Chinese hip hop and the question of authenticity

China has banned hip hop from mainstream media on the grounds of it being “Western”, “Black” and “decadent”. Is this a valid accusation? What does it say about Chinese society?

New state policies have specified a ban on hip-hop culture – including tattoos – from appearing on television. China’s top media regulator – the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China (SAPPRFT) – has identified hip-hop as a part of “decadent” and “demotivating” culture, and now requires that TV stations no longer “feature actors with tattoos [or depict] hip hop culture, sub-culture and dispirited culture (decadent culture)”, according to Chinese news outlet Sina.

While the ban might sound outrageous to readers in the West, this is not a far cry from the norm in China. For one, hip-hop in China had historically been an underground, somewhat marginalised scene. It only entered the mainstream for the first time in 2017, with the introduction of reality TV show, The Rap of China. Some OGs of China’s hip-hop scene even say that the ban is unsurprising, and that, even more controversial, the ban is not of any major impact. Artists such as Dough-boy have been expecting this move, telling hypebeastin an interview that “once something has such a big cultural impact and arguably a bigger influence on a nation than the government, officials will try to stop it.”

Given that it is not as controversial as what certain media publicationsin the West have suggested, a question surfaces: what does this move say about China’s current cultural landscape?

30 years on from China’s economic and cultural opening up, the entry of hip-hop into the Chinese mainstream provoked a state-driven clamping down on the fast burgeoning sub-culture. This is entirely in line with the cultural protectionism initiated by President Xi Jinping, who at the 2014 Beijing Forum on Literature and Art, Xi urged artists to use their talents to spread “Chinese Values”. He declared the arts “an important battlefront of the Party and the people”, a sign of China’s increasing attention to soft power.

One of the reasons for negative perceptions of hip-hop culture is its foreignness. As a Global Times op-ed illustrates, hip-hop is conceived by many in China to be an exclusive cultural product of African American community and their unique struggles, and therefore irrelevant to “authentic” Chinese culture.

Yet, artists such as trap group Higher Brothers, Bohan Phoenix and Dough-boy rap about a range of specifically Chinese issues, ranging from Higher Brothers’ semi-satirical commentaries on “WeChat” and the Chinese export industry (“Made In China”), to Bohan and Dough-boy’s elucidations on their “third culture” experiences as members of the Chinese diaspora. Even if popular among Chinese diaspora, Chinese hip-hop has as its focus Chinese pride. For instance, Higher Brothers’ named themselves after Hai’er air conditioning, a Chinese brand that has managed to establish itself internationally. In addition to traditional hip-hop influences, traditional Chinese instruments such as the Guzheng also commonly feature in the music of Chinese hip hop artists VaVa, Higher Brothers, and GAI.

Questions of authenticity aside, hip-hop as an international movement has always thrived underground. The effects of Xi’s ban remain uncertain, but what is clear is that hip-hop maintains its counter-cultural roots, remaining a thorn in the side of, and an independent force against, mainstream politics.

Photo credits: SCMP


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