“The entire Jiang-hu is allowing me to break through, my life is like a song. Nothing can take it away, karma comes and go in the flow of Taoism” – C-Block ft. Gai – The Flow of the Jiang-hu River
Even allowing for translation, these are not quite the lyrics one would expect to hear from a rap song. Nonetheless, this chorus has become somewhat of a battle cry among Chinese hip hop fans as artists like Gai and the members of C-Block are just one of many to embrace this new “Chinese style” of rap music, incorporating Chinese instruments, imagery and lyrics. Hip hop recently burst into China’s mainstream with the spectacularly popular ‘Rap of China’ TV show in 2017- viewed over 1.3 billion times in its first month alone. However, this popularity has not come without controversy as, in the wake of the show’s first season, new Chinese broadcasting regulations announced that “programs should not feature actors with tattoo or hip hop culture”. What follows is a testament to the power of music and to conflicts within Chinese society but, most importantly, to a novel and flourishing corner of the cultural world today.
While some westerners may already be familiar with Chengdu’s Higher Brothers, primarily making Western-influenced trap music and signed to the US-based yet Asian-branded 88rising label, Chinese listeners are probably more familiar with the outlandish character of Go$h Music’s Gai or the booming vocals of C-Block’s Kungfu-Pen. These artists show little aspiration for Western acknowledgement- where Higher Brothers songs are often explicit references to English (such as ‘Made in China’ or ‘Black Cab’) and regularly tour all over the world, Gai, for instance, sticks closer to home with translated song titles like ‘Empires Fort Strategy’ and ‘Hot Pot Soup’.
With the largest population on Earth, multiple regional dialects and a strong cultural history, it isn’t hard to see how embracing regional identities became so integral to China’s hip hop artists. Be it the ‘Gangsta God’ Gai representing Changsha in his iconic chant “Less Voo Doo” (“this is foggy city”) to Higher Brothers and their “Chengdu Rap House”, to even Lil’ Em from the Muslim-dominant western Xinjiang and Uncle Buddha from Tibet; the ascendance of Chinese hip hop has accompanied a whole range of styles and traditions into the limelight. Even Birmingham’s own Lady Leshurr, when collaborating with Go$h Music’s Bridge on the track ‘Nei Lit’, was encouraged to incorporate terms like ‘Kwanyin’ (‘female Buddha’) into her verses. This rich scene not only belies a cultural diversity within China that is rarely presented to Western audiences but has also lent a voice to previously-neglected causes. Rapper Air’s victory on the Rap of China’s season 2 in 2018 was a rare moment for the Uyghur Muslim minority, who recently became the focus of international attention for their internment in concentration camps at the hands of the Chinese government; although his silence on these issues and lack of success relative to the show’s other alumni may tell a more sinister story.
Hip hop has long been a tool for the disenfranchised and, true to this spirit, Chinese artists have also come into conflict with dominant powers. China’s well-publicised hip hop ban came within the lesser-known context of the Rap of China’s phenomenally successful first season and the ascendance of co-winners Gai & PG One’s to national prominence. Both artists soon found themselves embroiled in controversy as PG One was quickly swallowed up in a drug scandal followed by a sex scandal, both of which widely covered throughout China, whilst Gai was forcibly removed from singing competition ‘Singer 2018’ by government directive (yes, in addition to being a ‘Gangsta God’ and poster boy for authentic Chinese representation in hip hop, he also has the voice of an angel- go figure). While this ‘ban’ is perhaps better expressed as a ‘crack-down’- given that the Rap of China was allowed to resume production and hip hop artists have continued to spring up across the country- the presence of tattoo-covering sleeves still betrays a watchful government eye behind the scenes.
It is also no coincidence that Gai and PG One found themselves at the centre of this controversy- where the Higher Brothers’ popularity among Western audiences was (and still is) left unrestricted, it was the success of more internally popular artists that sparked a response from the government. Far from rap music itself being problematic, given the China Communist Party’s own hip hop propaganda song released earlier this year, the perceived threat appears to lie in the relationship between Chinese rappers and their billion-plus audience. In a sense, hip hop has become the battle ground for a whole range of pre-existing conflicts within Chinese society, albeit ones that cannot be resolved by music alone.
Just as early British MCs began rapping in American accents before moving to more authentically ‘English’ representations, rap in China also started out as a sort of foreign imitation. Yin T’sang, one of China’s first hip hop set pieces, was mostly composed of foreign-born MCs and reached notoriety with their hit ‘Welcome to Beijing’, a clear inversion of NWA’s ‘Welcome to Compton’. Nonetheless, over time, the Chinese scene gradually carved a niche for itself as artists increasingly incorporated their own unique experiences and perspectives. This cycle came full circle when legendary US battle rapper MC Jin, one of the first Asians to represent in hip hop period with his record-setting win streak on BET’s Freestyle Friday competition, donned a mask and participated in the Rap of China’s first season under the name ‘Hip Hop Man’. Inspired by his new-born son and a desire to become a part of the Chinese scene that he initially helped kick-start; Jin’s MC skills were far above many of the other contestants, yet it was his difficulties with rapping in Mandarin that ultimately saw him eliminated before the final rounds. In a coming-of-age moment for Chinese hip hop as a whole, ‘Hip Hop Man’ removed his mask and was immediately met with an outpour of emotion from the other contestants- even the ‘Gangsta God’ Gai himself broke down in tears. The message was clear: the torch had been passed to China’s new generation of rappers.
Check out the accompanying playlist, courtesy of Solomon PM here