A Question for the Future of Chinese Hip-Hop: 有freestyle吗?

Project Pengyou intern, Jacob Sierra, explores the evolution of hip-hop in China.


higher brothers
Higher Brothers live at the Danforth Music Hall

As an American and a newcomer to China, I find myself a curious observer of its burgeoning hip-hop scene. From the explosion of new shows and aspiring hip-hop artists in China, it’s apparent that it is an art form growing in popularity.

This growing interest in hip-hop is creating very interesting dialogue online and in the media surrounding the discussion of Chinese culture and values. Media sources like the online streaming hip-hop battle show, Rap in China, and contestant show, the Singer, have brought millions of viewers and generated a massive fan base among young Chinese. Huge artists like the hip-hop group, Higher Brothers, and female rapper, VaVa, share a bit of their unique Chinese minority cultures through their music, shattering the widely-accepted stereotype that Chinese music is homogenous throughout the country (Los Angeles Times).

The problem, as noted by the Global Times, was that Chinese rappers were merely mimicking the mainstream hip-hop style without taking Chinese interests into account. Because of this, some have ruled out the entire hip-hop industry as a contemporary Chinese art form.


Early Missteps

Chinese rapper and former contestant on “The Singer”, GAI

Earlier this year, Gao Changli, China’s director of Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television announced new regulations which stated that entertainers with tattoos or using any elements from hip-hop culture, subculture (non-mainstream culture), and demotivational culture (decadent culture) was not to be featured on TV (SupChina). Subsequently, GAI, a Chinese rapper, was kicked off of the Singer 歌手 (gēshǒu), Hunan TV’s reality music competition show.

GAI is certainly not the only Chinese rap artist affected by the recent pushback against hip-hop from the Chinese government. In early January, Chinese rapper PGOne’s hip-hop song, “Christmas Eve” was taken off of streaming sites due to misogynist language, appraisal of drug abuse, and promotion of a decadent culture. PGOne later released an apology, however it only worsened his case: “I was deeply influenced by black music in the early days of me being exposed to hip-hop culture. It made me misunderstand mainstream values and I sincerely apologize for that…”. What was intended to be a sincere apology sounded like PGOne passing blame to African American hip-hop artists.

PGOne’s fan-base dwindled as his critics – reporters and netizens alike – arose to denounce his statement. Some criticized him as a singular artist, while others, like the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, saw this incident as a microcosm of a greater problem with hip-hop in China. The newspaper stated that the industry grew out of “culture of black peoples’ defiance” and could not thrive in China.

It is true, hip-hop was born in marginalized African American communities in the United States and part of its purpose in that context was a way to voice anger and frustrations. Because of this, often profanity and graphic images were used to express the often painful reality of life for low-income minorities. In other words, hip-hop in America is an art form that fully embodied its context and successfully expressed it through music. The genre has developed into many forms since then and has spread around the world. 


Finding its Footing?

Chinese minorities have stories and languages that these hip-hop artists are just beginning to explore and express through their music. At its best, Chinese hip-hop isn’t just plagiarized American rap. It is its own style of music and method of storytelling that attracts Chinese listeners and presents messages the world needs to hear. This message is that China can still be a producer of rich culture and art. In an interview with The Beijinger, VaVa notes the task that is before Chinese rap artists to carry this message in their music:


popular Chinese hip-hop artist, Vava
Popular Chinese hip-hop artist, Vava

“I think the most important thing for us to do in the Chinese hip-hop community, though, is blend many styles and elements together, and pay homage to those that came before us while also developing styles that are new and our own, instead of just copying what’s already been done. After all, we need to develop our own rap pioneers and our own distinctive hip-hop environment.” (The Beijinger)


As Global Times writer, Ai Jun, notes: “No one can transplant a cactus to Siberia or move polar bears to the equator” (Global Times). Chinese hip hop must take into consideration, its identity as raw, passionate art, but more importantly, engage with the Chinese context it desperately needs to bond with. Surely, artists like VaVa and the Higher Brothers bear something fresh and localized to offer young Chinese listeners, but the jury is still out on whether or not hip-hop will embed itself in the Chinese musical landscape or get choked out by the social forces of the country.

Want to know more? Check out these articles on the subject:

SupChina | Chinese rapper GAI removed from Reality Show

Global Times | PG One is misguided, but still has rights

Los Angeles Times | China embraces hip hop even a government censor can love

thebeijinger | Rising Sichuanese MC Vava Dishes on the State of Chinese Rap,

“Do You Even Freestyle?”: China’s Internet Ridicules Hip-Hop Pop Idols With One Simple Question

Global Times | Scandal shows that hip-hop cannot thrive in China