Growing up in Kabul, rapper Ali ATH hated school.
“I skipped classes,” he told The World in an interview. “All I wanted to do was to get online and to listen to music.”
Today, Ali ATH — and many others like him — make a living from their music and their celebrity status in Afghanistan. The name doesn’t really mean anything, he said, but that’s kind of the point — it’s unusual, mysterious even. He asked The World to use his stage name for this story due to security concerns.
The rap scene in Afghanistan has grown significantly in the past two decades. The US-led invasion in 2001 brought down the Taliban who banned most music with claims that it's un-Islamic.
But all that could change if the Taliban comes back.
“My livelihood is on the line. ... If the Taliban find out I make music, they could kill me. I don’t even want to think about it."
“My livelihood is on the line,” Ali ATH said from his home in Kabul. “I make money from my music and my YouTube videos. That’s how I pay the bills. ... If the Taliban find out I make music, they could kill me. I don’t even want to think about it.”
Ali ATH fell in love with music as a young student. His parents offered him a deal: If he got good grades in school, they would buy him his very own computer. The following school year, Ali ATH lived up to his side of the bargain. He was top in his class. And as promised, he got a brand new computer.
Kabul’s frequent power outages and expensive internet did not stop him. Ali ATH had access to a whole new world. He said he taught himself the basics of rap music and video editing. He downloaded books, read blogs and listened to some of the biggest names in the rap game.
“For speed and rhyming I looked to Eminem,” he said. “For the business side of things, Dr. Dre and Jay-Z.”
Now, even with this cloud of uncertainty hanging over his head, Ali ATH continues to make music and record YouTube videos. But his videos are mostly about his daily life — birthday parties with his friends, shopping for a new coffee maker, making pancakes for breakfast.
And lately, he has been extra careful.
“I don’t leave my neighborhood a lot,” he said. “I stick to areas I know.”
He is far from alone.
Women’s rights activists, judges, journalists and politicians have all been targeted by the Taliban and ISIS in recent months.
As peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives continue in Doha, Qatar, people like Ali ATH wonder if there will be a future for them in their own country.
Many have left already — even Ali ATH's own family. They moved to Iran, he said, after two of his cousins were killed in a suicide attack at an education center in Kabul.
“That was a tragedy for my family,” he said.
Ali ATH has even more to fear. He belongs to an ethnic group called the Hazaras. The Taliban and ISIS have specifically targeted the group for their ethnicity and religion.
But Ali ATH remained in Afghanistan. He said he doesn’t see himself living anywhere else. He wants to be close to his friends and community.
And he has big plans for the future. He wants to set up recording studios in cities across Afghanistan, he said, so that new musicians have a space to experiment. He wants to expand a website he has built that is dedicated to archiving Afghan rap.
And his biggest goal? To one day launch Afghanistan’s version of Netflix.
In the meantime, with all the violence in Afghanistan these days, "As the Americans say, I just hope I’m not at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.