Rap Of China is part of the Black Book Of Odes in this century.
Beneath the glamour afforded by Rap Of China, which cost some £23.7 million and has garnered over 2.5 billion views, Chinese hip hop unravels the exciting tale of a cultural uprising in the hearts and minds of China’s digital natives. There’s the new collection of cool outfits to try. There’s the caution of Chinese rappers having to watch their temper and tone down controversial rhymes in the face of the government’s Great Firewall – not theirs, but some other joker who might spoil the market for them.
There’s the good old Chinese underground hip hop scene closely watching the commercial artists, ready to criticize them with the constitution of hip hop. There’s the pop artists attempting to turn hip hop into state sponsored propaganda. There’s the netizens who appreciate hip hop, and netizens who criticize hip hop as decadent, from its music to its culture, on social platforms from Weibo to Zhihu.
There’s prevailing stories like gender discrimination, which isn’t a big issue in China, and then there’s cultural appropriation, the most dangerously controversial topic in the entire genre. Dangerous not because of online sentiments, but because of the government’s hard sanctions on entertainment culture, which can spell the end of a foolhardy singer’s career.
And perhaps the biggest struggle of them all – how to take hip hop and make it Chinese. How to make it flourish in China as a distinctive cultural movement with good values netizens can confidently say they are proud of, rather than a maligned and often misunderstood subculture or some messy import of American culture with all of its controversy, and its flaws. And then, how to export its glory to the world and make people bob their heads to this dope made in China.
Therein lies the raw beauty and visceral power of Chinese hip hop. The kind of beauty that carries a stigma and is not fully accepted, especially in Asian countries.
It’s the kind of beauty you use to describe a tattoo.
We learned it’s black culture. So, we studied from them. And now, it’s 2017. The world is more close. Black people watch Japanese cartoons. We listen [to] hip hop. It’s same thing. We’re more close.
– Masiwei, in an interview with VICE News
As Chinese hip hop goes mainstream, the rest of the world developes an appetite for this music. Ironically, this is thanks to Google and YouTube, which are banned in China, though people use proxies if they have to communicate with friends outside China. Chinese rappers find themselves a lot of new opportunities to grow and interact with foreign cultures.
As one would expect, China’s ministers exhibit great pride in the development of their global cities. The hosting of grand events like the Shanghai Expo and Beijing Olympics are testament to this. They are also interested in soft power, a concept introduced by Harvard’s Joseph Nye, to shape our preferences and our image of China and faces from China, by pure attractiveness alone. Because of its natural affinity to evoke an appreciation of beauty, music is one instrument. Poetry is another.
Rap, then, is both an opportunity and a threat.
South Korea’s bubblegum pop, lightly tinged with a taste of trap in every song, sanctioned by the state and endorsed by pretty Korean faces promising tourist attractions made in heaven, is a prime example. Many nations learn of South Korea’s success with envy.
To that end, many countries have enacted plans of their own to revitalize their culture – faces, dresses, songs, dances, artworks, calligraphy, monuments – as a vibrant, beautiful festival that you must experience at least once in this fleeting life. Morocco is the mecca of music festivals. The Venice biennale is alive with brilliant exhibitions and installations. India escorts you into a cultural sanctuary with the Taj Mahal and Mahabodhi temple.
China’s wish is no different. Like a lonely woman who wants nothing but to be loved, a rich nation in the 21st century wants to be admired so that it doesn’t dissipate into nothing.
The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture.
– Hu Jintao
Following former president Hu Jintao’s speech in 2007 on strengthening Chinese culture and the country’s soft power, and Xi Jinping echoing that sentiment in 2014, billions of dollars were poured into its culture industry, with the goal of making China, its music and its people endearing to the world.
Yet when we think of the words China and power, the images we typically have of is still China the economic powerhouse, or Asian Dragon, its military might, communist government, and quite unfortunately its “reputation” with press, religious, and artistic freedom. We’re aware that China has a vast history with traditional music, but we don’t take much notice of the strong growth of its pop industry – primed to take over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the entire Pacific region. Either you’re a big fan already or you know nothing about Chinese pop.
A black Chinese dragon encircles Zhongnanhai, the house of government in Beijing. Is it a threat or a beast complicit to dreams of the nation?
Chinese hip hop, in turn, is prime to become China’s cultural black Asian Dragon, one that its ministers did not groom, a fire breathing hot-headed thing with two gold chains dangling from its neck, that makes China look incredibly cool and dangerously spicy but must be kept under a leash lest it rears its ugly head toward its authoritarian government’s vision of “the Chinese dream”.
The rappers from Rap Of China are privately owned startups, not state sponsored initiatives. After Ai Wei Wei and Cui Jian, the government house in Beijing is no stranger to Chinese artists attempting to use contemporary art or rock music to openly criticise its policies. But the social or political upheaval is not the threat coming from modern rappers in China.
The threat is an import of culture and unhealthy images for young minds in China. The American rap industry has a naughty tendency to indulge in lyrical hedonism and let Chinese values and culture rot. Therefore, these singers will have to bear the caveats set by the state to earn the privilege to perform.
Old school Chinese hip hop was a cultural by-product literally imported from the US, from old movies like 8 Mile to icons like Jay-Z and Eminem. As pioneers of Chinese rap, Taiwan also played a part to influence the growth of rap in China. Like with all imports of foreign culture, they are treated warily by China’s Ministry Of Culture. However, the Communist Youth League did have their own hip hop group come up with the awkwardly pleasant This Is China “patriotic rap” in English for the 95th anniversary of China’s Communist Party.
In this Internet trap music era, media companies like 88rising and ZHONG TV, with the latter focusing hard on rap from China and Taiwan, have a direct influence with the outlets they provide, where anyone can easily watch their videos. It was Rap Of China that gave the push, in a flagrant and flamboyant manner that is really such a feature of hip hop’s bling culture, for what it unabashedly coins R!CH – Rise! Chinese Hip Hop.
If Chinese hip hop becomes the cultural behemoth that China exports to the world even in the face of strict media regulations and bad publicity – which a rap star is no stranger to anyway – this will be a monumental feat in the annals of music and the arts, and probably a pretty amusing one. However, the prospects of a rapper that once ran afoul of authorities and doesn’t pick up his act at once will no longer exist. We will soon observe this contrast with GAI and PG One, two of China’s rap stars.
For China’s government and the citizens living across this great nation, if there’s one thing they agree on, it’s that they are too proud of their vast history and culture to let Western influences completely take over their music. Even for hip hop, a genre they are graciously taking from America – no, especially because they took it from America. The fact that Chinese culture itself has been appropriated in American hip hop music quite often, with all its bias toward the oriental, adds a lot of spice to the weed.
Chinese hip hop has many elements absolutely reminiscent of hip hop in the US, paying homage to its roots in many ways. From Brooklyn’s trap beats to Atlanta’s rap cadences, English lexicons like freestyle and swag, streetwear jackets, gold chains, and tarantula dreadlocks, the hip hop lifestyle is in China on an extended visa like it is in many Asian countries. In countries where guns and marijuana are banned, people here don’t shy themselves from enjoying a different kind of dope.
However, it is worth noting that rap’s explicit nature relies heavily on lyrical expression for its visceral impact, even if they’re tuned to commercially dope trap music. As we’ve noticed in American rap even, the artist tends to use cryptic lexicons to brand his music, his message, his city, and thus his identity. Similarly, true audience appreciation for some Chinese rap songs is limited to those who live not just with the language, but also the dialect, and the exact city they grew up in.
This is the Analects of Chinese hip hop.
The Chinese junzi 君子 is coming back to its true meaning “son of a prince”. The old portrait of a spiritually and intellectually cultivated man from the Analects of Confucius, the strategies from Sun Tzu’s Art Of War, and political musings of Machiavelli’s The Prince have come together in Chinese rap. The expression of cultural paradox has never been so lit in China. This is a cultural gem Chinese artisans have been cultivating for years now. We’re just new visitors to the tea shop.
Considering that Machiavelli would have been very cynical of babblings about virtue and Confucius would have been appalled at such contrived virtuous behaviour, Chinese hip hop has set the stage on fire for sociological and philosophical warfare between Eastern and Western traditions and virtues. Right down to the tattoo debate and the use of profanities, there is a hotbed of public opinions for everything that defines the modern junzi 君子.
Swearing makes sense in English language hip hop songs, but it just doesn’t make much sense in Chinese songs. We have different societies and cultures – our environment is more conservative.
The state monitors all of these developments.
China is by no means a homogenous society, with millions of Muslims and Christians living across the vast nation. The liturgical seven sins from Christianity throw the gauntlet down to Buddhist and Taoist teachings, regardless of whether Chinese citizens consider themselves religious or not. You don’t see much Christian allegory from Chinese music, but hip hop will bring the missionaries over. This is manifest in songs like ICE’s Trust In God.
We are witnessing the rise of a youth culture that knows how to recognize and keep power, gain respect, wage sociocultural war, uphold a sense of justice by ruthlessly calling out injustice, show love and kindness to those who deserve it, like parents and friends, and be utterly merciless against those who do not.
In living up to American hip hop’s ideals, they are assimilating a foreign culture heavily influenced by Machiavelli’s thinking and coming back to Sun Tzu’s philosophy, whether they’re aware of it or not. However, rap is a genre that emphasizes hard on the OG, forcing rappers to ensure that, be it in harmony or discord with the beat, every rhyme they spit is a brutally honest representation of their lives.
Thanks to all that, we get to see Chinese rappers lose their shit over a beat.
On the surface, Xie Di’s 瓜老外Melon Foreigners from 2017 is a crass rant from an edgy, racist rapper kid from Sichuan’s capital city targeted toward expats. It sparked outrage and ignited flame wars in an instant. People were quick to point out that he was dissing the very same foreign culture from which his entire Slim Shady style, the Pikachu Lamborghini, and street outfits came from. On his camp, netizens echoed his sentiments.
It’s definitely wrong, it’s definitely full of drama, but it didn’t fail on its purpose to have Chinese netizens make this molehill into an ugly mountain.
At least for like 24 hours at most.
So many stupid foreigners
Fuck off stupid foreigners
It starts off hard and flagrant in its message, and gua lao wai is repeated so many times that this can dangerously become your first lesson in mandarin. In fact, somewhere in the song he just stops caring about melody and simply repeats gua lao wai in the most musically unpleasant manner you can imagine.
Now you know how to say “stupid foreigners” in Sichuanese.
People have genes, so be very careful
Go ask your grandmother about your genealogy
Ask about the Eight Nation Alliance
He alludes his heritage to the most violent anti-colonial uprising in China’s history, instigated by a Chinese secret society so dangerous it needed a coalition of eight foreign countries to quell. The Yihequan, or Fists of Harmony and Justice aimed to exterminate colonial powers and religions. The wars were filled with horror stories of violence and beheadings, from both sides. Obviously, with this verse he’s trying to allude to the cause of this historical uprising – foreigners coming here and thinking they can get away doing whatever they want to Chinese locals.
He also makes a big show of chopping off the head of a 瓜老外 mannequin with a bat.
This show of violence might seem like grounds for criticism. But remember that American rap has an entire repertoire of controversial songs that would make this look tame. Nas bragged about robbing foreigners in Life’s A Bitch back in 1994. His idol Eminem has literally rapped about drug addiction, rape, and murder in his tracks.
[I’m] cursing the shit out of you
And you can’t even understand it
Hands down the funniest line in this entire piece of crap he even bothered to record.
It’s also worth pointing out that he makes it a point to mention:
I respect my foreign friends
But to 瓜老外 I say fuck your mother
With the rest of the lyrics in heavy Sichuanese, “respect” was the only word he used in English. A diss track is always made with lyrical vitriol, in response to something that pissed off the rapper in some way. And this one was definitely in response to something a certain Spanish 瓜老外 did with a Chinese girl outside a particular bar in Chengdu. The very street he chose to stroll in, in his video is clearly not coincidence.
This is a Chinese man who refined his entire rap style, attitude, and image from Eminem. He is literally a product of America’s soft power, and it’s not just his taste in Timberland boots. American culture has been ingrained into his personal philosophy. He has been coming up with tracks that share the motif of rejecting traditional Confucian values in Chinese society, forging your own identity, living your own life, and doing whatever the fuck you want – very predictable of Western values.
There was a social repercussion from this track, with foreigners (meaning Caucasians) receiving a lot of unwarranted hate on the streets.
[The track] has been determined to be discriminatory against foreigners.
…several foreigners filed complaints through their local consulates, which went to the Ministry Of Culture in Beijing and [they] handed down an issue to the Sichuan municipality to deal with. And since then Shady has been called in, and it’s looking like he may be banned from producing music in the future.
– Charlie, music industry insider from Chengdu Living podcast
In this case, the state’s decision to put a leash on this rapper’s career for uploading hateful content is probably warranted. It’s still interesting to note that, even though his style bleeds with Eminem, his cultural upbringing and motivations are, in essence, very Chinese, though a little too much Yihequan.
Freedom of speech is a highly contested topic, but in today’s China, Beijing will make that decision. In hindsight, he should’ve made the distinction between foreign friends and 瓜老外 a bit clearer, but hey, there is controversy and fresh drama to be milked.
Well, not that anyone cares about this old news anymore.
Wang Hao, stage name PG One, is a ranked #1 from Rap Of China. However, he begins a new year in the mainstream mired in controversy. This is the first misbehaving rapper from Rap Of China to be targeted by Beijing early 2018 on such a public scale, in their bid to erase the kind of hip hop culture that they did not approve.
His 2015 track Christmas Eve was criticized for insinuating drug use “white powder” and objectification of women “they all become my Barbie dolls”. This is the type of music that would be regular dope in America, the type you’d expect from Rick Ross and Gunplay. The Communist Youth League and All-China Women’s Federation, not surprisingly, publicly denounced his lyrics. This is 96 hours after he got caught in a media frenzy for an affair with a married actress that probably never happened.
Flame wars were raging between fans and netizens from Weibo to Zhihu. Somebody even found photos of him with marijuana, adding more fuel to the fire. Wang Hao did make a statement of apology on Weibo, blaming his actions on “influence” from “black music” and “Western culture”, which got him even more flak because he just appropriated black culture and blamed it when he got in trouble. In this hot period from January to February, ZHONG TV uploaded his old hits, like Number One and HIM, with English subtitles.
And this, is because the man himself went quiet for months after the backlash, having his music removed from all major streaming platforms in China like Xiami, QQ Music, and Tencent video. Even his Weibo account was emptied.
Following this fallout on January 2018, China’s top media regulator banned “tattoos, hip hop culture, non-mainstream culture, and decadent culture” from air. Its publicity director Guo Changli issued “4 absolute rules” that must be followed by media companies if they’re looking to broadcast artists on TV.
They were not allowed to use artists whose:
- Heart and morality are not aligned with the party and whose morality is not noble
2. Are tasteless, vulgar and obscene
3. Whose ideological level is low and have no class
4. Those with stains, scandals and problematic moral integrity
The issue this time was not hip hop’s potential to incite rebellion, but hip hop itself. This was a campaign against potential drug abuse and, where the Women’s Federation was concerned, abuse against women in China. And enforced it was. Scores of rappers were removed from shows, despite performing without an overt hip hop tone, simply because of their history of allegiance to the swag.
It’s oddly beguiling when we realise that many rappers the likes of PG One, Tizzy T and Ty, fellow Rap Of China contestants, have no qualms rapping about drugs and bitches in their lowkey to high key tracks, appropriating American black culture in the lifestyle they are projecting with Chinese identities. This is not limited to male rappers too.
It’s a romantic, personal diaspora as they journey from the land of Confucius – filled with American white (or black) man’s pleasures, blissful but never satiated – to a toxic paradise filled with weed, vixens, neon lights, and money stacks, almost as if it doesn’t even occur to them that what is guilty pleasure in America is either unlawful or frowned upon in China. It was only after the government crackdown on hip hop that rappers scrambled to dilute their lyrics in order to avoid the same fate as PG One.
As we enter the second season of Rap Of China right now, news about PG One were lowkey things like track uploads and awkward posts about “the future”. Even so, his fans abroad were still passionate enough to get him on the billboard in Times Square as a birthday present on April 24. Furthermore, in August he released a batch of self-designed hoodies and caps for his clothing line DeeVan on Taobao, which got over 2.6 million yuan in sales, and the store made a campaign to donate 0.3 percent of each sale to charity. Clearly, his public image is undergoing rehab.
Interestingly, despite a ban on hip hop itself, Rap Of China’s season 2 still airs.
What does it mean to be gangster in China?
This GAI, real name Zhou Yan, the other ranked #1 from Rap Of China, was notorious underground for a repertoire of trap heavy gangster music, such as the infamous Gang$te in 2015, which got hit by media regulators quite fast. You clearly do not need to know what he’s saying to understand what he’s trying to say – the tattoos, rugged overture, postures, and body language already tell half the story.
This man is China’s voice in the menacing genre of gangsta rap, a world where young people born poor hustle to survive alone, parents were a luxury they couldn’t afford, and police are retarded. His music follows the footsteps of 50 Cent and Waka Flocka, with the only difference being lack of guns.
As a youth my family was poor so I had to learn many worldly skills.
– Confucius, Analects (9:6)
This means, he’s just telling people that he’s Gang$te. It has all of the glorious elements that would make English tweeting armchair feminists rage on Twitter with their “complex” rants on how boys should behave, as if they give a shit. By no means this is how a junzi behaves. This is just GO$H’s C-Trap, music that makes you feel like breaking into your own house and placing your teacher in detention. He’s not trying to make socio-political statements or anything, though he’s not portraying fiction either.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it seems he never will.
Online sentiments are the least of Chinese gangsta rap’s worries, because it is the tattoos, the postures, the rugged overture, the language, the body language and especially the gangster that is banned on TV. Falling into the same edict banning hip hop personalities, GAI was removed from Hunan TV’s Singer.
All you get now is a sad grey exclamation mark on video thumbnails featuring him on Youku. Which seems odd considering he song he performed (a remake of kung fu film The Swordsman theme song) was pretty decent, his outfit and mannerisms were decent, and nothing he did on the show had a speck from his GO$H C-Trap repertoire.
Gangsta rap from America, such as T.I’s Black Man and Donald Glover’s This Is America harshly criticise authority but are welcomed by Americans. Even the vacuous blend of “loud melodic trap” from the likes of 6IX9INE and Bobby Shmurda have audiences from Asia enjoying their music on Spotify. But this was not the case a generation ago. Born literally out of socio-political strife, gangsta rap addressed police brutality and racial prejudice, in the hardest way possible – with threats of violence.
Using the word “commentary” in place of “criticism” is an insult to this hard, unforgiving style of rap. Gangsta rap is a fermentation process that consumes what armchair Twitter feminists would call “male anger” and “toxic masculinity”, in the absence of social justice and inequity. This was the type of music that put NWA on the FBI’s radar. Politicians both Democrat and Republican, from Tipper Gore to Dan Quayle, criticized it as an illness to American values. Today, this is even Marco Rubio’s favourite genre.
In China, it is simply not possible to criticise the government and walk away completely free. The hundreds of parodies and jibes made at Trump and rap songs harshly criticizing the police are not things you can replicate for China’s Communist Party if you’re living there and don’t want to go to jail. For rappers, not only do they have to consider this, they also have to dilute verses and even any part of their stage presence that represents gross portions of American culture and guilty pleasures.
Since becoming aware of the bans, GAI has worked hard to brand his image closer to “socialist values”. He recorded and performed the Great Wall with dance crew Bad Five, a music video conveniently subtitled in English, best described as “patriotic gangsta rap” that, admittedly, makes China look really cool. He also recorded Endless Flow with fellow rappers Bridge and C-Block’s DamnShine, also subtitled in English, a piece of gangsta rap with a more personal message. Amidst the wax lyrical of remembering your roots, there is a verse that actually advocates filial piety!
In a unique twist, gangsta rap from America is flipped from being a story about prejudice, anti-government, and violence, to national pride in China. Put simply, to rejuvenate the Great Wall as a world heritage site to be proud of, and tourists would visit with renewed awe at this marvel from imperial China.
The oddly satisfying part is that his signature “male anger” has been left intact. Like his peers, this is a man who is no stranger to having his creative freedom stifled by state censors. And now he sings to sell the government’s dream for China. Someone angrily doing Chinese calligraphy on the floor with a mop giant brush isn’t something you see every day. Maybe he really is venting.
Jack Ma, from China’s e-commerce startup Alibaba, famously described his relationship with the government in an interview with Wall Street Journal in 2014:
Be in love with them but don’t marry them. Talk to them, listen to their problems. The government does not need you to say “I love you”. The government wants to know that you can solve their problems.
Thanks to Rap Of China, the Internet helped to propel GAI to rap stardom. When the musician is the startup, his stage presence behaves as a valuable asset – after all, it won him the competition. And here, the government’s problem is its lack of soft power. Its culture is rich in history, but it just isn’t the thing right now. Every Instagram post tagging Jeju Island or the Seville Cathedral with ❤ is not a post for the Great Wall in China.
At age 15, Confucius’ heart may have been set at learning, but at age 13, Zhou Yan was a little busy with gang fights. At age 30, both seem to have their feet firmly planted on the ground. Before 50, GAI seems well on his way to knowing the mandate of heaven, a writ large by the government that aims to rejuvenate Chinese culture and philosophy across the world. Perhaps this is the modern junzi 君子.
Perhaps, this is what it means to be gangster in China.
What is life like for a hot female rapper in China?
Since she catapulted to hip hop stardom as the only female Rap Of China finalist, Mao Yanqi, or the lovely Miss VAVA, has continued taking the classic routes of a rapper’s career in turning themselves into an attractive brand ambassador people will buy for.
She participates in a hometown photoshoot with Esquire like her peers from Korea and Japan. In there, she reveals her routines, like going for a swim to clear mental blocks. She performs in a solo commercial track titled People On The Move as an ambassador for sporting brand Kappa, like Rick Ross does for Reebok. She does a feature with Krewella in the US, dropping a guest verse in her native tongue and signature style on the futuristic, electro house track New World.
Back in China, she’s a lot more adorable. She performed the rap bubblegum 300 Rings song for NetEase’s Fantasy Westward Journey MMORPG, looking like a Chinese loli but still subtly rocking that femme fatale demeanour. The verses she delivered were created by players and they fought for their lyrics to appear in the song.
She also teamed up with Qi Wei to record an OST for a Chinese thriller, filling verses with rap and looking a lot more Chinese woman. There’s her hit song My New Swag in which a fellow Rap Of China competitor Ty had a verse in, and Nina Wang complemented with Peking Opera, a song she got to put on as a soundtrack to the popular Crazy Rich Asians.
These gigs in making music both high and lowkey, going for magazine photoshoots and media interviews, performing in major concerts and music festivals, pushing for tracks to appear in games and movies; to accomplish the overall strategy of creating a good presence and positive image mirrors her American peers in the rap industry. Each artist is not simply moving from one gig to another but is cultivating an actual cultural brand of themselves in the long run with every project they participate in.
Intimate relationships bound by trust and respect in good faith guanxi 关系 are key facets of doing business in China. The rap industry and trap gutter are no different. The concept of featuring people in music videos in America is dictated by contract law. It makes only monetary and advertising sense – a black rapper doesn’t necessarily endorse the white bitch he is singing with.
Look at Juicy J and Migos when they were in two of Katy Perry’s stupidly flamboyant, artistically lazy, and theatrically uninspiring music videos. They clearly had the why the fuck did I sign up for this shit look. The hackneyed feminist agenda to reclaim female sexuality and turn men into dumb props echoing whatever she wants, as the directors turned her into misandrist queen and feminist icon, both sexual in nature, is quite flagrant. Even as they try to look macho, these dumb blokes have just become victims of reference for the gender war loved so much by Twitter in the West. There is no guanxi 关系 here.
In China, guanxi 关系 is the anchor in music collaborations, an agreement with a higher mandate than contract law. This is a relationship formed outside studio work hours, as peers go out together perhaps not so much to drink tea, but to show that they appreciate each other’s presence and hard work.
As she features peers in her own recorded tracks, and vice versa, VAVA takes guanxi 关系 to heart. ONE with Lexie indulges in pleasurable femme rap cadences, which is just like her, and most importantly Lexie concurs. Notice in New World Krewella wears a cheongsam, to acknowledge her friend’s culture, which VAVA lets her do as they sit together.
Even in songs charged with male testosterone, like J Sleeper’s Hyaluronic Acid or Tizzy’s U Pussy U Know It, she stands as a hot female MC taking the stage on her turn, not simply a vixen paid to show up.
For the millennials and Gen Z of China, as they interact with old and new friends across continents, guanxi 关系 enjoys an exhibit on social media – a look at VAVA’s Instagram for example, shows people she’s personally met and worked with, as is the charm of Instagram to capture someone’s intimately personal moments, yet deliberately curated to help shape their image, and in VAVA’s case, her brand outside China.
We see her with peers from America, from where she inherited her very lifestyle, and owns and respects it. Instead of just being someone who has only been awkwardly influenced by hip hop culture, this is someone who has clearly pledged, be it for commercial reasons or raw passion, to live through it.
The only thing that could pressure Chinese rappers to collaborate with people they don’t fit with or trust, is neither money nor American influence – though time will tell if some greedy fool will spoil this market virtue, and other fools will follow – but the government.
VAVA’s consistent use of her own native language in her music is crucial. China stands to grow a unique presence in the music market with its own distinct hip hop genre. Her album 21 on YesAsia, an online music store marketing Asian pop music, may well help Chinese hip hop to establish itself, perhaps someday coming close to the level of popular genres like J-Pop or K-Pop, as they are always such albums featured on the landing page.
Like her fellow Rap Of China competitors PG One and GAI, VAVA did have her own ban incident where she was pulled out of Hunan TV’s variety show Happy Camp. Once more, state censors come to police their citizens, to make sure the country’s rappers stay in line with good socialist values. It was glaringly awkward to the watch the show’s repackaged promotional content with her cropped out.
Miss VAVA is a fashion icon and beauty model as much as a rap star, because these are all inseparable lovers in the culture industry. Perhaps this is the modern junzi 君子, a path that requires you to cultivate guanxi 关系 with your peers, business partners, personal managers, and the masses.
Sun Bayi, also from Rap Of China, is a walking antithesis of hip hop.
Hot-headed rhymes heavy with socio-political commentary, stories of personal struggle, or club bangers that we’ve come to expect of the rap industry are not part of this man’s neatly bespoke brand. Yet he is as Chinese as they come. An industrious businessman who is in the rap industry as a side hustle, his white-collar dress code, friendly demeanour, polite way of speaking to everyone, lack of tattoos and plain face is the last thing you’d expect to see in a celebrity rapper with lots of young fans on Weibo.
His rap repertoire expresses what his fans have coined Business style. In his video for Rap Of Business, he’s an ordinary salesman who personally pitches a product to hesitant customers, eventually (and funnily) turning them into willing buyers with his rhymes and business swag. The fact that it’s been subtitled in English makes it even funnier – there’s only one demographic in the world who can relate to this, a decently large one, and that is salespeople.
In fact, this reminds us a little of Jaron Myer’s Chick-fil-A meme rap It Is My Pleasure To Serve You, one of Twitter’s crown jewels of music and comedy. There’s only one demographic in the world who can relate to this, a decently large one, and that is fast food customer service. And supermarkets too.
Telling us mundane everyday stories about his community or his own life as a salesperson in China, this is not a man who wears hip hop’s street glamour on the outside. However, a dangerous logic bomb resides in his honest behaviour and modest ways, and the keywords are business and money. Like in every business agent, and you trigger it when you’re about to be his potential client. You trigger it when you give him the mic.
Part memoir and part business advice, his songs will betray his deceptive code of conduct. It is by understanding cult classics like Donald Trump’s Art Of The Deal book from 1987 and Jay-Z’s Blueprint album from 2001, and their global impact in shaping hip hop’s “hustler” mentality, that you get to discern the business acumen and desires of every Chinese collar worker or entrepreneur in the 21st century, not just in China: the ability to confound and enthral potential victims clients, to associate himself with luxury brands, to be in the government’s good books, and his aptitude in closing deals. Yes, he also has a patriotic rap song in line with the Communist Party’s values, titled Brilliant China.
Well, it’s all in good business.
Confucius mentions if you do not understand propriety, there is no way for you to be established. If you do not understand words, there is no way for you to understand people. In this context, propriety is strategy. Perhaps this is the modern junzi 君子, a shrewd man with valuable skillsets and modest but hard working attitude – the kind of propriety that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs seem to be proud of – that allow him to flourish in business, from perfecting pitches to reading the audience, always able to find the right words.
While the Rap Of China contestants are focused on their home front, Higher Brothers are pushing to become the hottest Chinese rappers in the U.S.
They make their brand of Chinese hip hop fun and enjoyable, like the British sitcom Mind Your Language from 1977, by masterfully flipping Chinese stereotypes into tasteful comedy. The best example of this is their hit song Made In China, made with meme factory 88rising, a cultural mahjong of oriental trap beats mixed with Chinese rap and broken English.
It now sits comfortably at over 12 million views on YouTube. In typical hip hop fashion, the boys are using this stereotype as a source of bragging – see, everything you have is made in China. Funnily enough, this is quite true, because as of 2017 China does happen to be biggest country in the world exporting to the U.S, with $506 billion worth of goods coming from China in 2017, though most of those things were electronics. The closest was Canada at around $300 billion.
As a hip hop group from China trying to break into the US market, their unique proposition compels media companies like VICE and Great Big Story to interview and film small documentaries featuring their intimate lives. There are lots of references made to black culture. A good number of their hit songs feature black American rappers. There is even a video showing a couple of American rappers like Migos reacting to Made In China.
This is a strategic marketing move from 88rising to let Higher Brothers establish an internet presence with the hip hop community, which can be conservative and judgemental, and surely quick to blast cultural appropriation, by showing that the black American rappers themselves love to see Chinese people making dope out of their own culture, as long as it’s respectful. It’s worth noting that Quavo, from Migos, has had his fair share of problems being racially profiled as a criminal just because he was a black man with dreadlocks – something which he was very vocal with in his verse in T.I’s Black Man.
This closely mirrors the strategy that Babymetal used to garner acceptance from the even more conservative and judgemental metal fans in America, by performing alongside metal legends like Rob Zombie and gaining their approval. I’m not sure that acceptance actually happened, but at least their PR made it look like it did. It’s no secret that Babymetal’s label is trying to pull revenue out of an Asian market that they predicted would love the novelty performances incorporating metal with singing by cute Lolita girls in gothic outfits, and they surely did with consistent sold out concerts.
But hip hop was not born the same way as metal. Hip hop was born out of discrimination and socio-political strife, to address issues affecting people in real life and to enact change, regardless of what politicians think. Metal is a modern lab experiment in medieval morbid curiosity with electricity and musical instruments. Using our souls as guinea pigs, it aimed to shatter our romantic perceptions of music and our eardrums with obnoxious loudness and serrating melodies, grotesque yet ornamental.
To that end, issues with Chinese hip hop can’t be solved simply with PR campaigns. In America, hip hop needed bold individuals that are willing to strategically push the envelope and face accusations head on under the 50th Law, even if they lead to criminal charges. This happens to American artists as often as a new anime is produced in Japan, sometimes for stupid reasons. Actually, it’s typically for stupid reasons.
But still, it allowed for more ways of expression and creating appeal for commercial music, even as stupid as they come. Art of art’s sake in the pop culture industry is using memes to milk the attention economy, sponsored by advertising dollar. Lil Pump’s Gucci Gang and some rude rapper’s Black People Song are the epitome of this. That is a funny luxury.
In Palestine, hip hop needed to become the vehicle with which Palestinians could preserve their stories, their culture, and thus their very existence as a nation as they continue to suffer discrimination. Not only did appropriating dreadlocks and tattoos make no sense, it was detrimental to the cause.
Territories and homes in China are in no danger of being hemmed into oblivion by a foreign apartheid state, and surely Christian missionaries from Europe will know better than to try and colonize China with religion after several episodes of uprising. To China, hip hop is no doubt a cultural invasion from the West, but therein lies an opportunity to invade the West with its own culture.
Nobody will expect the Higher Brothers to come up with serious political commentary in their music. In fact, their very brand is built around escaping from such troubling worries into a space where you can just sit down with friends, listen to this dope, and enjoy the memes. You watch Higher Brothers to see Majin Buu coming out here and getting his fat ass lit, together with that Chun Li looking motherfucker. There are even official dollies of this rap quartet thanks to a collaboration with Naughty Brain toy designers.
Perhaps this is the modern junzi 君子, a man that brings dumb joy and laughter to people with music and lets them leave their worries behind.
At least for that moment.
To fully describe the R!CH phenomena whipped out by Rap Of China, it’s crucial to mention Kris Wu’s prominent role as a major celebrity, which gave him the privilege to be mainstream Chinese hip hop’s gatekeeper to the West, and what that actually means for Chinese netizens.
After all, he’s here as a judge for both seasons, despite criticism of his legitimacy to hip hop as his cultural upbringing. A pop artist groomed to K-Pop stardom as a former member of EXO, he has taken a little break from both cultural and geographical diaspora to return to China. The fact that he did not come from hip hop in China is irrelevant. It is what he will do when he comes home, the same job he has always done.
Leading up to Rap Of China’s season one, Kris Wu has become a legend as China’s giant advertising meme. He was on ads everywhere – his face was selling Dell inside a lift, frozen yogurt on Youku, Adidas outside its outlet in Chengdu, the Chinese poster for an American movie called Valerian where he had about 10 minutes of screen time. His face was selling McDonald’s nuggets on a bus stop right beside a Xiaomi phone on the same bus stop. Rap Of China cannot possibly get more flagrant with the very reason he exists on the show at all, as a judge. He is a meme factory that will generate good advertising ROI.
His face is exotic and oriental, even in his own country. This is because of his long history in the entertainment industry in foreign lands. He grew up performing for foreign audiences, in foreign tongues, following foreign choreography and fashion, as part of EXO in South Korea. This continued even as he went solo. Now, he is a recording artist in America appropriating black music with foreigners like Travis Scott, signed to the same label as Kanye.
He resides permanently in the music industry, as a performer capable of globalized mass appeal, able to establish guanxi 关系 with a network of influential foreign and local individuals in the industry. He has a good career, always popular and in demand, though what he wants his image to be in China is not really in his control. There is no vehement good or bad in this, it simply is.
Even as the show’s judge, and as someone who is vastly more popular, he will never be able to secure the niche title of China’s First Lady Of Hip Hop that VAVA enjoys or Gangsta rapper from Chongqing GAI is able to tout. This is because VAVA is consistent; she’s always stayed with this genre even with her reality TV background. She unapologetically sticks to her native language even as she incorporates femme lexicons in rap. She will participate in your music videos and commercials. She will sway an audience of thousands as the hottest MC on stage for your major events, but you will never forget that she is first and foremost, a lady from China.
GAI introduces a richer layer of rap with classic Chinese poetry in his verses, shows the faces of our brothers in China, the natural and urban landscape of China and the rivers that flow through them, be it the Yellow river or Yangtze. These are all proof of his cultural upbringing. For both of them, their tattoos, stage presence, skill and commitment to this lifestyle have earned them the legitimacy to hip hop. This why China appreciates their contribution to the annals of music and the arts, and why GAI and VAVA strive to achieve mastery in Chinese rap. Because it is theirs for the taking.
They now work on presence and popularity at home and abroad, ironically sanctioned by Kris Wu, who struggles even to get Chinese netizens to acknowledge his rap skills. In fact, there’s even an audio of him rapping horribly making rounds on the internet, real or not, which became so controversial it prompted his legal team to respond.
He’s certainly trying, with his own government approved patriotic rap song for China, but he’s got too much on his schedule as a cultural diplomat for China to America, Canada, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey and everywhere else in his huge worldwide fan base to focus on mastery in Chinese rap. But he can’t possibly match the visceral power and cultural depth of verses from rappers who spent their entire lives in China, even with ghostwriters. This is the tragedy of diaspora for a man who wishes to call himself a Chinese rapper.
Is the modern junzi 君子 a master of odes or cultural diplomat?
The Black Book Of Odes
Vulgarity, obscenity, hedonistic pleasure, conflict, fear, conspiracy, dumb melody, and infamy are hallmark characteristics of American rap. They are celebrated because no cow is sacred on the Internet unless meme. This is a uniquely American luxury, rudely abstract and romantic ways of expressing freedom and individual authority. To paint whatever you wish on canvas, and criticize or make fun of anybody. That we may call a privilege of liberal society.
There are three kinds of enjoyment which are beneficial and three kinds of enjoyment which are harmful. The enjoyment of cultivation in music and ritual, the enjoyment of speaking of the goodness of others and the enjoyment of being surrounded by friends of good character are all beneficial. The enjoyment of arrogance, the enjoyment of dissipation and the enjoyment of comfort are all harmful.
– Confucius, Analects (16:5)
However, things are different in China. Such foolish antics don’t make you money, won’t gain you favour from people, can end your career in music, and even put you in jail. Nobody is Voltaire enough to come and defend your right to say stupid or potentially dangerous things. Works and individuals that may incite conflict, rebellion, or are downright crass will be censored – no cow is more sacred than the government’s decree. Even your meme needs to be sanctioned by the state.
In America, government agencies can hack anybody, and corporations can monetize anything. Vulnerabilities like fears, biases, boredom, insecurities, desires, and guilt are all opportunities to get a vote or sell a product. For example, if you’re tired of having to be smart all the time, America has 9GAG and dumb rap music as part of an industry that supplies stupid shit you can do to waste time.
Twitter threads, controversial news, conspiracy theories and recreational drugs feed the capitalist machine and give perpetual bliss to its foolish American consumers hungry for success in life. The Internet rouses their fury by seducing them with data, intimate stories, psychological studies and infographics, inciting the romantic notion that they can lead and enact change within their lives or the lives of others. Nobody will accept that there is some kind of force possibly manipulating their will in a free society.
Confounded by choice, they forget to ask if the tweet they are looking at is legitimate, that the article they are reading has not been fed with misinterpreted data from 9GAG university, that the new productivity app they just bought is really going to make them more productive. Believing that their mistakes and choices are theirs alone, they obsess over taking ownership of them. Whatever they consume, then, will eventually cage them. The people challenge authority, but become afraid of themselves.
In China, data must pass government approval. Music and cultural products must be approved by the Ministry of Culture. American cultural panaceas will be blocked by the Great Firewall, unable to reach the hearts of Chinese netizens, even as these people have long embraced contemporary culture and fashion with open arms.
In not having access to Google, Chinese citizens are also free from its advertising nuisances and are less vulnerable to fake news. Conspiracy theorists will have their wings clipped before they even think their article can fly longer than 24 hours in China’s Internet. The people fear authority, but foreigners are afraid of them.
China has always been greater than any cultural legacy, philosophy and religious ideology that have once annexed its shores from foreign missionaries. There is not a single post-colonial legacy that can claim to have ever truly possessed mainland China throughout its vast history.
This is because China has a wealth of its own traditional philosophy from which it can draw wisdom to shape traditional thinking and thrive in the modern world. This country knows how to adapt economically, politically, and socially to change. After all, it did not collapse like the Soviet Union or stagnate like Japan’s Lost 10 Years 失われた十年 incident. Even today, Islam and Christianity do not have the level of political or cultural influence in China that it has on Indonesia and the Philippines respectively.
Even great political figures in Chinese history do not have a grip in modern Chinese society beyond their graves. Nobody mentions Mao Zedong in daily conversation, unlike in America where Marcus Aurelius is such an admired philosophical figure that people scramble to get Meditations on their reading list. People freely surf Google to find out how to deal with toxic relationships, end up as targets for retargeting ads and eventually become convinced to put Meditations on their bookshelf, regardless of whether they will read it or not.
To that end, rap is a unique proposition. No doubt it is a cultural legacy from America, complete with guilty pleasures unlawful in China, yet it is an opportunity for Chinese artists to rejuvenate the classical poetry of their heritage and show that they can command as much stage presence as performers from all over the world. They also stand to create a new, unorthodox classic of poetry, built upon the philosophies of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, the Chinese answer to the 50th Law, in their own language, and in their own words – a black book of odes in the 21st century featuring China in all of its glory.
Within its pages you will find precious tales from China you will not find anywhere else, songs that reveal the whims and troubles of gangsters, businessmen and femme icons. Grit and hardship will play in harmony with the blissful taste of wine and spices from China, promising verses as romantic as Li Bai’s poetry. You will get treated to a heritage trail of the faces, cities, streets, historical monuments, contemporary art, rich landscapes featuring rivers and mountains in the vast country of China.
They will convince you a Chinese tattoo can be beautiful. They will teach you how to conduct business with guanxi 关系. They will show you the way of the junzi 君子.
Be aroused by poetry, structure yourself with propriety, refine yourself with music.
– Confucius, Analects (8:8)
This is the analects of Chinese hip hop, drawing wisdom from the black Shijing 詩經, a collection of modern rhymes from all over a nation that has endured war and famine in the medieval era, colonial and religious annexation in the past few centuries, and cultural invasions in the Internet era. Chinese poetry has influenced the West many times in the past, even as the Chinese were fervently consuming Western literature. Gustav Mahler taking inspiration from Li Bai and Qian Qi is but one example.
It will now present its triumphs with rap.
This is the spiritual and intellectual portrait of ren 仁 men and women who are sharp with their tongue, cultivated on the streets, born to the Internet generation, who live to sing poetry in melodically harsh verses to reflect their personal struggles in life.
Confucius, Li Bai, government officials in Beijing, GAI, VAVA, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and the Yihequan are more related than you think. They will take what’s good from the West and use it for China and throw out the garbage. The ones that try to hack themselves in will face the Great Firewall. That is very Chinese. That is the way of the junzi 君子.
Chinese Poetry & Sayings – References
- On The Bamboo – Chinese Adage: The people are afraid of officials, the officials are afraid of foreigners, and the foreigners are afraid of the people
- PG One – Seeing Someone Off by Wang Wei
- VAVA – The Imperial Concubine by Li Bai
- GAI – Two Verses On The Yellow River by Du Fu
- Higher Brothers – Addressed Humorously to Du Fu by Li Bai
Translations for the Analects of Confucius are by A. Charles Muller