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).
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.]