Once-marginalized hip-hop culture is becoming one of China’s hottest trends

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/9 17:58:39

Chinese rapper Su Han performs at Tsinghua University in 2016. Photo: IC 


Duo Lei (left) and Su Han (center) appear in their music video for "Tsinghua Tao." Photo: IC

For decades in China, hip-hop from the US was only embraced by a small group of fans and many rappers were limited to performances in night clubs.

However, after music show The Rap of China became a national hit in late 2017, things have changed completely. Showing rappers freestyling or battling with prepared songs, the show has helped push the genre and underground rappers in China into the mainstream.

"Many Chinese only had a vague idea about hip-hop music or has never seen a real hip-hop performance before this show debuted," Su Han, a 23-year-old Chinese rapper and co-writer of the recent viral hip-hop hit "Tsinghua Tao," told the Global Times on Saturday.

"By bringing hip-hop culture into the limelight, the show also has created new opportunities for rappers," Su said, attributing part of his song's success to the show.

Steps forward and back

A number of the show's winners, such as PG One and GAI, shot to fame overnight to become national heartthrobs, especially to young Chinese who love "rebellious, bad boys." Recent television New Year's Day galas also saw quite a number of hip-hop performances from stars and pop idols.

"Since late 2017, hip-hop seems to have gained recognition in mainstream cultural circles," Su noted.

However, it looks like the genre still has an uphill climb ahead of it in China. Real-time data for several major New Year's Day galas show that rating figures dropped every time a hip-hop star took the stage.

"The figures looked good when super idol Kris Wu appeared on stage, but soon plummeted after he continued singing hip-hop songs," wrote entertainment blog Yule Yingtang.

A recent incident has also earned the genre a black eye in China. After PG One's hip-hop song "Christmas Eve," some Chinese netizens complained that the song insulted women and promoted drug use. The news sparked a huge outcry online and the song was soon removed from streaming platforms.

Commenting on the song and the follow backlash, most major media outlets in China emphasized that more focus should be placed on the positive parts of hip-hop.

"Our priority should be thinking about how we should guide hip-hop culture not criticizing individual singers," the People's Daily posted on Sina Weibo on Saturday, weighing in on the controversy.


For many Chinese rappers however, even though hip-hop is a product from African American culture, that doesn't mean it can't talk about people's experiences in China.

"Actually, hip-hop music includes many things from daily life. It's not just about money, clubs and girls, but also reflects on society and your personal experiences," said Chinese American rapper MC Jin, one of the most important figures in Chinese hip-hop music, in an interview with entertainment news portal ent.sina.com in August.

"To me, hip-hop is a culture that values the expression of one's thoughts and advocates freedom."

For Duo Lei, Su's partner and the co-writer of "Tsinghua Tao," the core foundation of hip-hop is to "keep it real. Which means be whoever you really are and say whatever you think is true," the 20-year-old rapper and senior at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times.

As young rappers, Su and Duo have struggled with people's different attitudes toward "Tsinghua Tao," their Chinese-style trap music (a hip-hop subgenre) song about their time at Tsinghua University, one of China's top universities.

While some netizens gave them a thumbs-up for the song's flow and style, others pointed out its lyrics were aggressive and full of "straight-A student arrogance."

Concerning this criticism, Duo and Su noted that people's interpretations are often subjective and therefore can vary.

"If someone has to interpret our lyrics in a negative way, so be it," said Su.

Future development

While there are still some hurdles to be overcome, Chinese rappers today are much better off than when their predecessors were struggling to make their voices heard when hip-hop music was first introduced into the Chinese mainland in the late 1990s.

"Chinese hip-hop had to start from scratch as we had no rap songs in Chinese then; so we had to imitate English hip-hop music first and then gradually learned to create our own music," recalled Wang Bo, one of the mainland's first group of rappers, in a video interview with culture-focused platform Wanneng Yaoshi in October.

Over the past two decades, with the rise of more globally recognized rappers, such as MC Jin and Higher Brothers, a number of local hip-hop singers have tried to localize the genre by rapping in dialects such as Cantonese and the Sichuan dialect or the Uyghur language. Chinese hip-hop music is gradually taking shape.

Moreover, its market continues to grow.

After the successful rap show, new shows focusing on street dancing - another important part of hip-hop culture - are also on their way, which seems to indicate TV producers' increasing confidence in Chinese interest in the subculture.

"We planned to invest 1.5 billion yuan ($231 million) into youth culture, especial hip-hop culture, in 2018," Chen Wei, senior vice president of streaming platform iQiyi and the producer of The Rap of China and the upcoming street dance show Hot-Blood Dance Crew, told media in January.

Newspaper headline: Keep it real

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