In the last couple of years, you might have noticed Georgia popping up on the cultural radar. Previously unknown to the West, a small country in the Caucasus Mountains is home to Vetements’ mastermind Demna Gvasalia and is a promising hotspot for fashion, art, youth culture, and an underground rave movement. And now – thanks to duo KayaKata – also experimental hip-hop.
Located on the crossroads between Asia and Eastern Europe, Georgia was part of the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century, followed by a turbulent '90s that saw the country descend into civil wars and a harsh economic crisis. If you’re into fashion, you would be vaguely familiar with the country’s history from the Spring 2019 Vetements collection, which was all about Demna Gvasalia’s memories of the war in his native region of Abkhazia and subsequent refugee experience. Clearly, the darkness has left a trace on the nation’s psyche, but it also gave Georgia’s new generation a strong desire to change things and determine their own future.
Coming from the urban heart of Tbilisi, KayaKata’s vision is like nothing else in hip-hop right now. In their video for "Drons Dronze," we see the Georgian capital reinvented as a video game. There are imposing tower block estates amidst emerald mountains, psychedelic animation, and driving a Soviet-designed boxy car through vast fields while armed with sci-fi-style plastic blasters. Intricate beats are layered with rapping in Georgian, and although you might not understand a word, the effortless swag and otherworldly visuals are very likely to drag you into the KayaKata Youtube hole.
KayaKata is Maxime Machaidze (aka Luna, who is also involved in fashion and art project LTFR) and Zurab Jishkariani (aka Dilla). The two have been making music together for a while, but KayaKata was their first foray into hip-hop — even though they’re not keen to be entirely defined by this genre.
“We think of our music as urban tribal music,” Luna says. “Nowadays the world is turning into a big, big jungle. There are many tribes, and they connect with each other. It’s a big family of many tribes built on this respect of moving forward and dancing for changes.”
Luna, a lanky gracious youngster covered in DIY tattoos, and Dilla, who has a deep voice and imposing presence, deliver a strong image which is both fresh and authentic, and completely relatable in the context of hip-hop culture. The name “KayaKata" also combines the global and local references: “kaya” means both “cool” in Georgian and marijuana in Jamaican slang. The image KayaKata projects is the one of proud underdogs and blessed outsiders, and sticking to their native language is a big part of it.
“We are a very small country of three million people. Three million is just a third of New York City,” Dilla says. “Our language is very beautiful, and we thought, look, there is French rap, and not everyone understands it, but a lot of people listen to it. So we try to put Georgian worlds in a musical way, so it would be pleasant not only here but also outside Georgia. You can listen to KayaKata in Shanghai, Budapest, LA, and you can still feel the vibe.”
Applying the ancient Georgian language to such similarly alien format as rap has brought KayaKata fans from all kinds of ages and backgrounds in their country. “Kids who grow up in the harsh reality here in Georgia really feel our music. But we have all kind of fans. We support the LGBT movement and their struggle, and our friends in art. But we also have friends in jail who say that the whole jail is listening to KayaKata,” Dilla adds.
At the same time, the universe of KayaKata does not look inherently Georgian — in fact, it’s a wonderfully futuristic world which is above nationalities, full of cryptic codes, cartoon characters, psychedelic visuals, references to martial arts, and video games. The influence of Japanese culture is particularly apparent — partly because it has a long history in hip-hop. From Wu-Tang Clan’s classic 36 Chambers to Kendrick Lamar’s alter ego Kung Fu Kenny, Asian culture has been a powerful narrative tool for rappers seeking to reinvent themselves beyond their background and construct a brand new mythology for themselves.
“As a tribe, we consider ourselves warriors”, Dilla says. “It doesn’t mean that you go outside and fight people. You have to have a warrior mindset to survive. We love the Japanese aesthetics, the Samurai aesthetics, the Aztec aesthetics, because we feel a connection with these cultures.”
“We’re sampling the universe,” Luna adds. “You take a little from samurais, a little from Aztecs, you mix it with contemporary technology and make your warrior character. It’s like any gameplay.”
For both KayaKata members, the colorful, cryptic visuals are connected to escapism, self-discovery, and experiments with psychedelic drugs. “Your body is your spaceship. And there is a bigger space than the outer space inside of us. KayaKata is about investigating space outside and inside of us,” Luna says.
For Dilla, these experiments were also a way to deal with the trauma and hardship of his childhood. Just like Demna Gvasalia, he comes from the region of Abkhazia, witnessed the war, and endured the experience of being a refugee in his own country. “Imagine yourself, you’re living in a refugee ghetto, with gangsta rules out there in the streets, police beating you every day — my whole generation went through this,” he says. “And then you have magic mushrooms, which are a like a rocket, you can take it and you can go elsewhere in the world, it’s like a portal for you from this reality. When you come back and you can say, guys, we can really change these things.”
Today, Georgia’s young generation is striving for a free, globally-connected future, but there are still conservative powers to fight against. In May, Tbilisi saw a massive unsanctioned rave staged in the center of the city to protest the brutal police raids of the city’s key nightclubs, which are loosely connected to the government’s crackdown on illegal drugs. The country’s drug laws are still unjustifiably harsh, meaning that a pill or a joint could lead to an 8-year prison sentence. “We’ll fight again it for as long as we breathe” Luna comments on the situation.
Still, both KayaKata members are hopeful that the energy of youth would eventually prevail in Georgia, and are optimistic about the future of the scene too. “A hip-hop movement is blooming right now in Georgia,” Dilla says. “A lot of good artists are coming up, new shit going on. I think in a couple of years the world might know some big names from Georgia.” One of them, at least, seems set to be KayaKata.
For more like this, read our interview with Moscow-based DJ trio DIGIDON.