and accepted. In an interview Ah Moon commented, “At first, critics in Myanmar said we were ugly and our skin too brown, not like Korean bands, so we wouldn’t succeed. We put that in the song [‘Girl Strong’].”
The video for “Girl Strong,” starts off with a sterile K-pop factory that pops out a bland Korean group wearing candy-colored, coordinated outfits that is instantly approved. The next to pop out are the copper-toned and prismatic images of The Me N Ma Girls. They are immediately rejected, but the girls prove the system wrong by tearing up a dance club with their empowerment anthem.
Racism, as opposed to other -isms, is often seen through the lens of the United States, but it’s subtle limbs enfold the whole world. Anyone who thinks these women are less than gorgeous and are either insane or don’t realize how far prejudices have been internalized in their society.
As of right now, The Me N Ma Girls are still waiting to see whether the world is ready and eager to turn them into a commercial success. When I asked Ah Moon whether they have been able to support their families, she said, “Actually they are supporting us right now! We are all living with our families. We love to stay with them and they are really taking care of us. All of them understand that we will be able to help people all around Burma, because we are really trying hard to get successful. We are following our dreams. One day, I hope that we can give back to them financially.”
Family ties are of utmost importance in Burmese culture, so it’s not actually that surprising that they are all still living at home. In the past year, they’ve been to Thailand, Malaysia and the United States for the 4th Annual Women of the World Summit in April, but there is still pressure for them to stay close with their families. Wai Hnin recently made the decision to leave the group, because of the traveling, the pressures of being a pop star, and in order to be closer to her family.
It’s important to note that even though they have been up against a lot, they love their country and there are important emblems of freedom and independence for them to look to at home. When I asked Ah Moon who their biggest inspiration was, she replied, “That would be Aung San Suu Kyi for us, because she is from our country and she was the one who was leading the democracy for our country.” Suu Kyi is an politician, outspoken for her advocacy for democracy and human rights, who helped sway the National League of Democracy to win the majority of seats in Parliament in 1990, before being arrested as a political prisoner that year. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and lived under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years she was imprisoned until her release in 2010. Ah Moon continued, “She’s a really tough woman. To write our own songs, to have opinions, we have to be strong. So she is the one who I admire.”
Alexis Stephens (@pm_jawn) is a staff writer at MTV Iggy and is down with “girl power” in all of its forms.