Flickering pillars of light flash from blue to red to white as the camera flies toward the stage, where two rappers are prancing in white sneakers.
“I am made in China,” one yells in English, over a big triumphal beat. “We have different faces and different eyes,” his Uyghur partner responds in Mandarin. “Let’s unite and fly, breaking through the sky.”
The rappers, legs thrashing, then join in the chorus: “We all made in China, what!”
It’s an unlikely message from musicians hailing from China’s far-western Xinjiang region, where the government has been accused of mass detentions of Uyghurs, a largely Muslim Turkic minority.
Hip hop has been used by ethnic minorities to lyricize defiance elsewhere in China, including by ethnic Tibetans in Sichuan who have rapped about discrimination. But at a time of heavy government pressure in Xinjiang, the region’s hip-hop entry onto the Chinese big stage has been less searing than salving.
The rappers have gained popularity on The Rap of China, a talent show on which a group of acts this year have been dubbed the Four Tianshan Brothers.
Three of the four so-called brothers are Uyghur, an ethnic minority that has been the primary target of a detention campaign in which scholars estimate hundreds of thousands of people, and perhaps a million, are being held in centres for political indoctrination. Chinese authorities say the detention centres are designed to provide “employment training” and eradicate the “virus” of extremism.
“Xinjiang reminds me of California, which represents freedom,” says Duo Lei, one of the Xinjiang rappers who comes from Ghulja, a small centre not far from the Kazakhstan border.
“Because people in Xinjiang are hugely unified,” he says in a recent interview. “There are lots of different ethnicities in the region, so people with different cultural backgrounds are able to mingle and converse.”
It is an image dramatically different from the military mien of modern Xinjiang, where armoured vehicles slowly patrol streets and travellers must pass frequent checkpoints.
The appearance of the Four Tianshan Brothers comes amid broader efforts by the Chinese state to promote cultural unity. China has long sought “to make entertainment content more attuned to state propaganda objectives – and one such objective in the past few years has been the theme of ‘solidarity of nationalities,’” says Yuezhi Zhao, Canada Research Chair in Political Economy of Communication at Simon Fraser University.
“My impression is that as a result of this, there has been more incorporation of Xinjiang and other ethnic figures and themes in entertainment.”
In Xinjiang, too, there is a history of music being put to political purposes. “Musicians have been promoted after violent incidents,” says Darren Byler, a University of Washington anthropologist who has studied modern Uyghur music.
After violence in 2013, a bilingual Uyghur-Mandarin song called Harmonious Xinjiang was released by Enwerjan, a Uyghur pop singer. Its lyrics include the lines: “Harmony will give you a smile / Play that tambourine / Leap in dance / and sing about the goodness of Xinjiang.”
“What’s happening with these hip hop guys doesn’t seem like it’s as clearly directed by the state,” Prof. Byler says. “But there’s maybe some resonance there.”
At the same time, it’s a reflection of the ways youth in Xinjiang have embraced artistic creation in a region under authoritarian rule, bound by tradition and vulnerable to communal violence.
Relations between Uyghurs and Han Chinese deteriorated badly in 2009, when deadly riots broke out in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital. Authorities cut off internet to the entire region for 10 months. When online connections were revived, sites once rich with local music failed to return. “The 2009 incident made a bunch of people give up their music dreams,” many for good, says Air, a Uyghur rapper from Kashgar who is one of the Four Tianshan Brothers.
Then, as hip hop began to grow in popularity across China, the genre staged a comeback in Xinjiang, where local artists saw a chance at wider renown. In 2012, Air competed for the first time at Iron Mic, the country’s biggest rap battle; two years later, he placed second. In 2015, he was crowned champion. He performs in Mandarin Chinese, the better to expand his reach.
Still, the region’s modern music exemplifies China’s constraints on artistic creation, particularly in areas it considers restive. Two high-profile Uyghur musicians have disappeared in the past year; supporters believe they have been taken into political indoctrination centres.
There is no hint of that in I’m Going to Xinjiang, an Air song in which he urges people to see his homeland the way a tourist brochure might: “Come to this multicultural environment / I assure you that your views will be refreshed / Throw away all those old labels you have for Xinjiang / Bring your lover and all your [camera] film.”
He rejects the idea that Uyghur rappers have cause to rhyme about prejudice.
“Is anyone discriminating against me now?” he says in a Beijing coffee shop, days after winning entry to the next round of The Rap of China. He offers only a hint that Uyghurs have faced difficulties.
“If there is discrimination against ethnic minorities, someone should stand out and do something to secure their dignity, by achieving something real.”