July 31, 2008

Chinese Education and Chinese Hip Hop

When Angela and I go to meet an artist for an interview we sometimes joke, “you’ll know it is us because one of us is an African American woman, and one of us has red hair. Don’t worry, you’ll find us.” But it is usually just as easy to recognize our interviewees. They look different from the people around them, mostly just from what they are wearing. But sometimes there is something else, maybe the way they carry themselves or the way they interact with those around them.

Having this identity as “something different” is at odds with many of the values instilled by the Chinese education system. The Chinese education system is one that relies heavily on rote memorization, where success and intelligence is often measured by how well a student can repeat a text or lesson word for word, rather than how well they can express a unique and well-developed thought or opinion. Many of the Hip Hop artists that we interviewed talked about their dissatisfaction and frustration with this type of education where personal expression is often equated with “acting out” or “showing off.”

Hip Hop, both as an art form and a culture, celebrates personal voice. While success in Hip Hop requires innate talent alongside rigorous practice and dedication, it remains a comparatively accessible art form. If you have sneakers you can dance, if you have a notebook you can write lyrics. It is Hip Hop’s accessibility that forces its artists to make sure their “voice” is heard out of the crowd. The battle, a staple of all of Hip Hop’s elements, requires an artist not only to prove their mastery of technique, but also to showcase their individual flair and style. When we asked Chinese Hip Hoppers what attracted them to Hip Hop culture, they often responded by saying, “Hip Hop is free,” “I can express myself through Hip Hop,” and “Hip Hop is way to vent my feelings about the world around me.”

Clearly, the relationship between Chinese education and Chinese Hip Hop is not as simple as “because of China’s approach to education, Chinese youth turned to Hip Hop culture and now they speak out on all pertinent issues.” I think it is more fitting to see the Chinese education system as one of the variables in the setting of Chinese Hip Hop’s development. It is important to know that many of these artists who now stand in front of a crowd of people rapping about their own life, or walk around their city wearing clothes that set them apart from the rest of the population, were taught in school that it would be better if they were more like everybody else. It is important to know that the Chinese education system is something that these young artists refer to in their music, something that they use Hip Hop to express.

Check out what some of China's Hip Hop artists had to say on the topic.


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