London-based photographer and director Alex De Mora has had a love of music from a young age, and has played in bands since his early teens. In fact, it was through shooting gigs and parties that he first ventured into photography. This passion for music alongside his constant “searching for something new” led Alex to discover the Mongolian hip-hop scene – he was “fascinated with what [he] found,” he recalls. This fascination resulted in a trip to Mongolia in October 2019 where he shot Straight Outta Ulaanbaatar, a photo book designed and edited by Pavement Licker, and accompanying film telling the story of how the music scene came to be, as well as its major players.
Until 1992, Mongolia was a communist state; it was ruled by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party which maintained close links with the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of this state, Western media and culture filtered into the country – which sits between China and Russia – and along with it, its people discovered MTV, US hip-hop and artists including Snoop Dogg and Wu-Tang Clan. “A record store owner out there told me that under a new democratic society in Mongolia, hip-hop became a powerful tool for free speech, and self expression,” Alex explains. “The project is an insight into the city and people of Ulaanbaatar and their own take on hip-hop culture.”
Ulaanbaatar is the country’s capital where over one third of the country’s population lives, due to the harsh conditions in much of its vast rugged expanses. “It’s also an incredible location to photograph, with beautiful light,” Alex tells us. “They call it ‘Land of the Blue Skies’ for very good reason. It was a whirlwind time, and I want to go back for sure.” The trip was around two weeks, and Alex and the rest of the team were shooting non-stop every day. “Each person we met led to more people, and we found Mongolians to be extremely friendly and receptive,” he recalls. “There’s definitely a strong sense of community within the people there – they all know each other within the scene, and helped introduce us to everyone.”
GalleryAlex De Mora: Straight Outta Ulaanbataar
Rappers and musicians young and old are featured in the series, thanks to the meandering and natural way Alex found his subjects. But one character who pops up over and over again is Big Gee, Mongolia’s most famous rapper. Appearing on TV for everything from road safety campaigns to KFC adverts, it would be remiss to not feature Big Gee in a series about the scene he dominates – he even has more Facebook likes than the Mongolian president which, Alex tells us, he is keen to remind people of. “We inevitably ended up spending a good chunk of time with him, driving us around Ulaanbaatar in his Hummer, introducing us to other rappers and people involved in the scene, as well as taking us on a trip out to the giant equestrian statue of Genghis Khan (which is 40 metres tall),” he continues.
In one image, Big Gee stands, hands in his pockets and several chains around his deck, posing as a young boy in the background looks back – most probably checking he is actually seeing who he thinks he is seeing. “He’s recognised everywhere he goes,” Alex tells us on this point. “Big Gee’s popularity seems to be because he grew up in one of the Ger districts, and has now made it to the top as a Mongolian celebrity, by rapping about Mongolian life experiences and struggles that many of them can relate to.” The Ger districts, Alex continues, make up about 60-70 per cent of Ulaanbaatar and are made up of yurts and homemade houses, and many of the people he encountered on his trip were from there. “Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world (it gets as cold as -40 degrees celsius in winter), with a serious air pollution problem, and an average life expectancy of 60, so there are some very sobering sides to the story,” he remarks.
Reflecting on the project, Alex hopes that what he has produced is a contemporary portrait of Mongolia, an incredibly unique country with a strong identity. “I guess when most people think of Mongolia they think of nomadic people, traditional clothes, steppe, mountains and so on. That’s what you’d find if you googled the place or looked it up in mainstream media sources anyway." That is, of course, a big part of its heritage, but with the influence of US and Western culture there are now many more sides to the country and its people – like its booming hip-hop scene. In turn, the series is also a mediation on how culture can translate across the globe in places you might not expect. “I feel very lucky to have been able to go there, and to have seen another part of the world from a different perspective,” he concludes, “so hopefully that translates in both the book and the film, and brings some awareness to the people out there.”
GalleryAlex De Mora: Straight Outta Ulaanbataar
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.