July 15, 2008

Chinese Language(s) and Rap Music

Language and Lyricism

The adjective “Chinese” is a highly contested term and, perhaps, no more so than when it comes to language. The term “Chinese language” specifies more of a language family than one specific language. The common language in Mainland China is Standard Mandarin or Putonghua. While 700 million Chinese citizens speak Standard Mandarin and it is also the official language, it is by no means a “native” language. Standard Mandarin is a language that was created in the early 20th century and is based on Beijing and Mandarin dialects. Standard Mandarin is a tool that enables all Chinese people to communicate. But for many, Standard Mandarin is not their native or mother tongue. Chinese language has about twelve regional language groups, the most recognizable abroad being Cantonese. There are also numerous spoken dialects, with people from different provinces, cities, and even towns speaking completely unintelligible languages. This presents a unique challenge for Chinese rappers who must consider how language will impact their style, technique, potential audience and expression.

Since Chinese rappers first picked up the microphone, critics have claimed that Chinese language isn’t suited to rap music. Standard Mandarin is actually quite easy to rhyme but problems arise with tones and syllables. Standard Mandarin is a tonal language and has four strict tones. Changing the tone of a word can completely change its meaning. This is how Chinese rappers engage in really provocative wordplay, with one word taking on double meanings. However it also means that rappers must pay attention to their tones, particularly when determining their cadence and speed. Standard Mandarin is also monosyllabic. Whereas in English, rappers can rhyme multi-syllabic words like “fantastic” and “reality”, Chinese rappers (using Standard Mandarin) must use words like “ban” and “ting”. Consequently, it takes much creativity, patience and a lot of practice to develop a signature flow and interesting rhymes. For rappers whose native language is a dialect, technically speaking, rapping in Standard Mandarin can be a relief or a burden.

For Cantonese speakers, the comparative simplicity of Standard Mandarin might be appealing. Cantonese has about nine tones and that cannot be altered or inflected as much as Standard Mandarin. The enunciation of individual monosyllabic words is also critical to the rhythm of the language. For speakers of Guilin dialect, rapping in Standard Mandarin might be awkward. Guilin dialect is spoken at a faster speed than Standard Mandarin. It also allows speakers to string together syllables. This means that rappers can both rhyme multi-syllabic words and speak more syllables per second. It is not a coincidence that Beijing rapper Brass Face has been compared to Twista. When interviewed he revealed that he did not purposefully rap fast but simply rapped in the speed of Guilin dialect, his native language. Rapping in a dialect or Standard Mandarin reduces or increases a rapper’s technical constraints and potential audience.

Language and Longevity

One of the major complaints about record companies that have approached rap artists in China is that they force rappers to use Standard Mandarin. All of Mainland China’s music celebrities sing in Mandarin and it is the only language that will enable a rapper to create a nation-wide fan base. Rappers primarily concerned with or practically limited to performing and distributing music in their hometowns, using their local dialect makes their music more meaningful and poignant their community. However, it is very difficult for rappers to maintain only working clubs and promotional events in their city. Some joke that the shelf life of the average rap group is two years, two years before they discover they won’t be able to make a lot of money or have legions of fans and give up. Resources, opportunity and language all factor into reaching that conclusion.

Guangzhou MC Along from jazz-rap crew Dumdue basically summed up the language debate when he said, “Standard Mandarin is a tool for communication. Cantonese is the language of my life. If I want to talk about my life, I have to rap in Cantonese.” For crews like Dumdue, the need to use the language that expresses and helps define their life experience trumps all other concerns about language. The Mandarin vocabulary has thousands of characters, but the nature of spoken dialects ensures that not all of the words and phrases used in Chinese dialects can be expressed in Mandarin. Consequently a commitment to only rapping in Mandarin can potentially limit a rapper’s creative expression.

Every musician must negotiate their relationships with their music and their audience. For Chinese rappers, language crucially influences the dynamics of those relationships. Choosing not only what they want to say but also in what language they want to say it in will determine, in large part, their ability to perfect their skills, make their music meaningful to an audience, and establish a lasting career.

See what some rappers in China have to say about language.

~ Angela

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