China's hip-hop uprising faces a Communist Party crackdown
While rebellious rappers are having a moment in the country, an effort to neutralize potential sources of counterculture challenges the genre's focus on protest and resistance
When Wang Renzhi first fell in love with hip hop more than a decade ago, he saw a kind of music that could do for his generation what rock 'n' roll did for the 1980s-era students whose grievances eventually brought them to Tiananmen Square.
For a few years at least, Wang, who goes by the stage name Da Wei, had reason to be optimistic: Not only did hip hop have its overseas roots as underground protest music, but Cui Jian, the Chinese rocker whose songs became an anthem for the Tiananmen protests, was himself a fan. The two met at a hip-hop show.
But a Communist Party-led hip-hop crackdown in 2018 has corroded hopes of a defiant music genre taking root in China, as groups with lyrics deemed questionable are stripped from streaming services, even while groups trading in propagandist "socialist hip hop" receive government support.
"They want to curb hip hop because this culture could inspire people's sense of resistance," Wang said.
"The cultural environment in China today is very complicated – partly North Korea, but with shades of New York," he added.
Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has grown more vigilant in asserting leadership over China's social, cultural, political and religious affairs. The rise of hip hop in China offers a new glimpse of the party's vigilance in neutralizing potential sources of counterculture, even as a generation of plugged-in, cosmopolitan youth embrace Western trends.
Wang, 27, was a hip-hop fan before most in China had even heard of the term.
As a high-school student, he began listening instead to the Notorious B.I.G., Eminem and Wu-Tang Clan, whose CDs he found at vendors outside his school.
The most popular song in China at the time was a Taiwanese tearjerker ("Playing Chopin's nocturne for you, to remember the dead love inside me"). American hip hop was a revelation.
Wang joined his first hip-hop battle at 15.
"The first song I wrote was a protest song. I protested against everything," he said.
"Rebellion is a crucial element of hip-hop music, and this kind of resistance can be against many things: family, social conventions and political regimes."
For the better part of a decade, though, hip hop occupied only a small niche in China.
Then, last year, it broke into the mainstream with The Rap of China, a reality show that garnered more than 2.6 billion online views to its 12 episodes. Words such as "diss" and "freestyle" entered the broader vocabulary and streetwear brands started to discover a new Chinese appetite for their clothing. Across the country, domestic hip-hop artists began to draw raucous crowds to pulsing shows and big new audiences for their music.
In September, 2017, China Music Business News, an analytical firm, counted 2,830 hip-hop artists and 78 hip-hop labels in China. Top groups are now demanding as much as $77,000 a performance, the firm found in a report titled On the Eve of a Full-Scale Hip-Hop Breakout.
Among the newcomers is 15 Block, a group formed in 2015. Hip hop "makes me feel real," said Zhang Tao, 22, one its leaders.
15 Block has emerged in a nascent scene in Guizhou, a Chinese province that ranks among the country's poorest. Zhang sees deep roots for the genre, which he says "can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty – the way rappers use rhythm in their lyrics is a lot like Tang poetry."
But Guizhou has also stood at the heart of another trend in Chinese hip hop, the use of a new musical format to praise authorities and, in particular, the Communist Party.
"Hip hop to me is full of positive energy," Zhang said, using a term promoted by the party.
"The core of hip hop is indisputably peace and love."
15 Block's members include a civil servant and two police officers. One of its most popular songs, My City, is an ode to a Guizhou city that has sought to transform itself from a coal centre into a green centre. "The average temperature is 21," the song proclaims. "We don't ever touch the air-conditioner remote."
Another Guizhou hip-hop artist, Sun Bayi, has been more overt. He was catapulted to fame by his appearance on The Rap of China and has used the platform to sing praise to the Communist Party.
His song Brilliant China is jammed with party tropes about the "rejuvenation of the nation" and 100-year goals.
"There won't be hope unless the party and the people can be united," he raps. "Let's stick to the principle and firmness of the party and go forward."
To his critics, Sun has said that's just how he feels. "Isn't that what hip hop is all about? You can sing whatever you want, right?" he wrote in a defensive social-media post.
Brilliant China, released in January, remains far from the top of the charts. But trumpeting the party can be lucrative in other ways.
Hip-hop group Tianfu Shibian, which gained prominence for attacking Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, has received support from the Communist Youth League, which has sought a pop-culture voice to reach young people. Chinese authorities paid for the group to film a pro-Beijing music video in a disputed area of the South China Sea.
At the same time, the Communist Youth League has taken aim at groups whose lyrics it deems problematic. In early January, it criticized one of the country's top rappers, PG One, for lyrics about women and narcotics it said "may deceive young people into drug addiction."
Public figures should "give young people correct guidance," the Youth League said in a post to its social-media account.
The post has sparked a broad reckoning for hip-hop artists. PG One's group, Red Flower Society, has been expunged from Chinese music-streaming services. Rap of China winner GAI was pulled from The Singer, another music reality show; the director cited "special circumstances" as an explanation to local media.
Other artists have scrambled to dodge similar treatment. Some have deleted the text of lyrics from streaming apps; others have amended the texts, while leaving the songs themselves untouched. Posted lyrics for one song by rapper Tizzy T have been changed from "I want to buy a house and have sex with my girl" to "I want to buy a house to cook with my kid."
"We have to be careful as artists, because we influence the masses, and the government really sees that," said Al Rocco, a Hong Kong-born artist booted from the first episode of The Rap of China for performing in English.
He nonetheless sees a bright future for Chinese hip hop. Commercial opportunities have begun to rain down – Rocco has relationships with Adidas, Chivas, Tissot and others – while the immense size of the Chinese diaspora virtually guarantees a global audience. Artists such as Canadian-Chinese singer Kris Wu have become worldwide stars.
Liu Mo, the chief editor of review site Nutrition Monster, called China's hip-hop blowback "normal," likening the Communist Party to parents unaccustomed to their kids' new musical tastes.
"It's a phase," he said, one "that all foreign culture must go through when entering China and trying to blend with mainstream culture."
"To me," he added, "music shouldn't be too ideological. It is a channel for young people to enjoy life and release passion."
Chinese hip hop, meanwhile, is moving fast to join with U.S. artists and expand its influence. Higher Brothers, scheduled to play in Toronto in late February, collaborated with Chicago rapper Famous Dex for its song Made in China – a catchy number that also shows how artists are searching for space between propaganda and protest.
"I head into the studio first thing in the morning filled with power and fighting spirit," Higher Brothers rap in the song. "The responsibility I feel is like the Chinese national team winning respect in swimming."
But midway through the music video, the screen is drenched in bright red and overlaid with the flashing words "Error" and "This video is not available in your country" as the lyrics descend into English-language vulgarity – an unsubtle dig at censorship.
"Though censorship pressure is increasing, clever artists will always find a way," said Sun Quan, who goes by the stage name Falao.
He's cleaning up his own music, scrubbing it of vulgarity "while still telling the story I want to tell," he said.
"The environment is always in flux, but opportunities are there for those flexible enough to adjust. How to safeguard what you want to say while using more decent language and not treading on the 'red line' – that's where the challenge really lies."
With reporting by Alexandra Li