Last year, China was hit by a phenomenon unprecedented in its history. Close to a billion of its citizens tuned in to watch ‘The Rap of China,’ a competition designed to introduce hip-hop to a broader public. It was so successful that several of the show’s participants, many of whom were relative unknowns from the underground, went on to sign lucrative record deals and become mainstream stars. The rising popularity of a genre known for its politically subversive content and heavy use of profanity clearly unnerved some of the more staid, rigid ideologues in the Communist Party who saw the art form’s potential to encourage youngsters to stray from collectivist values.
Subsequently two high-profile rappers, GAI and PG One, both competitors in ‘The Rap of China,’ were reprimanded for their misogynistic content. The latter was singled out for particular disapproval by the Communist Youth League for his references to pornography and drug use. A nationwide government crackdown ensued and hip-hop culture was effectively banned from the heavily state-controlled mainstream media on the grounds that it encourages “immoral behaviour.” PG One responded to this development with a rather mealy-mouthed apology on Weibo (Chinese Twitter), stating that he’d been corrupted by “black culture,” a statement that drew accusations of racism from Chinese netizens. For a brief time a Chinese hip-hop celebrity, he’s since faded from public view and into relative obscurity. For hip-hop artists in China to survive the crackdown and to buttress themselves against the vicissitudes of the censors, many are having to radically rebrand themselves to bring them in line with the core socialist values of the Chinese state.
After the winner of ‘The Rap of China’ competition, GAI, who is known for his idiosyncratic blend of bass-heavy southern rap and traditional Chinese folk instrumentation, got into hot water with the authorities, he realized he would need to adapt and rap to the regime’s tune. From there on out, he wore a collar to conceal his plethora of neck tattoos, a feature deemed “tasteless, vulgar and obscene” by the administration’s publicity department, and switched his stylistic emphasis from thug life to rap songs blended with traditional wuxia imagery to evoke a strong sense of Chinese national identity. A talented singer as well as an emcee, the diminutive Chongqing artist, who used to rap loudly and unapologetically in his native Sichuan dialect, now rhymes exclusively in Mandarin, the country’s lingua franca, in line with the state’s preference for unifying the Chinese nation and its disparate groups. His previously edgier references to crime have been replaced with grandiose tributes to Chinese folk legends, gods, and the mythology of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in an effort to appease the higher-ups. For now at least, he’s managed to placate those in power. The 31-year-old, who initially rose to fame with his hit song ‘Gangster’ (which has been removed from China’s YouTube equivalent, Youku) now exalts the party and its slogan “Long Live Our Motherland”, much to the chagrin of his old fans, many of whom who now deride him as ‘Socialist Gai.’
In October 2014, Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art encouraging those in China’s creative industries to promote output commensurate with communist values. In his speech, Xi stressed that Chinese creatives should “reflect the spirit of Chinese culture.” This emphasis is part of a broader spectrum of government restriction, inspired in large part in by Mao Zedong’s 1942 Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art, which drew in turn upon Stalin’s analogy of artists as “engineers of the human soul.” Intellectual and creative output in China must increasingly be used to wage an ideological war against the West and its import of a bourgeois “funeral culture” that encourages nihilism and self-indulgence rather than infusing people with ideological zeal.
The rules laid out by the Ministry of Culture are nebulous and sporadically enforced. That is, until they’re applied abruptly and harshly in a rather intimidating display of government power. Back in 2015, the regime launched a sweeping crackdown by removing 50 Chinese and Taiwanese hip hop tracks from popular streaming sites like iQiyi and Youku, and IN3, the rap group responsible for 17 of the tracks, were jailed for five days without charge.
Higher Brothers, a four-man hip-hop crew from Chengdu, have so far evaded the censors and have even managed to garner success internationally, most notably among the Asian-American community. In fact, they’ve been dubbed Chinese hip-hop’s great hope, particularly in light of their hit-single “Made in China,” a rap video that has garnered over ten million views on YouTube. The group’s charismatic frontman MaSiWei wears dreadlocks and models himself on US trap rappers like Famous Dex.
Far from crudely appropriating from black American culture, however, they’ve recontextualized it within their own unique experience of life in Chengdu, asserting a kind of Sichuan patriotism by rapping in their local dialect whilst referencing aspects of Chinese city life rooted in their own experiences. They’ve so far received attention from the likes of Vice magazine and have recently returned from a hugely successful tour of the United States, a feat no other Chinese hip-hop act has managed. They embody a frontier mentality and a freedom to mix influences which enable them to take their distinctive brand outside of the confines of the People’s Republic. This is in large part thanks to their label 88rising which has been active in taking Asian hip-hop acts out of their cultural milieu and exposing them to worldwide audiences. Whether they can continue producing their flamboyant Chengdu brand of rap remains uncertain. Xi’s desire for Chinese artists to “reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit” is hardly evinced by the braid-wearing, streetwear-loving crew. Whether their free-wheeling songwriting will one day draw the ire of a rigid communist functionary remains to be seen.
While few Chinese rappers would dare to broach politics in their lyrics, much of the music being made undeniably has a political impact. Part of Higher Brothers’ popularity with young people is attributable to their out-and-out rejection of conventionality. In a deeply conservative culture like China’s with its tendency to produce math geniuses rather than anything approaching cool, they represent an increasingly culturally disaffected generation of urbanite youth for whom the cost of living has become unaffordable, jobs are underpaid, and homeownership and, with it, marriage are increasingly out of reach.
In recent years, however, China’s young people who have done everything in textbook Confucian fashion have started to become disillusioned. Counter-culture offers an escape from the grim exigencies of a highly competitive and often unrewarding society, allowing 20- and 30-somethings to forget themselves for a while and escape into an alter-ego. It’s no surprise to see open mic nights a common occurrence in cities like Beijing and Shenzhen, where aspiring rappers cut their teeth battling and freestyling, deliberately going against the grain of a society that exalts educational attainment above all else and sees artistic expression outside of a formal Chinese context as indulgent and inward-looking.
The precise parameters of China’s hip-hop ban remain vague and ill-defined. Instead, artists remain subject to the capricious whims of the commissars, many of whom will increasingly wish to stem foreign influences in their country as China carries on its apparently inexorable rise to global dominance. While the traditional avenues for mainstream exposure like TV have been closed off, at least for now, for the time being, rappers are still able to perform, sell CDs, and grow their fanbases both locally and internationally. Internet-savvy Chinese fans will continue to use VPNs to scale the Great Firewall and access content deemed too subversive for the censors, while artists will find creative ways of expanding their influence both at home and abroad. The challenge to this nascent wave of Chinese hip-hop is whether it can sustain itself as a musical genre and subculture, or whether it will fade away into insignificance as state authoritarianism collides with artistic expression.
Thomas Clements is an author specialising in literature about Autism and Buddhism. He divides his time between his native London and Beijing. You can follow him @tclementsuk