Why Isn’t Hip-Hop Popular in China?

Today the New York Times published a piece called Now Hip-Hop, Too, Is Made In China about the emerging Chinese hip-hop scene. It asserts that hip-hop’s popularity is growing fast in China among young and working class people despite the fact that rappers cannot broadcast their music through mainstream channels. As the Times points out, you won’t hear any hip-hop in tomorrow’s Lunar New Years gala TV special.

The Times writes,

Over the last decade many students and working-class Chinese have been writing rap as a form of self-expression. Rougher and more rebellious than the well-scrubbed pop that floods the airwaves here, this kind of hip-hop is not sanctioned by broadcast media producers or state censors but has managed to attract a grass-roots fan base.

Indeed, government authorities can pose a problem, especially for live performances. The so-called “Godfather of Chinese Hip-Hop”, Dana Burton, told Foreign Policy, “We’ve had police shut our parties down, take the turntables out of the clubs. We’ve had police arrest our MCs. They say that we don’t have a permit, or that the words that we say are offensive.”

But, although it’s difficult to provide concrete numbers, the Times is likely overstating hip-hop’s widespread popularity among Chinese youth. Many of China’s most popular hip-hop groups were started by or are composed primarily of foreigners (Redstar, Yin T’sang, etc.). And outside of highly internationalized cities like Beijing and Shanghai, there seem to be few hip-hop acts and even less interest.

Censorship may be one reason, but another may be that, much like American audiences thirty years ago when hip-hop was being born in the Bronx, Chinese audiences generally don’t see the appeal of hip-hop yet. The Times quotes a Jay Chou fan as saying (about “real” hip-hop acts):

“I don’t know what groups like Yin Tsar are trying to do,” said Hua Lina, 35, an accountant. “They dress like bums, and sometimes they take off their shirts at performances, screaming like animals. Their lyrics are dirty — why would I want to pay to see that?”

The Times notes:

While Beijing’s underground music scene is generally under the authorities’ radar — hip-hop, indie rock and reggae groups perform regularly at nightclubs here — the producers representing broadcast media in China avoid musicians perceived as threatening.

Another reason hip-hop has failed to take off in China is that many hip-hop groups, probably as a result of being criticized for their lyrics and performances, have taken the same elitist and exclusivist tone that is evident in some American “underground” acts as well. Wang Liang, a hip-hop DJ, is quoted as saying artists like Jay Chou rap about love “and call it hip-hop when it isn’t.” Although its unclear what, if any, effect this has in China, in American it can often have the effect of turning fans away from artists they might otherwise like because they are told they can’t understand.

Chinese hip-hop’s biggest problem may be just that — understanding. If groups like Yin T’sang were being played on mainstream radio in China right now, the backlash would be enormous. Most people simply don’t understand where they are coming from, or the feelings they are expressing. Dana Burton notes, “A couple times I’ve wondered, ‘Are they going too far? Am I getting too conservative?’ They’re rapping about being involved with the mafia, or being underground, or doing drugs,” adding, “They don’t really rap about the government.” Most Chinese people just can’t understand that point of view. That will change, just as it has changed in America, but time is definitely needed.

Yet another obstacle is piracy. The Times article notes that corporate support is one of the few ways for artists to be successful financially in China, and that corporations would never put money behind “dirty” hip-hop groups like Yin T’sang, but it’s also worth noting that the vast majority of successful musical artists in China are not from mainland China and/or have support and international followings outside of the mainland. (Although the Times article paints Jay Chou as basically a CCP propagandist-cum-singer, it’s worth nothing that he is actually from Taiwan).

UPDATE: For an analysis of this article much harsher than my own, check out Bokane. For an analysis much deeper and better than my own, check out this blog (blocked in Mainland China).

Further Reading on Chinese Hip-Hop
Underground Hip-Hop in Shanghai (Asia Scout Network)
How a Muslim Convert from Detroit Became the Godfather of Chinese Hip-Hop (Foreign Policy)

[Note: The author of this article has been making hip-hop music for over a decade and currently resides in Harbin (China’s tenth largest city) where there is no hip-hop scene to speak of.]

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0 thoughts on “Why Isn’t Hip-Hop Popular in China?”

  1. hip hop IS very popular in china — for people to listen to. there’s isn’t ANY kind of “scene” for any kind of music to speak of.

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  2. Hip hop is a abomination.
    It’s so sad watching these pitifully impressionable Mainland drones aping the most vulgar detritus of Western culture. Pathetic me-too slave mentality.
    China will never become great if they allow the peasants to listen to trash like hip hop. They should try real music like Aqua..

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  3. @ mtm, it’s unclear whether you’re joking or not, but if you aren’t, that comment is extremely ignorant. You obviously know very little about hip-hop.

    @ cerebus, I wouldnt say hip-hop is popular in China even to listen to, unless you’re including Jay Chou-esque stuff in that category (which, to be fair, one could). What I mean really is rap songs, i.e. songs that are mostly or entirely rapping rather than singing with a rap verse thrown in somewhere

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  4. Hip Hop is very popular in China, not only the musical aspect with bands and singers, but all the fashion that goes together. Who has ever been to a club in China those year knows that the hip-hop look is every where, hip-hop dance, hip-hop style. Also big stars as Jay Chou or David Tao has some hip-hop influenced tunes, very popular in China.

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  5. That some famous singers have hip-hop influenced tunes is very different from saying that “hip-hop” is popular in China. Hip-hop clothing styles (if you want to call it that) and hip-hop dance are indeed popular, but hip-hop music just isn’t, at least not if we’re using the conventional American definition of hip-hop. Sorry. Putting a rap verse at the end of your R&B song does not hip-hop make.

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