April 28, 2008

Women in Chinese Hip Hop

When I tell people that I am researching Hip Hop, they often assume that I am strictly recording and examining the production of Hip Hop music. Though my main focus is on Hip Hop music, this project is anthropological in its design and methodology. In anthropology we like to talk about “subject positioning” of the researcher, which means analyzing how your gender, race, nationality, economic status, and other markers influence the ways in which you are being understood by study participants and how you are interpreting situations. So far on this project, one of the most critical identifiers has been gender.

In terms of methodology, being women in the field has given us a different level of access. Beyond the overwhelming hospitality to guests, I think we receive genuine feelings of affinity and trust. People are eager to help us and have faith that we have good intentions. These dynamics are defined by the fact that we are two young, female researchers interacting with mostly young, male artists. We like to joke that we are like Darla in The Little Rascals, the only girls in the boys club. As a result, I think in personal interactions we have avoided a lot of macho posturing common between males and, and endemic among Hip Hoppers. Though, of course, we are seeing behaviors tailored to our positions as female and foreign. We have also made a conscious effort to find female Hip Hop artists to see what kind of challenges they face and how they feel about being in the boys club.

In China today the majority of women in Hip Hop are dancers. Many studios organize crews that include Girls Hip Hop, New Jazz, or what is often just called “Sexy” Dance teams. Such studios include Shanghai’s Dragon Dance Studio, Wuhan’s Special King Crew, and Beijing’s Wujiawu Better Dance Family. There are also independent female dance crews like Beijing’s Spy Crew and Kunming’s KTS. This trend follows the general growth of Hip Hop in East Asia. From Japan to Korea to Laos, Hip Hop is often first popularized by dance. Consequently, the majority of all Hip Hoppers, male and female, are dancers. Many artists in China like DJ V-Nutz and MC Webber started as dancers then went on to other arts. In addition, the majority of roles played by women in music videos, Hip Hop movies, and other media are of dancers and models. This fixes a male gaze on Hip Hop and dance allows women to fit into normalized roles to be sexy and attractive. This is not to say that being a dancer does not present its own challenges or that it is seen as an acceptable hobby or occupation in China, but to clarify that there is more encouragement to become a dancer.

However, beyond dance, women are already staking their claim to Chinese Hip Hop history. One of China’s most acclaimed writers is a woman named SIC from Guangzhou and DJ Yuki from Tianjin is paving the way for female turntablists. Many women also work behind the scenes as managers, promoters and event organizers. Women are also sources of motivation as dedicated fans, friends, and mothers. (In Shantou, the mother of the leader of Keep On Hip Hop Studio was very active in her sons Hip Hop career and business. She was essentially the crew Mom and spent hours at the studio cleaning up, talking with the kids, and even cooking huge dinners. The kids at the studio loved her and she made them feel like a big family.) There are also several solo female rap artists and female artists in rap crews.

The challenges faced by female MCs in China are many, and undoubtedly similar to those faced by women in Hip Hop around the world. To be an MC you have to be able to pick up the mic and command respect and attention from an audience that will be scrutinizing what you say and how you say it. You are also operating in a creative community of predominantly males, which can be lonesome and frustrating. Though many say having a woman in a crew makes her the highlight and is attractive, it also carries a (perhaps unwanted) responsibility to represent all women. Fortunately, none of the women we interviewed felt pressured by being one of few female rappers and felt they were treated the same as male crew members and friends.

Whenever you talk about female rappers, I think you have to talk about representation. One of the reasons I fell in love with Hip Hop was because I was seeing women on television and hearing women on the radio that I felt represented me. One of my very first Hip Hop albums was a bootleg tape of Salt N Pepa “Very Necessary” and my sister and I would learn the verses and pretend to be Salt, Pepa, and Spin. I would rap along with every Lil Kim album that came out, which was probably traumatizing for my mom since I was only about 12, and debate about who was the better first lady of the crew Rah Digga of Flipmode or Eve of Ruff Ryders. (Still have to go with Rah Digga, Flipmode is the squad.) As a Black woman in America, I loved these women who were not only making music I was into but also representing an element of my life experience. Of course, they were not representing a complete image of Black female life but I won’t get into a discussion of bitches/queens stereotyping. Though I clearly did not become a rapper, I had played the part enough that the idea existed in the realm of possibilities and I always thought it was normal for a woman to rap. In terms of received global Hip Hop images from abroad, I question, when Chinese girls see female rappers on TV, movies and in the media, what, if anything, are they relating to? How do female artists from abroad also represent them? How is any encouragement gained from seeing the few women with global distribution like Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill affected by the deluge of male-centered Hip Hop images? There are no female rappers in the mainstream music industry in Mainland China and no underground artists with national distribution aside from the Internet. So who are young girls in China looking up to and rapping along with? Who represents them?

We got to meet several rappers holding it down for women in Hip Hop. Aken is an artist in Shanghai who has been rapping for five years. She is now teaching rap at New Idol Arts School, a school that produced many of Shanghai’s earliest Hip Hoppers. ALion is an artist from Shantou’s AFinger Crew and is the youngest female MC profiled. TZ Jane is a singer and rapper from Wuhan’s No Fear Family. Dai Bao Jing is an artist from Guangzhou crew Uranus and is definitely one of China’s best rappers. Check out what these ladies have to say about their own Hip Hop careers and women in Chinese Hip Hop.

~ Angela

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