The song above, “Atilar,” features in Krish Raghav’s list of 70 songs for 70 years of the People’s Republic of China. The text below is adapted from that post.
Abdurehim Heyit, born in Kashgar in 1964, was a virtuoso composer whose versions of old Uyghur folk songs were so beloved that bootleg cassettes far outstripped official supply. He was a sensation on the long-necked dutar lute, and an icon of the Uyghur nation.
He radiated a cocky boldness (even his dutar was bigger than anyone else’s), far removed from the Chinese state’s preferred image of ethnic minorities as smiling, welcoming hosts to their Han “big brothers.” Like Bob Dylan and New York in the 1960s and ’70s, Heyit’s life in song was part of a mosaic of pop, folk, and underground music in Xinjiang.
But that changed after the summer of 2009, when interethnic tensions exploded into riots that left at least 200 dead in Urumchi. Over the next few years, an intense security crackdown straitjacketed the region, resulting in a widespread cultural freeze and, by 2017, detentions of an estimated one million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities — many of them Uyghurs — in a vast network of “re-education” camps.
Heyit was arrested in 2017, too, and disappeared from public view. Some sources say it was because of a performance of this song — “Fathers.”
His music, even in captivity, would have a strange and powerful calling. In February 2019, rumors of his death swirled in nearby Turkey, where his music is beloved, forcing the Chinese government to release a video claiming to show Heyit in good health. But shaved of his trademark mustache and boundless confidence, the star that Uyghurs had known was gone.
The video sparked a furious and spontaneous social media movement. Activists and ordinary Uyghurs took to Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #MeTooUyghur to ask for proof that their loved ones, too, were still alive.
Heyit’s current status is unknown, and his music now soundtracks a landscape of grief and loss.
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