First, as my project has come to an end, there will not be many more postings on DongTing. I will keep it up as an archive for everyone interested in Hip Hop in China and I might occasionally add some interesting things that catch my attention. Like the recent New York Times article on Hip Hop in China and the subsequent critiques on several blogs.
Though many have assumed that I helped write the article because some of the pictures were taken from this blog, I never actually spoke with the authors. I think that the article is good and got the basic story right. Jimmy Wang and Wang Yao spoke to the right people in Beijing and gave Hip Hop in China some publicity in one of the most widely read newspapers in the US. All good. But of course the story is not flawless.
One scathing, though obviously uninformed critique was posted here on bokane.org. The post sparked a good discussion and I think rapper Andreas Hwang provided some much needed perspective. This is his commentary:
I am a Chinese Hip Hop artist and it seems to me like none of the participants of this forum are familiar with the Chinese Hip Hop scene. This is partly our fault, because we, the Chinese Hip Hop artists, are too caught up in our own egos and meaningless conflicts within our microscopic scene, which takes our focus away from improving, expanding and presenting ourselves adequately to the public. The talent is there, it simply lacks guidance.
I have been active in this scene since 2004 under the alias Young Kin. In 2005 I was asked to join Yin Ts’ang, but by then the crew was already dispersing, thus I decided to go my own way. The Yin Ts’ang members mentioned in the NYT article are close friends of mine and Jeremy Johnson is my business partner; we run YinEnt together, the independent label mentioned in the NYT article and hope to bring some relevant change to the Chinese hip hop scene in the coming year.
Let me start with the NYT article. I agree with what JH wrote: half of the NYT article was probably written before the first interview. I also think that if a journalist writes an article about “Chinese Rap”, he or she should interview more than one crew. Besides that, individuals who decide to write about Chinese hip hop should be able to comprehend Chinese; this would help them avoid faulty translations and misquotations.
Concerning the current state of Chinese hip hop in the mainstream I agree with Brendan. Jay Chou’s appearance on CCTV’s 新年晚会 sums it up quite nicely. It’s garbage and so is most of the underground hip hop. Why? Because most Chinese hip hop fans only listen to the music of a rap record but are oblivious to the lyrical content, which does not allow them to understand hip hop culture comprehensively. Naturally a Chinese kid, who does not speak English and tries to make a rap song that sounds just like the one he just heard at MIX (Beijing’s most popular hip hop club) will say “Make it rain” without knowing that the phrase entails poring dollar bills on a stripper.
Concerning Brendon’s comment on “在北京” by Yin Ts’ang: I can only partially agree with you. However, the song had to be simple, maybe almost retarded in order for it to get radio play and mainstream media attention. It had to be ”阳光“ (sunny), which seems to be the favorite term for the ministry of culture to describe lyrics that they endorse. I could have never written a song like that, however I do respect them for writing it, because it did break the mold for Beijing hip hop. I see it as a necessary stepping stone. I wonder if there would have been an NWA without there being a more lyrically subtle and sanguine Tripe Called Quest before them to pave the way.
In case anyone does not know what consequences political statements can cost Chinese artists, let me enlighten you: the terminations of ones public artistic career, jail time, exile or in a foreign national’s case: deportation. That is why I think foreign nationals are relevant in this scene. It is their responsibility to say what the locals cannot. It is a challenge to get your material to the years of the people though. The internet is like a big garbage pile. By the somewhat ignorant statements made by several participants of this forum alone one can see that finding some good material online is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Radio is even more controlled. Last time I was on China national radio, I was infuriated. It was against the stations policy to play a politically conscious songs. Instead they played American tracks with profane language and chauvinistic remarks. Even Chinese tracks with profane language could be played as long as they weren’t socially critical.
Even record labels are complaining that almost all Chinese underground hip hop artists are only writing about themselves and fail to address social issues. Paradoxically, every time they have a socially conscious artist in their hands they try to mold him into a pop idol, which entails dumbing the artist down considerably.
Concerning the remarks about Yin Sanr, their English name, by the way, is In3, and I do not think they are trying to be political at all. They simply enjoy making dirty tracks and venting over hip hop beats. Their key member Chen Hao Ran, writer of “老师好“ （the teacher song) is a clarinet player in the National Chinese Orchestra. I believe that In3 is his personal fun project, which he uses to ventilate verbally. I do not think that there is any other ideology behind it other than “I don’t give a flying fuck about what you think about me.” I do not see anything being wrong with that.
I would like to invite everyone to my myspace [www.myspace.com/youngkin010] so that you can see for yourself, if all angry Chinese rap is truly just “generalized teenage angst with no attempt at social commentary” as Brendan had wrote in his article. Maybe Mr. O’Kane should have waited a little longer before he stopped following the local scene and decided to deride it.
I wish everyone a belated happy Chinese new year and would like to thank you for taking interest in the Chinese rap scene. We certainly do need the dialogue.
- Andreas Yi Jun Hwang
Here are my two cents:
Andreas beat me to the punch but I wanted to add a few more thoughts about this post and several of the comments. I am an American citizen who researched Hip Hop in China in 2005 and 2008. Though I was not a part of writing the NYT article, several of the pictures in the article and video were taken from my research blog (www.dongting08.com).
I think the article is good, if overambitious. The author spoke with a few artists in Beijing and used his findings to generalize about Hip Hop throughout China. I’m happy he interviewed seminal artists like Yin Tsang and DJ Wordy. I think he got the basic story right. However, he undoubtedly overstated the popularity of rap music and the misrepresented the general tenor. Most rap music in China does not have a political agenda. Andreas touches on many important reasons why. Most rap music is being made by young kids who have no context or understanding of Hip Hop culture and can only emulate the posturing, style and attitude of popular Hip Hop artists. Quality, original rap music also lacks promotion. If the article had included Hip Hop dance instead of just rap, the statements of its popularity would be a bit more accurate as Hip Hop dance is much more widespread, visible in popular media, and recognized by average people. The article is also very short on history of how Hip Hop came to China. The audience has no understanding of the development of Hip Hop and the music industry in general to appreciate the significance of pop-rap and Jay Chou as compared to In3. The paragraphs on In3 and Jay Chou are also too sparse. Also, unlike the article suggests, I’ve read nothing to suggest that Jay Chou considers himself to be a rapper now and I do not think Jay Chou and In3 fans are mutually exclusive. I think the fleeting mention of “shuochang” and its mistranslation missed a great opportunity talk about local practices that have been incorporated into Hip Hop. Though Chinese “shuochang” is a completely different genre of music than rap, the article does not complicate the idea of one-way appropriation of rap music from the US to China.
As for Yin Ts’ang and the song “Welcome to Beijing”, I agree that this song is not Yin Ts’ang at their best. It is simple and catchy and makes kids and first year Chinese students excited that they too can learn a rap song. However, this song and the album were hugely influential. “Welcome to Beijing” is the song that rappers from Shantou to Urumqi will say is one of the first Mainland rap songs they ever heard, it’s the song and the album that helped them believe in the potential of Chinese rap in the Mainland and their own potential to become a rapper. Certainly MC Hotdog and Davey from Taiwan and LMF from HK were also early influences. But, in Mainland China I don’t believe any album lit a spark as hot as “Serve the People”. I think the fact that everyone is always talking about this one song is a testament to its popularity and power. Given context that Andreas listed about the limitations of rappers and the territoriality of Hip Hop in general, I don’t find it surprising that a song like “Welcome to Beijing” would exist. It is the obligatory anthem to one’s city. Just like Lyrics Born “The Bay”, Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz “Deja Vu”, or JD and Luda’s “Welcome to Atlanta”. And just like JD and Luda probably do not want their legacy to just be:
“Welcome to Atlanta where the playas play
And we ride on them things like every day
Big beats, hit streets, see gangsta's roamin'
And parties dont stop til' eight in the mornin'”
I’m sure the members of Yin Ts’ang want to be remembered for both the importance of “Welcome to Beijing” and “Serve the People” but also their best work.
I also think calling out Uranus and their song “Da Ma” for not being “daring” enough is similar to calling out In3. Uranus describes their style as “pop-party rap” and while they are interested in flow, rhymes and dope beats, they have no explicit political agenda. Given what they are actually interested in, it should be noted that Dai Bao Jing has an amazing flow and Garden is a very good producer.
As for In3’s originality, I think that they absolutely have to make their own music. They need beats that complement and give power to their lyrics. However, I think that they are offering lyrics that are insightful, entertaining and resonate with the crowd. Catch a In3 performance or go to Section 6 and witness dozens of kids literally spitting the words to “老师好”. Then, in the very anthropological view that all things are political, think about the fact what we laud as being “critical” is denouncing systemic and daily oppressions and injustices in ones’ life and society. With the future of the average Chinese kid so heavily determined by navigating the education system, how destabilizing would a widespread denunciation of the Chinese education system be?
As for finding more socially conscious rap, the Internet is certainly a crapshoot and if you only speak some Mandarin, like me, language is going to be a barrier. If you can get lyrics or have the opportunity to talk with the artists, I recommend Jiangzhe and Dumdue in Guangzhou and 6 City in Urumqi. In Beijing, check out Andreas and Big Dog.
I am clearly a fan of Chinese rap and I am quick to defend it, but I think that so many criticisms of Chinese rap for its lack of explicit political commentary are unfair and uninformed. I think most people making rap music are young kids and for most, the age of political maturation comes well after puberty, I don’t think many rapper are ready to or interested in having informed, explicit political commentary in their rap. Andreas certainly has more experience with dealing with censors and demands of record labels and has laid out many important reasons why there is no Chuck D in China. I also think a powerful form of censorship is self-censorship. Would you write and put out a song that no one will support and could potentially get you in trouble? I think lessons have been learned by all in the music industry from the heavy censorship of rock music and Hip Hop artists would be wise to try to avoid going down that road until the scene has matured.
I also think that, as foreigners with somewhat of an understanding of China, it is irresponsible to say to rappers, “Those extended metaphors and euphemisms really aren’t bringing home the message. Why not just come out and say ‘Our freedom of speech is freedom or death, We got to fight the power that be’?” when death is actually an option (or at least the death of your career). We know China is not very tolerant of ardent social critics with potential to gain a following. For now Hip Hop is under the radar and, perhaps that gives artists room to push the envelope, but I’m sure many artists want to keep it that way.
Also, I think that its too simplistic too look at the political nature of some Hip Hop in the U.S. and immediately look for the equivalent in China. Aren’t the critiques of a lack of creativity and originality based in the idea that Hip Hop in China is simply derivative of the U.S.? Is straight imitation only acceptable when it comes to lyrical content and explicit political agendas? I do hope to see more rappers pay attention to lyrical content and think critically about the intended meanings of their work, but I accept that political and social critiques may come in a form very different than U.S. rap.
Lastly I hope everyone remembers that Hip Hop is as much about parties as it is about politics. I would argue even more about parties at its inception. People say to the “first” political single was Grandmaster Flash “The Message” which came out in 1982 and the “first” political group to be Public Enemy whose first album was in 1987. What was everyone else talking about? Was there a lapse in political consciousness or was it simply not as direct as people like to assume Hip Hop to have always been? I don’t believe if you are a Hip Hop fan, even if you love “conscious” rap, that you are bumping Paris and KRS-One all day. There’s too much to enjoy in Hip Hop and everything needs balance. Political commentary also needs to be coupled with community action and organizing. As commentator Pete wrote “overindulged kids do not a social revolution make” but neither do political rappers a social revolution make. What tangible social changes has the music alone of Public Enemy or NWA brought about for Black Americans or poor urban communities? You can’t just speak about it, you have to be about it. Rappers can use their platform to speak to truth, raise awareness and galvanize communities but change comes from sound leadership and pushing for community development and progressive reform.
Ok, let me stop before I start going off about Obama. Happy New Year everyone! Please check out the blog www.dongting08.com if you want to find out about some of the artists I interviewed last year. I also have links to lots of MySpace pages. You can also look at www.Hiphop.cn, www.xjrap.com, www.alivenotdead.com, and tw.streetvoice.com.
For a much more nuanced critique, check out ChinaGeeks "Why Isn't Hip-Hop Popular in China?"