Underground Music in China: Hip-Hop


"Do you have freestyle?"

That's the buzz word in China these days. The catchphrase came from “The Rap of China”, the country’s first talent show that centers on hip-hop artists, many of them previously underground.

With hundreds of millions of views since its launch in late June, the show has quickly put these artists, as well as the music genre, into the limelight.

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DELICATE POLITICS

Ever since China's underground music and art culture started to really emerge in the 1980's, artists have had to release their work while maintaining a delicate relationship with authorities. Even today, the government still cracks down on what they consider vulgar culture.

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The first and most obvious challenge is censorship, which is hardly news in China. Most young people use VPNs to connect to overseas private networks that circumvent China’s so-called Great Firewall, which prohibits Google, Youtube, SoundCloud, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. The majority of young people’s music sharing remains on Chinese platforms like Weibo, the Twitter of China, or Xiami, a SoundCloud-like service that isn’t even available outside the country. While most young people now consider the Great Firewall a mere inconvenience, its long term effect on music in China is significant.

Hip-Hop Gives Chinese Dialects Fresh Expression

On his recent track “Stupid Foreigners,” rapper Cai Zhenhong — better known as “Xie Di” or “Fat Shady” — rails against arrogant and entitled expatriates living in his homeland. Although it drew attention primarily for its provocative subject matter, the track is also notable for being entirely in the Chengdu dialect, part of the family of Sichuan dialects spoken by over 100 million in China’s southwest.

Rap music in Chinese dialects started to emerge in the 1990s, around the same time as Mandarin rap. While some dialect rappers regard their art as an avenue to fame and fortune, for others, it is a tool for promoting and protecting local language and culture.

Online, hip-hop fans debate whether Mandarin or dialects are better suited to rap. In a discussion on Q&A website Zhihu, a commentator claims that Mandarin has less colorful slang and a monotonous flow, owing to its four tones. By comparison, the Changsha dialect — from central China’s Hunan province — has seven tones, and Cantonese has nine. Yet using Mandarin to make music gives artists a wider market for their songs and a larger vocabulary to draw from: Most rappers, educated after Mandarin became the primary language of instruction in schools, have a stronger command of Mandarin than their local dialect.

The show that inspires Chinese consumers to talk about streetwear

Hip hop fashion and streetwear culture, though popular in the West, have never gone completely mainstream in China. But that may be changing owing to a popular online reality show and rap competition called The Rap of China, which features four celebrity producers tasked with training and guiding a rotating cast of young competing rappers.

The first episode of the show, which is produced by China’s largest online video platform iQiyi, launched on June 24, drawing over 100 million viewers within the first four hours, according to local Chinese media. The average viewership of each episode is currently around 200 million.

One direct result of this wildly popular show is that a series of high-end streetwear brands, including Off-White, Vetements, Supreme and Raf Simons, have become household names among China’s millennials.


STORYTELLING & RAP: CHINESE CULTURE

Rap music in China seems like a paradox at first glance. How did this music genre borne out of the stories of struggle, joy, and life of black Americans find an audience in China? Like other subcultures, is China simply rap’s latest home and playground? Or is there a deeper connection (intersection one might say) between rap’s history and China that makes it more appealing?

Much like the everyday stories told during the golden age of hip-hop, Emcees in China are using rap as an outlet to talk about their frustrations, triumphs, or apathy towards society. Without delving deeper, one can easily misrepresent rap as a subculture transplant that gave the first form of spoken poetry over a beat and influenced oral storytelling to Chinese people.

To understand the appeal of the golden age of rap, one needs to go back in China’s history to see there’s a closer link between rap and Chinese culture.

Storytelling over instruments in China has been common for centuries, most notably in Fuzhou Storytelling (福州评话) delivered over a cymbal or wooden block and the more modern Kuaiban (快板) (dubbed “the original Chinese rap”) where a rhyming verse was spoken rhythmically over bamboo clappers. Even the Chinese term for rap (说唱 | shuōchàng, which literally means ‘speak and sing’ ) predates hip-hop; and up until the late 20th century 说唱 was used as an umbrella description for all forms of traditional Chinese storytelling.

Traditional Chinese storytelling was used for a wide range of reasons, from social commentary in the dynasty eras to keeping family ideals and morals alive for next generations – paralleling many of the same themes in the golden age of hip-hop. Chinese youth, perhaps unknowingly, are actually continuing a long lineage of traditional folk shuōchàng, drawing inspirations from the clever lyricism in the golden age of rap to create their own unique Chinese spin/cultural asset.

For Chinese rappers, identity is expanded beyond the ‘hood’. Unlike in the US where a specific neighbourhood reflects your socioeconomic class, there’s no equivalent in China. So instead of pride in “reppin’ your hood” (e.g. NYC, Compton, Detroit, Atlanta, East v. West), Chinese rappers state their identity with regions and local dialects. It’s common to hear Chinese rap referencing well-known local gems/trademarks and rapping entire songs in local dialect.

So while hip-hop can seem like a paradox in China, an oddity even – it’s worth a closer look, to see it has a snugger fit and closer connection than what first appears.

Demographics

Population: 1.379 billion (2016) World Bank

Life expectancy: 75.99 years (2015) World Bank

Population growth rate: 0.5% annual change (2016) World Bank

GNI per capita: 15,500 PPP dollars (2016) World Bank

Growth rate: 0.47% (2009 est.) (159th)

Official languages: Mandarin Chinese, Standard Mandarin

Age structure: 0-14 years: 17.1% 
15-24 years: 13.27%
25-54 years: 48.42%
55-64 years: 10.87%
65 years and over: 10.35% 


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