New government rules prevent rap from being shown on-screen – this is why it’s happening, and how it could impact the culture
“Long live the motherland” is a slogan most often heard at Communist Party rallies and in school classrooms across China. It’s less often heard in the lyrics of one of the country’s most famous rappers. But this patriotic message was the crux of GAI’s performance on I Want to Go to the Spring Gala, a reality television show aired by China Central Television (CCTV) at the end of last year.
GAI shot to fame in 2017 as a winner of The Rap of China, a talent contest produced by the video-streaming company iQiyi that was explosively successful, bringing rap to an audience of millions. Although GAI had been an underground name in his native Chongqing for many years beforehand, 2017 was the year in which he – and the concept of Chinese hip hop in general – went mainstream. And mainstream in China means one thing: the Party line.
Unfortunately for GAI, his patriotic pandering simply wasn’t enough. In January he appeared on another reality television show, Hunan TV’s I am a Singer, but – following a directive from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) – was pulled after the first episode. SAPPRFT had instructed broadcasters not to invite on performers who are part of ‘hip hop culture’, an unusual move that also prohibited the open display of tattoos.
It wasn’t the first time that the government had tried to censor parts of popular culture, nor will it be the last – but the issue of hip hop in China is particularly fraught as it’s tied up with concerns about western influence and race.
WHY THE GOVERNMENT IS WORRIED ABOUT HIP HOP
Hip hop made it big in China in 2017, and today the government is looking for a way to bring the subculture under its control. PG One, another winner of The Rap of China, was criticised by the Chinese media for lyrics that promoted drugs and disrespected women, causing the government to step in and cancel shows and costing him lucrative sponsorship deals. He later compounded his difficulties by blaming “black culture” for the offence his raps caused. VaVa, another Rap of China veteran, has also been cut from the show Happy Camp. As with GAI’s departure from I am a Singer, there was no official reason given for axing VaVa from her show, but it happened around the same time that the SAPPRFT memo was circulated.
The ban, although controversial for targeting something so wildly popular, is nothing new in China. The SAPPRFT memo identified hip hop as being part of “decadent” or “demotivating culture”, which the government routinely tries to remove from the mainstream in China over fears that such a culture could lead young people astray or represents western influence (other victims of the crackdown on decadence have included Bojack Horseman, Pepe the Frog, and The Catcher in the Rye). Since Xi Jinping, China’s current president, took power in 2012, popular culture in the country has been subject to a tightening of freedoms. After China opened up to the world with market reforms in the 1990s, the creative industries inevitably adopted globalising influences, but the Chinese leadership still sees culture as a global force through which China can stake its place on the world stage, not a social realm that develops in conversation with foreign actors. In a 2014 speech, for example, Xi stressed that Chinese creatives should “reflect the spirit of Chinese culture”.
The hip hop ban is unique, however, in that it taps into concerns about the way that black culture is perceived in China. Zoe Jinadu, a Beijing student who has researched Chinese hip hop for Oxford University, says that PG One’s apology and promise to write more positive lyrics in future “(encouraged other) artists to similarly distance themselves from hip hop’s original roots and leave black people perceived as bad, dangerous, and a poison to China.”
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH HIP HOP IN CHINA?
“(Hip hop) is not very consistent with the core values of socialism,” says Effy Zhang, a news reporter for Hunan TV. Zhang believes that hip hop is “full of porn (and) drugs”, which “goes against the mainstream culture of China”. It’s “understandable” that the government would want to bring it under some kind of control, especially since its runaway success last year, Zhang reckons.
An op-ed in the state newspaper the Global Times echoes Zhang’s sentiment. “Chinese rappers frequently make fun of women or the weak. Like hip hop artists in the US, they also enjoy using offensive, eye-catching words,” journalist Ai Jun argues, describing hip hop as “vulgar”.
Part of the reason that many in China believe that hip hop culture is inherently immoral (a criticism that high profile western critics also levelled at the genre’s North American pioneers in the 1990s) is due to the ‘gangsta’ rap that Chinese artists have channelled on shows like The Rap of China. As the Global Times op-ed demonstrates, many in China see hip hop as an exclusive cultural product of “the African-American community of the US… (who) struggled with poverty, racism, and gang violence… It’s thus a culture of black people’s defiance, a way to get discontent off their chest and look for hope.”
“No one can transplant a cactus to Siberia or move polar bears to the equator,” Ai writes. “Without a native culture for hip hop, the cultural form can scarcely blossom in China.”
“The media have always banned hip hop in a way. I’m surprised this show got to kick off in the first place, given the country’s restrictive environment” – Bohan Phoenix
While the Global Times piece pertains to approach the question of cultural appropriation with some sensitivity, HARIKIRI, a British hip hop producer based in Chengdu who has worked with the likes of Higher Brothers, argues that the government is just “fighting ignorance with ignorance”.
“The Rap of China glorified the ignorance of certain parts of hip hop,” he says. “People liked it because they shared certain material interests. You can’t just blame the artists.”
“We don’t live in that world anymore,” adds Bohan Phoenix, an influential Chinese-American rapper. “If you’re still talking about the same shit as the American rappers who you were listening to when you were younger, that’s just unoriginal. None of these kids on the TV show are going through a life that needs bitching about.”
Phoenix argues that Chinese rappers should be making music about the issues that affect them today, not the concerns of Los Angeles artists circa 1990. Two of Higher Brothers’ biggest tracks are “WeChat” and “Made in China”, which deal with Chinese social media and stereotypes of Chinese rappers respectively. That said, the culture of hip hop is inherently oppositional, Phoenix admits, and that will potentially always be a problem for rappers in China, a country where social stability is seen as paramount.
DOES THE HIP HOP BAN EVEN MATTER?
As with many reality television shows, The Rap of China was criticised by hardened hip hop fans for being a commercial enterprise rather than a true celebration of underground artists and emerging talents. Foreign rap has been relatively popular in China since the early 2000s, while homegrown rappers have been finding their voices since the 2010s, mostly in the Sichuan area (although the genre is also popular in Beijing and Shanghai). Many of the show’s contestants, including GAI, were already big names on the Chinese rap scene before the show started, selling out venues to thousands of fans for years before the show took the genre mainstream.
“If you’re outside China, this (ban) might seem like a ‘Woah, can’t believe this is happening’ (moment), but it’s so irrelevant to us,” says Bohan Phoenix, speaking from his native Chengdu – Sichuan’s capital, and the city that’s produced stars like VaVa, Higher Brothers, and GAI. “Being on national TV was never a goal for us… we laugh at (The Rap of China contestants) because they know what they’re doing is whack.” Referring to the lack of mainstream interest in rap prior to The Rap of China, he adds: “The media have always banned hip hop in a way. I’m surprised this show got to kick off in the first place, given the country’s restrictive environment.”
HARIKIRI also reckons the ban is inconsequential. “I honestly don’t see the effect of it all… being banned off TV doesn’t stop people knowing about hip hop, or finding it if they know how to dig for it.”
“I honestly don’t see the effect of it all… being banned off TV doesn’t stop people knowing about hip hop, or finding it if they know how to dig for it” – HARIKIRI
Not everyone is so optimistic. Although the hip hop ban only officially applies to public broadcasters, some material has also been censored online. Sujie Zhu works for PlanetWhy, a documentary company that released a series about young Chinese rappers last year. Two of their films were deleted from Chinese websites, and Zhu has struggled to share them on western social media because of difficulties with her VPN, the tool used in China to evade the Great Firewall. “We know online security is getting more strict,” she says. “(The government) is not just banning hip hop, (it’s) any subculture… dealing with Chinese censorship – you never really know their rules.”
Zhu hits upon a key problem in any debate around censorship in China. The rules are vague and inconsistently enforced – that is, until they’re enforced very harshly. Back in 2015, the Ministry of Culture banned 50 Chinese and Taiwanese hip hop tracks from websites, and IN3, the rap group responsible for 17 of the tracks, were jailed for five days without charge. The SAPPRFT memo offers general guidance that broadcasters are politically and legally obliged to adhere to, but whether or not people will actually be punished for flouting the rules is unclear. What is clear is that hip hop, for the foreseeable future, will be pushed back underground.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE FUTURE?
Most people in the know believe the genre will continue to grow. Jinadu cites the growing popularity of Chinese-Western hip hop collaborations, while Zhu thinks that “censorship comes with two sides – it frees and inspires some people”, referring to the derision that the ban received from netizens. Meanwhile, online commentators remarked on a part of the ban that applied to people with tattoos, asking, “What about NBA players?” Tattoos are popular amongst Chinese youths and are hardly a subculture; SAPPRFT’s characterization of body art as a “low ideological level” seems out of touch to most young urbanites. HARIKIRI even thinks the ban could be positive, as it targets artists who misrepresent hip hop culture in the first place: “I think the motive is to remove people who are ignorant from the public eye, which is no bad thing.”
Less than two per cent of Chinese people use VPNs, which are themselves becoming harder to use as the government tightens its grip on what Chinese netizens have access to. What’s available on national television and state-approved social media matters, as not everyone has access to the underground networks that the current generation of rappers grew up on. But where there’s a will there’s a way. Even if The Rap of China was derided by true hip hop pioneers, it brought the genre to a new audience of millions who will no doubt be making the music their own in years to come.