One Love, One Heart,
Let's get together and feel all right,
As it was in the beginning,
So shall it be in the end,
Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right . . .
- Bob Marley
In the video, “What is Hip Hop?”, many Chinese artists said the power of Hip Hop lies in its ability to bring people together. People, who perhaps may not otherwise have reason or opportunity to, can bond over the mutual enjoyment of music, dance and art. For Hip Hop artists, the connection can be even deeper as they also have the shared experience of living a Hip Hop lifestyle in Chinese society. As they face similar struggles and have the same goal - to develop Hip Hop culture - many artists have called for the Hip Hop community to unite. Some have organized local and national UNITY or Da Tuanjie (大团结) parties and performances, while others have established online networks and artistic collectives. While these community-building activities have been successful, there is much criticism of both the UNITY parties and the Da Tuanjie movement. Both are undermined by conflict, in Hip Hop jargon - beef. How the Hip Hop community responds to these concurrent issues will be telling for the future growth of Chinese Hip Hop. Furthermore, the influence of unity and discord are especially relevant to China today.
Unity in Chinese Hip Hop
UNITY or Da Tuanjie parties began in the city of Guangzhou in 2007. They were first organized by Guangzhou crew Dumdue and, later by Hiphop.CN. The March UNITY party was held in Guangzhou and included performances from Beijing’s In3 and Kunming’s Co Op Sol. In May, the party was held in Beijing and included performances from Beijing’s Long Jing (龙井) and Xi An’s Luan Zhan Men (乱战门). Both events were highly attended by Hip Hop fans and artists, and they accomplished their objective of both throwing a great party and also promoting the unification of the Hip Hop community.
On the local level, efforts towards unification include organizing parties, performances and events, collaborating on songs, and forming online communities. In Kunming, Hip Hop artists are just starting to organize da tuanjie events with BBoy Crew KGS, BGirl crew KLT, rappers Co Op Sol and Green Clan, and DJ DSK all performing together. In Guangzhou, several rap crews worked together to produce a Guangzhou anthem titled “Guangzhou Rules”. In Xinjiang, artists share their work and Hip Hop news on the community website www.xjrap.com. These projects all serve to create and strengthen relationships between artists, to encourage them to pursue their artistic path, and to gain recognition of their existence and accomplishments.
On the national level, besides Da Tuanjie parties, artists also use the Internet as a forum to communicate and collaborate on projects. Hiphop.CN is the perfect example, a website and a company dedicated to building the national Chinese Hip Hop community. Hiphop.CN is often also a co-organizer of Da Tuanjie events. Many artists also create nation-wide informal networks or lianmeng (联盟), similar to the Native Tongues Posse or the Quannum Collective. Such networks provide support and strengthen individuals through association with other crews in China.
The vast majority of Hip Hop artists agree that, whether on the local or national level, Hip Hop artists in China should unify. Although, they vastly differ on the best method – focusing on just your city, creating a mainstream Hip Hop star and capitalizing on their popularity, establishing nationwide underground networks, etc. The question then becomes not whether or not unification is something that should happen, but whether or not it can happen.
Ever since the Tupac and Notorious BIG murders, the subject of "beef" has been popular in Hip Hop journalism and academic writing. "Beef" is a grudge between two individuals or a crew of Hip Hop artists. "Beef" is often settled through competition. Rappers "beef" by making dis tracks, criticizing their opponents lack of skills and championing their own talent. Bboys break against their rivals and writers write over their opponents tags. Audiences often decided who made the better track, busted the better move, or threw up the better tag, and that should settle the beef. However, today, "beef" is too often settled by violence. Many critique how beef is exploited by the industry and artists and hyped by the media to the benefit of sales and the detriment of communities and individuals. Though this is a very important critique, it does not relieve the necessity to talk about conflict, competition and violence in Hip Hop. Hip Hop is as competitive as it is creative and promotes as much aggression as love.
Conflicts in Chinese Hip Hop arise from myriad sources – personal, artistic and social. Some artists find it impossible to come together because they simply don’t like one another. Others point to artistic differences, such as artists whose musical style is more pop as opposed to more underground or experimental. Conflicts also arise from people’s (lack of) understanding of Hip Hop, which often, but not always is the result of age differences. Still other conflicts come from different lifestyles and an individual’s reason for becoming a Hip Hop artist. For those who do Hip Hop professionally or live a Hip Hop lifestyle, it may be difficult to unify with those who just do Hip Hop for fun as a hobby. Social restrictions also undermine Hip Hop unity.
How do you really unify all of Chinese Hip Hop? Problems include language, culture, distance, and numbers. While Mandarin is the common language, China has numerous dialects (See the video on Language). Hip Hop artists would perhaps first have to support a common language to really unite. Language inevitably involves culture and the mutual biases and prejudices between the North and the South, the East and the West, and Han Chinese and ethnic minorities. One Hip Hop critic recently told me that an artist from the North could never really be accepted in the South and vice versa. How can Hip Hop artists transcend such deeply embedded cultural biases?
Two very practical obstacles are distance and numbers. China is a huge country and many Hip Hop artists don’t have the means to travel great distances for competitions, shows, or classes. While globalization is shrinking the world through tele-connections, face-to-face communication is still the most powerful. Lastly, the number of Hip Hop artists is always shifting and figuring out how to reach out to them all or who should represent each community is a daunting task. Considering all of the issues, what are the potential costs of beef and a lack of unity?
Consequences of Conflict
In talking with Hip Hop artists about beef, there was a widespread agreement that the time has not yet arrived for artists to beef. Considering that there is not Hip Hop market and beefing cannot bolster sales or media exposure, personal and artistic conflicts can only serve to divide Hip Hop artists and spread negativity at a time when Chinese Hip Hop is most vulnerable. Beef has undoubtedly hindered Hip Hop’s development, as people have been opposed to collaboration. It has also contributed to Hip Hop’s negative image, complicating acceptance by a larger audience.
However, conflict can also spur progress and artists can use beefs to grow personally and artistically, hopefully outweighing the negative consequences of their conflicts. The lack of beef also does not imply a dedication to unity, and an artist can be seriously embattled and simultaneously dedicated to developing the Hip Hop community on some level. The consequences of conflict are real and many but they are perhaps unavoidable and certainly will not stop the growth of Hip Hop in China. (See what Chinese Hip Hop artists have to say about UNITY and BEEF.) The concepts of unity and internal conflict are much bigger than Hip Hop and are especially salient in China today.
The Call for Unity in China
2008 has been a momentous year for China and responses to various events have frequently been calls for solidarity and appeals to national pride and civic responsibility. Following the Tibetan protests in March, Chinese people around the world banned together in support of a unified China and continued Chinese authority over Tibet. This sentiment spilled over into the Olympic torch protests and counter-protests. Many Chinese people saw the torch protests in the context of historical grievances with the West for (neo)colonial interference in China’s domestic affairs. Again, many Chinese people rallied against this affront. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Sichuan Province in May, there was an outpouring of sympathy and activism. Benefits and fundraising events frequently called on the civic responsibility of Chinese people to help one another (even though philanthropy is relatively new to China). The 24-hour coverage on local and national television of difficult rescues, emotional reunions, vigils, fundraisers, and dedications reinforced and helped sustain the unity of the people behind the relief effort. And, of course, there are the Olympic Games, already underway in the capital. The Olympics have required a tremendous unification effort, with the Chinese government and Olympic Committee rallying its citizens and for the past seven years. Many see the Games as China’s time to present itself to the world and the people have been asked to fully support every measure to ensure the success of the Olympics. Many Chinese people feel a deep sense of pride in hosting the Olympic Games and feel that it is a recognition of China’s achievements and a substantiation of China’s power. In response to all of these events, while the call has been for unity, the response has been anything but unanimous.
Anatol Lievin wrote that appeals to national solidarity are a part of “the classic modern strategy of and endangered right-wing oligarchy, which is to divert mass discontent into nationalism” (London Review of Books, 3 October 2002). The fervor surrounding the Tibetan protests, the Sichuan Earthquake and the Olympic Games has often overshadowed serious grievances and the varying reactions to all of the events. Every call for unity has been undercut with dissension and opposition. The Tibet protests saw Chinese people on both sides of the picket lines and many Chinese question, not only the West, but China’s colonial ambitions. The earthquake response made many disillusioned with the corruption, graft, and lumbering bureaucracy that undermine all disaster relief efforts. People were also outraged by forced donations. Many companies and schools required people to donate money, often specifying amounts, and ridiculing those who failed to donate as much as others. The sanctioned oppression for the Olympic Games has been well documented by human rights groups, NGOs and the media. From expelling migrants from the city to forcing business to close for weeks without compensation, from the tens of millions of dollars outside cities have sent to Beijing for the Games for which they will have no return to public notices to immediately report Uighurs and Tibetans to the local police (literally on sight), the Olympic Games have effectively given officials carte blanche to discriminate against marginalized groups, devastate communities and businesses, and of course stifle criticism and protest. Many Beijing residents now wish the Olympics would be over already so their lives can get back to normal.
The hope for all of China is that, as in the Hip Hop community, hopefully these conflicts will foster growth. The response to the Sichuan Earthquake especially showed that if galvanized, Chinese citizens will take bold action to improve their community. With the number of NGOs increasing and community activism becoming more popular, perhaps community leaders can capitalize on this sentiment, unifying the Chinese people to make positive change.