Emerging Chinese musicians finding new expression through resurgent rap music

In 2018, the censors who oversee issued a directive to the nation’s entertainment industry: Don’t feature artists with tattoos and those who represent hip-hop or any other subculture.Right after that well-known rapper GAI missed a gig on a popular singing competition despite a successful first appearance. Speculation went wild: Fans worried that this was the end for hip-hop in China. Some media labeled it a ban.The genre had just experienced a banner year, with a hit competition-format TV show minting new stars and introducing them to a country of 1.4 billion people. Rappers accustomed to operating on little money and performing in small bars became household names. The announcement from censors came at the peak of that frenzy. A silence descended, and for months no rappers appeared on the dozens of variety shows and singing competitions on Chinese TV.But by the end of that year, everything was back in full swing. “Hip-hop was too popular,” says Nathanel Amar, a researcher of Chinese pop culture at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China. “They couldn’t censor the whole genre.”What had looked like the end for Chinese hip-hop was just the beginning.Since then, hip-hop’s explosive growth in China has only continued. It has done so by carving out a space for itself while staying clear of the government’s red lines, balancing genuine creative expression with something palatable in a country with powerful censors.Today, musicians say they’re looking forward to an arriving golden age.Much of the energy can be found in Chengdu, a city in China’s southwestern Sichuan region. Some of the biggest acts in China today hail from Sichuan; Wang Yitai, Higher Brothers and Vava are just a few of the names that have made Chinese rap mainstream, performing in a mix of Mandarin and Sichuan dialects. While hip-hop in Chengdu started out with the very heavy sounds of trap, its mainstreaming has meant artists have broadened out to lighter sounds, from R&B to the trending afrobeat rhythms popularized by Beyonce.Although Chinese rap has been operating underground for decades in cities like Beijing, it is the Sichuan region — known internationally for its spicy cuisine, its panda reserve and its status as the birthplace of the late leader Deng Xiaoping — that has come to dominate.”There’s a lot of rhymes in rap. And from a young age, we were exposed to language with a lot of rhymes. And I feel like we’re its origin,” says Mumu Xiang, who is from Sichuan and attended a rap concert recently held in the city.The dialect lends itself to rap because it’s softer than Mandarin Chinese and there are a lot more rhymes, says 25-year-old rapper Kidway, from a town just outside Chengdu. “Take the word ‘gang’ in English. In Sichuanese, there’s a lot of rhymes for that word ‘fang, sang, zhuang,’ the rhymes are already there,” he says.Chengdu is also welcoming to outsiders, says Haysen Cheng, a 24-year-old rapper who moved to the city from Hong Kong in 2021 to work on his music at the invitation of Harikiri, a British producer who has helped shape the scene and worked with Chengdu’s biggest acts.Part of the city’s hip-hop lore centers around a collective called Chengdu Rap House or CDC, founded by a rapper called Boss X, whose fans affectionately call him “Xie laober” in the Sichuan dialect. The city has embraced rap, as its originators like Boss X went from making music in a run-down apartment in an old residential community to performing in a stadium for thousands. At Boss X’s performance in March, fans sang along and cheered in Sichuanese. Even with a ban on the audience standing up, standard at all stadium performances in China, the energy was infectious.”When I came to mainland China, they showed me more love in like three or four months than I ever received in Hong Kong,” Cheng says. He got to collaborate with the Higher Brothers, one of the few Chinese rap groups who also have global recognition. “The people here actually want each other to succeed.”The price of going mainstream, though, means the underground scene has evaporated. Chengdu was once known for its underground rap battles. Those no longer happen, as freestyling usually involves profanity and other content the authorities deem unacceptable. The last time there was a rap battle in the city, rappers say, authorities quickly showed up and shut it down. These days it’s all digital, with people uploading short clips of their music to Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version, to get noticed.Kidway says he learned to rap from going to these battles and competing against other rappers his age. He once worked at a renovation company but ditched it to pursue rap full time.But even though the rap battles are gone, the field has more rappers than ever. That’s a good thing. “The more players there are,” he says, “the more interesting it is.”Rarely can a single cultural product be said to have originated a whole genre of music. But the talent competition/reality TV show “The Rap of China” has played an outsized role in building China’s rap industry.The first season, broadcast on IQiyi, a web streaming platform, brought rap and hip-hop culture to households across the country. The first season’s 12 episodes drew 2.5 billion views online, according to Chinese media reports.In the first season, the show relied on its judges’ star power to draw in an audience — namely Kris Wu, a Chinese Canadian singer and former member of the hit K-pop group EXO. At that point in time, Wu was at the height of his fame, and his comments as a judge that season even became internet memes. “Do you have freestyle?” he asked a contestant, dead serious, on Episode One — a moment that went on to live in internet infamy because people doubted Wu’s rap credentials.Two winners emerged from the first season: GAI and PG One. Shortly after their win, the internet was awash with rumors about the less-than-perfect doings of PG One’s personal life. The Communist Youth League also criticized one of his old songs for content that appeared to be about using cocaine, very much violating one of the censor’s red lines.Then came the 2018 meeting where censors reminded TV channels of who could not appear on their programs, namely anyone who represented hip-hop. PG One was finding that any attempts to release were quickly taken down by platforms. The platform, IQiyi, even took down the entire first season for a while.But by late summer 2018, fans were excited to hear that they could expect a second season of “The Rap of China,” though there was a rebrand. The name in English stayed the same, but in Chinese it signaled a new direction. The show’s name changed from “China Has Hip-Hop” to “China Has ‘Shuochang,’” a term that also refers to traditional forms of storytelling.Regulators had given the go-ahead for hip-hop to continue its growth, but they had to follow the lines set by the government censors. Hip-hop was now shuochang and a symbol of youth culture; it had to stay away from mentions of drugs and sex. Otherwise, though, it could proceed.”It was a success for the Chinese regulators. … They really succeeded in coopting the hip-hop artists,” Amar says. “It’s like a contract: If you want to be popular, if you want to be on TV shows, you have to respect the red line.”With tight censorship on the entertainment industry and a ban on mentions of drugs and sex in lyrics, artists have reacted in two ways. Either they wholeheartedly embrace the displays of patriotism and nationalism, or they avoid the topics.Some, like GAI, have fully taken on the government’s mantle in the mainstreaming of hip-hop. He won “The Rap of China” with a song called “Not Friendly” in which, in classic hip-hop fashion, he dissed other rappers that he didn’t name. “I’m not friendly. I can break your pen at any moment. Tear down your flashy words. … My enemies you better pray for you to have a good end.”Just a few years later, Gai is singing about China’s glorious history on the CCTV’s Spring Festival New Year’s Gala broadcast, a tightly scripted entertainment show with comedy sketches, songs and dance performances that is watched by families while celebrating Chinese New Year.”Five thousand years of history flows past like quicksand. I’m proud to be born in Cathay,” he sings, wearing a Qing Dynasty-inspired Tang jacket.The red lines have also pushed artists to be more creative. For Chinese rap to thrive, artists have to find original voices, they say. 32-year-old rapper Fulai describes his own music as chill rap or “bedroom music” — not in the euphemistic sense, but the type of music you listen to as you lay in bed. His upcoming album, he says, is about ordinary things like fights with his wife and washing dishes.Still, Fulai says he talks about sex a lot in his lyrics. C

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