March 20, 2008

Pioneers & Pianzi – Foreigners in Chinese Hip Hop

Yesterday we had a very interesting lunch with a young man named Huang Zi’an, one of the organizers for the upcoming Chinese Hip Hop Awards in Shenzhen. For two hours we listened to him explain principles of the Yi Jing and Chinese history. His passion was infectious and it was one of those conversations that you need a few hours to process. One of the many things that really struck me was the way he spoke about personally reconciling the desire for modernity and preserving cultural heritage. Knowing that I had to go home (read: back to the internet café) and finish this post about foreigners in Chinese Hip Hop, I started rehashing these words – Westernization, globalization and cosmopolitanism. We use these words to define a combination of liberal economic development, consumption of global goods and representation of global cultures. Undoubtedly, the fact that foreigners have been able to participate in Chinese Hip Hop is a result of all of these processes. But these words often obscure the human stories behind them, a few of which are below.

Completing this post has really been a huge challenge. Technical difficulties and mysterious illnesses aside, any topic that deals with foreign influences in China is destined to be controversial. The issue is situated in a history of hundreds of years of exploitation and cooperation, mutual benefit couched in mutual suspicion; and a present where foreigners are criticized for their decadence and ignorance but will just as quickly be given special treatment to the point of sycophancy. Trying to write even one accurate, all-encompassing sentence about the countless ways foreigners have influenced Hip Hop in China proved impossible and I must suffice it to say that foreigners have had a profound impact on Chinese Hip Hop.

From forming online communities, to sending vinyl records to friends in China, foreigners affect Chinese Hip Hop in many ways. However, the foreigners I refer to are those who live in China and are active, on the ground, in the Chinese Hip Hop scene. So, what exactly have these foreigners done for Chinese Hip Hop?

On the positive side, foreign Hip Hop artists and fans were among the first people in China to form crews, organize events, and focus on building a Hip Hop community. Japanese and Korean exchange students began holding Hip Hop parties in Beijing’s university district around the year 2000. At the same time in Shanghai, a group of American, Canadian and Chinese Hip Hop fans were starting Shanghai’s first Hip Hop party at Club Pegasus. Foreign promoters have helped bring over artists such as Jin, Alchemist and Ice T and foreign and Chinese MCs across China have joined together to form groups such as Yin Tsang, Rap Republic and Redstar. (If the upcoming awards had an award for best live show, it would have to go to Redstar. Meet the members of Redstar and see some footage of their live show.

Perhaps the most important contribution of foreigners is communicating and translating the values and history of Hip Hop. This includes answering questions about Hip Hop history and form, such as “Did Hip Hop start with Dr. Dre?” or “What’s the difference between krumping and clowning?” as well as trying to make competing and conflicting Hip Hop themes meaningful to Chinese youth – themes such as individualism, materialism, social consciousness, self-awareness and community. Foreign MCs have also been able to use their knowledge of rhyming to push the boundaries of rapping in Chinese language. These are no small feats and not many foreigners have been willing or able to take up these challenges. A few foreigners who will be remembered among the pioneers of Chinese Hip Hop are Dana Burton, Paul Gray, Marcus Zhong and Jeremy Johnston. Check out all of their stories.

On the negative side, some foreigners in China have also exploited their foreigner privilege to gain opportunities in the Hip Hop scene. This is a complex issue. On one level, there is the question of personal intentions. Is someone just out to make quick money by DJing a few nights in a club? Is it alright for Hip Hop to just be a part of your job? Not everyone can be a pioneer and does not giving back to the community make you a pianzi (cheater, liar, fraud, poser)? On another level, there is the issue of categorizing Hip Hop as a foreign culture. Hip Hop began in the United States and American Hip Hop will always be seen as the original. Consequently, club owners and event organizers often seek foreigners for shows and gigs because of a misconception that foreigners are inherently better or will at least be more marketable. Which presents another question: how can people with a limited understanding of Hip Hop begin to differentiate between the real and the fake? Take a look at what some Hip Hop artists have to say about this issue.

In our interview with MC Tang King, he stressed that dazhong, or the masses, have to first recognize that anyone – Chinese or foreign - can do Hip Hop in order for Chinese artists to be considered alongside foreigners. But then who is responsible for educating the masses? The only solution seems to be for Chinese artists to keep working, keep putting themselves out there, so that people will begin to realize that China has a vibrant Hip Hop culture. This is not meant to absolve foreigners in Chinese Hip Hop of any responsibility to give back to that community. Rather it is to recognize that there are foreigners who are both supporting and undermining the growth of Chinese Hip Hop, and, despite the fact that Chinese artists may never escape comparisons to foreign Hip Hop artists, if Chinese artists continue to develop their skills, they will reach a level where they can no longer be ignored.

Call it Westernization, globalization or cosmopolitanism; Chinese society is undergoing rapid change much of which is initiated by exposure to foreign cultures. These processes are not just driven by abstract cultural flows but also by face-to-face exchanges. For better or for worse, the influence of foreigners has given Chinese Hip Hop artists and fans a particular understanding of Hip Hop that they will have to reconcile with their own knowledge, culture and ambitions.

~ Angela

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