Mad Men, for those of you who don’t follow Kazakhstani idol pop, is arguably the best-established and most popular Kazakhstani idol-pop group not named Ninety One. They work under the auspices of a company called MM Entertainment, founded by one Ruslan Hwang, and if you’re curious you can get more information from a documentary produced by MM Entertainment (and subbed by the good folks at Qpop Translations) a couple years ago.
Since that documentary came out Mad Men has been struggling, as it seems like everyone in Q-pop has been struggling. I actually wrote a long post earlier this week about how two members of Mad Men announced they were quitting the group back in March, and how that, along with the dissolution of fellow MM Entertainment group Crystalz, was yet more evidence of the shaky financial footing of Q-pop more broadly. But I wanted to get permission to quote a tweet, so I held off on publishing the blog post. I may publish it still, wanting to make the points I made, but the post itself has been overtaken by events.
“Events” being the arrest yesterday of Ruslan Hwang and several other people, including Mad Men member Moora, on charges of being part of a criminal ring that manufactured and distributed illegal drugs.
From Yandex Translate’s version of the summary for that video:
According to the investigation, the criminal group acted according to a well-established scheme. Three people were responsible for the supply of components for the manufacture of synthetic drugs from Russia. Two more-the so-called “cashiers” - accepted applications and worked with pawnbrokers. There were four of them. And they often hunted in the Nauryzbay, Bostandyk and Alatau districts of Almaty.
Two other original members of Mad Men are apparently in hiding.
The problem (a problem, I should say) is, it is far too early to draw any definitive conclusions about what was happening and who was responsible for it. It could very well be that Ruslan Hwang was part of an illegal-drugs ring. It could very well be that Ruslan Hwang, or his various employees, were not willingly part of an illegal-drugs ring. It could very well be that Ruslan Hwang et al. had been part of an illegal-drugs ring for years, and so had various other, better-connected people, and those people tossed Ruslan Hwang’s portion of the operation under the bus for some reason. It could even be that the dramatic revelation of a drug lab was, in fact, staged. (The Kazakhstani police are apparently widely regarded as corrupt, and if they resorted to stage-managing when talking about giant drug busts, well, they wouldn’t be the first squad to do so.) And it could very well be that all of the above scenarios are way off the mark, since I am an underinformed fan reading translated news reports from half a world away. So it would be irresponsible in the extreme for me to say I know what’s going on, and if you’re getting Q-pop news from me, you probably don’t either.
So let me zoom out a bit and talk about a subject where I feel on slightly firmer ground: what this means for Q-pop as a whole. Nothing good, as you’ve likely already guessed, but it’s worth considering what “nothing good” means in comparison to the Korean idol-pop scene, which was the original model for groups calling themselves Q-pop (including Mad Men, which started out as a K-pop dance cover group).
As I see it there are two major differences between the Korean and Kazakhstani idol-pop scenes. One is financial: Korean groups simply have more options to find the money to support themselves, including selling merchandise abroad, creating paid fan-club memberships, and holding streaming online concerts (which is routine now in Korean idol pop, but was tricky for Ninety One to organize). But the other, related to the first, is institutional: K-pop has the explicit support of the Korean government, and Q-pop’s relationship to the Kazakhstani government has been wary at best, despite ZaQ’s best efforts to make it otherwise. (I went into the contrast in more detail in Part 4 of the Ninety One Series.) Now, there are lots of good reasons not to look for government support for your creative work; having a nation-state as one of your clients comes with costs. But in a country where apparently goodly portions of the local economy is subject to capture by the state (read: the Nazarbayev family), operating without explicit state sanction also comes with costs.
But there’s a difference between operating without explicit state sanction and being forced into an adversarial relationship to the state, which is where Ninety One was, to some degree, in 2016; recall that the concert cancellations came with their fair share of local officials who seemed disinclined to intervene, and denunciations of Ninety One on state television by respectable figures. That all seemed to die down a bit, possibly partly because no one could pin anything worse on Ninety One than wearing eyeliner and dancing together. But a plausible link between Q-pop and drug dealing is a much more substantial charge with which to discredit anyone in the industry. There’s still speculation, to this day, that the fallout from the #BurningMolka scandal was limited because various figures in Korean government and the justice system had no incentive to turn too close an eye on such a profitable soft-power industry. Q-pop not only doesn’t have that kind of (speculated) protection, the eyelinered singers and dancers now make a more attractive target for Kazakhstani prosecutors.
Now, if Ruslan Hwang was indeed helping run some kind of drug ring upstairs while Mad Men was practicing in the basement, he’s working in a fairly long-standing tradition. Popular music has been linked to illegal drug us and organized crime for as long as we’ve been talking about “popular music” as its own potential industry; read Hit Men, for example, or look at early 20th-century Seoul, where singers performed at nightclubs controlled by colonialist yakuza. Honestly, if Mad Men were working in the United States or western Europe they’d have just significantly increased their street cred. From former Yardbirds manager Simon Napier-Bell’s 2008 reminiscing: “For a while I was producing records with Ray Singer and we went together to see the Roulette label, rumoured to be connected with the Mafia. People told us not to, but what the hell, we wanted all the work we could get and dealing with the Mafia sounded fun.”
But Mad Men and their peers aren’t working in the United States or western Europe, or Korea. They’re working in a country where their paths towards stability are extremely limited. They can’t get official state funding, and, for all the Nazarbayevean efforts to cover up long-standing kleptocracy with a business-friendly veneer, Q-pop performers just don’t have that many market-based options for making money. Whether or not some of them actually did turn to illegal methods of self-funding, they’re screwed. And I fear that yesterday’s news leaves them even more screwed.