China's hip-hop scene is an unlikely haven for free speech

It appears that co-opting an art form known to be anti-system and infusing it with "Chinese qualities," as per Xi's directive, may prove trickier than first thought.

Joseph Fang Toronto Ontario

China is an exciting and dynamic place to be at the moment. The rapid growth of the nation's economy has brought with it an embrace not only of technology and material goods, but also of ideas and influences from the outside world. Unlike their parents, Chinese youngsters have unprecedented access to media, culture, fashion and music from the west. However, a climate of censorship remains ever-present as the Chinese state seeks to constantly affirm itself as the arbiter of acceptable thought, employing methods both subtle and overt in a bid to control what its citizens are allowed to consume.

Earlier this year, despite no specific directive having been issued from Beijing, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) made the bizarre decision to blur out men's earrings on national television. While most acts of overt censorship go largely unchallenged, in this instance it generated an internet firestorm, drawing the ire of thousands of angry netizens who took to popular Chinese apps like WeChat to protest the CPC's outmoded ideas about gender and masculinity. In a nation where it's common for young men to model themselves on androgynous Korean and Japanese popstars, the reaction wasn't altogether surprising.

However the public's open condemnation of censorship was a sign that even in authoritarian China, the government can only go so far in shaping public opinion. Last year, the same media regulator banned TV stations from featuring performers with tattoos, a feature long denounced by Han elites as an affront to traditional Confucian notions of filial piety. Until 2011, it was impossible for anyone with tattoos to join the Chinese army, primarily due to their association with foreign, "barbarian" cultures like the Mongols. Nowadays however, it is their association with subversive musical subcultures, mainly originating in the West, that the CPC objects to.

In October 2014, Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art encouraging Chinese creative industries to promote output reflecting “the spirit of Chinese culture.” His speech drew heavily on Mao Zedong’s 1942 Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art in which he likens artists to “engineers of the human soul.” According to Chinese state ideology, art and music serve not just as entertainment for the masses but as a means both to promote national identity and to wage a soft ideological power war against the West. Sina Entertainment, the Chinese state-run news media outlet states that it no longer allows content reflecting "dispirited culture," namely one rooted in Western individualism, something the government describes as "bourgeois decadence."

The way in which the CPC defines the acceptability of artistic output is often highly arbitrary however. An artist may be on a blacklist one day, and removed the next, as the Ministry of Culture takes aim at an ever-changing range of targets depending on the current circumstances. In order to buttress themselves against the Ministry's capricious whims, artists generally strive to keep their content clean, politically neutral and devoid of obscenity. For the most part, they stay out of trouble. However in 2015, the CPC launched a sudden and unexpected crackdown on China’s underground music scene by forcibly removing 50 songs from iQiyi and Youku, two popular Chinese streaming sites similar to YouTube. IN3, a rap group responsible for 17 of the tracks, were jailed for 5 days without charge. At the time, hip-hop was still relatively obscure but had begun to appear on the party’s radar owing to its heavy use of profanity and its propensity for tackling social issues. The Party’s recent focus on hip-hop in particular is most likely due to its growing popularity among Chinese youth. As rock music, extremely popular in the 1980s, became marginalized by censorship after 1989, hip-hop appears to be similarly being pushed out of the mainstream out of fear it could spark a youth rebellion. After a relatively lax period of censorship under Hu Jintao, the 2015 arrests were a clear signal that Xi Jinping had regained control of the Chinese cultural sphere and was prepared to use brute force to maintain it.

In 2017 after the overnight success of the hit TV show The Rap of China, a programme watched by over a billion people, hip-hop’s growing popularity clearly unnerved the CPC who, noticing the art form’s subversive potential, took swift action to ensure it was brought in line with core socialist values. Two competitors in ‘The Rap of China’, PG One from Harbin and GAI from Chongqing, were pulled from the show and reprimanded for their references to pornography and drug use. For a short period, all expressions of hip-hop culture, including the wearing of hoodies and baseball caps, were effectively banned from all state-controlled mainstream media on the grounds of encouraging “immoral behaviour”. In a bid to save his career, PG One offered a mealy-mouthed apology on Weibo, Chinese Twitter, for his misogynistic lyrics, stating that he’d been corrupted by “black culture.” In an internet frenzy, Chinese netizens hounded the young musician for his racism leading to him fading from public view and into relative obscurity. For hip-hop artists in China to survive the crackdown, many have had to radically re-brand themselves to reflect the aspirations of the Chinese state, even if it risks alienating their fans.

After getting into hot water with the authorities, GAI, an MC who gained notoriety after releasing a series of online videos in which he boasts of his involvement in the local mafia, quickly realized the necessity to rap to the government’s tune or risk losing a music career he’d staked his life on since the age of 16. To render his image acceptable the state, he started to wear a collar to conceal his neck tattoos. He also ditched his native Sichuan dialect and began to rap exclusively in Mandarin, the lingua franca of the Chinese nation. Many of his old fans now deride him as "Socialist Gai" for eschewing the edgy gangster image that first made him popular. Like PG One, he’s never quite been able to regain the status he once had, but at least for now he is able to earn a living from doing what he loves, albeit under the ever-watchful eye of the commissars.

The precise parameters of China’s hip-hop ban remain unclear and ill-defined. While traditional avenues for mainstream exposure like TV have effectively been locked off by the state, rappers are still able to promote their work online, sell CDs and perform both locally and internationally. Groups such as Higher Brothers, a four-man hip-hop crew from Chengdu, have maintained their popularity by appealing primarily to international audiences, most notably the Chinese diaspora in North America. The group’s frontier mentality enables them to take their eclectic brand of hip-hop and ‘trap music’ outside of the confines of the People’s Republic and into overseas communities like San Francisco and Vancouver. They’ve even received attention from the likes of Vice Magazine and have completed two hugely successful tours of the United States, a feat no other Chinese hip-hop act has achieved. Their songs are accessible and self-deprecating, humorously describe the vagaries of daily life for young people in urban China, rapping about anonymous hookups via WeChat, eating out of 7-11 convenience stores and using illegal taxis (black cabs) to get around the city. The inoffensiveness of their content may explain why they've so far evaded the censors. Some have even suggested that, given the group's international reach, the government may even attempt to use them to expand Chinese influence around the world.

While groups like Higher Brothers perform to crowds of thousands while racking up millions of YouTube views, hip-hop culture in China remains largely the preserve of hobbyists and enthusiasts, most of whom barely eking out a living doing what they love. Each week in an industrial basement venue in Beijing's Wudaokou district, a 10-man collective known as Dungeon Beijing perform to their small but dedicated group of fans. Charismatic frontman N-Bomb raps with a defiance that's rare in China and as a result he's become something of a folk hero in the underground Chinese hip-hop scene for his out-and-out rejection of everything deemed acceptable by the government and society. In his lyrics, he openly rebukes corrupt officials, the brainwashing of the youth by China's notoriously rigid education system and society's suppression of the individual by the collective. And, so long as his raps don't go beyond the confines of such venues, he gets away with it. At least for now.

Over in Shanghai, aspiring rappers cut their teeth battling and free-styling at Iron Mic, a yearly event run by American expat Dana Burton. It's here in a cramped subterranean venue that Max, one of China's best-known rappers, earned his stripes on the battle circuit. An ethnic Uyghur originally from Xinjiang province, Max moved to China's largest metropolis in order to find work and, like many disaffected 20-somethings, sought an outlet in which he was able to escape the grim exigencies of migrant life which, for many young people, can be mediocre at best. He made a name for himself as a prolific freestyler able to cleverly dismantle his opponents in rhyme form and quickly ascended the ranks of the battle hierarchy, in the process generating a huge buzz in the underground scene and later earning himself a place on The Rap of China.

Open mics like these offer spaces in which ordinary citizens are free to go against the grain of a society known for its stifling conformism. Hip-hop provides a way to satiate the increasingly strong impulse in Chinese society to rebel against stifling conformity. Whether or not hip-hop culture can survive, particularly in a state that isn’t keen to see it flourish economically, remains to be seen however. It may be the case that pushing the subculture underground by restricting its mainstream exposure may enable it to develop more organically as an art form, unencumbered by the need commercialize.

Ultimately however, the government itself has no control over what the youth like and want to listen to. The widespread mockery from Chinese web users aimed at "red rappers" like Su Han, a nationalist rapper at Beijing's Tsinghua University many suspect was promoted by the state, have caught the authorities off-guard. It appears that co-opting an art form known to be anti-system and infusing it with "Chinese qualities," as per Xi's directive, may prove trickier than first thought. Hip-hop has evidently tapped into a latent rebellious tendency in the Chinese youth, and despite the crackdown, its presence shows no signs of abating.


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