Why Chinese Rappers Don’t Fight The Power

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Many of China’s best-known rappers have chosen to express their politics, but in contrast to rap’s anti-establishment roots, these artists assert a distinctly nationalist tone.

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In 2015, Chinese hip-hop group Higher Brothers learned something the hard way: Be very careful when your songs get political.

The source of controversy was an anti-Uber song. “I don’t write political hip-hop,” spat out the group’s rapper, Melo. “But if any politician tries to silence me, I will cut off their heads and put them at the feet of their corpses. This time it is Uber that is being investigated. Next time it will be you. He led to the song being blocked by Chinese censors, and Melo called in for questioning by the local Public Security Bureau.

Since then, the Higher Brothers have enjoyed great success both at home and abroad, thanks in part to their first US tour to support their album Journey To The West. Along with many of China’s rising hip-hop artists, they have burst onto the local and global stage, largely staying away from politics.

Until now. Over the course of the summer, as the Hong Kong protests unfolded and geopolitical climates cooled both at home and abroad, many of China’s rappers decided to express their politics.

The Higher Brothers are one of a new generation of Chinese hip-hop acts seeking international success (Credit; Getty Images)

The Higher Brothers are one of a new generation of Chinese hip-hop acts seeking international success (Credit; Getty Images)

But in stark contrast to the long tradition of counterculturalism and racial protest that has defined American hip-hop, the politics these rappers assert have a distinctive and unique nationalist undertone.

In response to the protests, Melo aware an image of the Chinese national flag on their social media accounts with the caption: “Once again, I’m proud to be Chinese.” Rapper CD Rev released a contempt track titled The Fall of Hong Kong. Jackson Wang, a Hong Kong-born artist, declared on Weibo that he was a “flag bearer determined to side with China”.

The reactions have been polarized. Wang was accused of being a traitor by pro-democracy activists, then patted on the back by the Chinese media.

In hip-hop jargon, “crypto” refers to the circle of participants closing in around a group of struggling rappers, showcasing their own skills and challenging each other’s ideas to win over the audience. Encryption is all about competition, but more importantly it’s about identity, an opportunity for the rapper to express where he stands and what he believes in.

At a time in history when the identification of “Chinese” has never been more vigorously challenged, both globally and in people’s personal lives, it’s no surprise that rappers in China are getting into the code. In doing so, they raise a very basic question about identity: What does it mean to be Chinese?

Many Chinese rappers have taken a political stand as the Hong Kong protests have accelerated (Credit: Getty Images)

Many Chinese rappers have taken a political stand as the Hong Kong protests have accelerated (Credit: Getty Images)

Once, it seemed like there was a cacophony of rap voices cutting across different ideologies, geographies, and socioeconomic classes, creatively competing for the hearts and minds of China’s youth. Chengdu rappers, Chongqing rappers and Changsha rappers. Rappers from the shores of Guangzhou and the Gansu highlands. Dazzling, cosmopolitan melodies from Shanghai and rudimentary, rural rhythms from the “hanmai” of the northeast. Hong Kong rappers like Fotan Laiki and Doughboy spit out rhymes about an ever-changing hometown. Diaspora rappers like Bohan Phoenix, singing from the cracks of China and the United States.

Today, the Chinese code seems to have become entrenched in binary themes: love vs. hate, anti-China vs. pro-China, fervent nationalism vs. treason, making it a zero-sum game in which conflict can only be resolved. with defeat. from one side to the other. Artists like Wang, Melo, and Vava, among so many others, seem to have forgotten that encryption is about competition, but also about community, creativity, and authenticity.

Instead of creating a unique sense of self and perspective, they have decided to toe the line, parroting the message of the Chinese authorities.

This is not to say that all Chinese pride is expressed in a uniform way. Rapper GAI leading the chants of Long Live the Motherland at the state-sponsored Spring Festival gala is a very different brand of patriotism from the Higher Brothers’ title track, Made In China. On the one hand, the Higher Brothers song about how Western products are now made in China is actually a bold statement of Chinese pride. But the rappers aren’t bragging about China’s national sovereignty, replete with a red and yellow flag, but about the “jar of hot sauce so hot foreigners catch fire.”

The lyrics are not Mandarin, the language of national television, but Sichuanese, rich in rising and falling tones, which has a great lyrical flow. Unlike the instinctive nationalism of Melo’s latest Instagram mailthis playful, creative, and hyper-local pride is in the spicy food and carefree attitude of its capital Chengdu.

Rapper Jackson Wang sparked controversy by taking to social media and pledging allegiance to the Chinese state (Credit: Getty Images)

Rapper Jackson Wang sparked controversy by taking to social media and pledging allegiance to the Chinese state (Credit: Getty Images)

Two years ago, I visited Chengdu and sat in the studio of a group of young aspiring rappers: TSP, from the outskirts of Sichuan; Rainbow and Skinnyoyo, from the flat and central grasslands of Xi’an and Shandong; Kong Kong, from the south coast of Hong Kong; and Young13DBaby and Fendi Boi, from the northern mountains of Lhasa and Gansu.

As we sat together, shaking our heads to one of the group’s latest collaborations, I was struck by how well they’d weaved together lyrics in Tibetan, Cantonese, Sichuanese, and Mandarin.

This scene of six children, from six different regions of a nation of over a billion, nodding in unison to the music they had created together on their own, was the closest thing I have ever seen to the Chinese cipher in its form more platonic form – playful, inclusive, malleable – a song that produces the rich plurality of the Chinese language and identity.

The Rap Of China talent show has helped hip-hop take off in China (Credit: Getty Images)

The Rap Of China talent show has helped hip-hop take off in China (Credit: Getty Images)

Hip-hop is a living, breathing culture, a reflection of the hopes and dreams of two generations of young people. Like those dreams, hip-hop music is supposed to be messy and full of contradictions. Can the Chinese hip-hop scene be a space where identities, even when contested, don’t harden in opposition to one another?

In an increasingly polarized world, China’s hip-hop artists may find a new challenge: how to bring their audiences together, instead of driving them further apart.

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