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Thursday, Feb 25, 2021

Why China’s hip-hop stars are staying silent on Black Lives Matter

Most are keeping quiet on the anti-racism movement that has swept the globe, in contrast to the outpouring of support from artists elsewhereใ Divide highlights how the genre has been embraced by Chinese yet cut off from its African-American roots by cultural and political forces

After a 2017 rap show got a generation of China’s youth hooked on hip hop, the musical genre has created dozens of Chinese stars and, along with them, billions of streaming views.

But despite their enthusiasm for a culture that originated in the African-American community, Chinese hip-hop stars and their legions of fans have largely stayed silent on the Black Lives Matter movement, which has swept across the world after the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis.

Canadian-Chinese hip-hop star Kris Wu has made no comments on the anti-racism protests to his 50.9 million social media followers on Weibo and 7.3 million on Instagram. GAI, a rapping competition winner who has 8.8 million Weibo followers, has also kept quiet.

Some others, including Higher Brothers, Vava and Hong Kong pop stars Jackson Wang and Edison Chen, have voiced against racism – but only on Instagram or Twitter, which are blocked in China. On Weibo, it is business as usual; they posted their own portraits, new songs and sneakers.

Sun Bayi, a Beijing-based rapper, said he was not in a position to comment on the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I know racism in theory, but it’s hard to empathise with it,” said the rapper, whose favourite artists are Eminem and the Notorious B.I.G. “I’m not black. I have never lived in America. What can I say about it?”

“I know racism in theory, but it’s hard to empathise with it,” said the rapper, whose favourite artists are Eminem and the Notorious B.I.G. “I’m not black. I have never lived in America. What can I say about it?”

The silence in the Chinese-speaking hip-hop circle stands in sharp contrast with the outpouring of support from black and non-black artists elsewhere. From Kanye West to Lil Baby, A-list celebrities are attending rallies, writing protest songs and pledging massive donations towards anti-racism causes. Even the K-pop supergroup BTS has donated US$1 million to the movement.

The divide underscores how hip hop can achieve its huge commercial success in China while being cut off from its black roots by cultural and political forces – a disconnect that is drawing criticism from within and outside the music community.

Hip hop originated in the Bronx, New York in the 1970s as a form of expression for black youth, who often highlighted their experience with racism, violence and poverty. It began to flourish in China’s underground music scene in the 1990s.

In the following decades, despite its notable influence on Chinese pop music (Jay Chou, a Taiwanese superstar, is known for incorporating hip hop into Mando-pop), it struggled with censorship and recognition in a society that associated the music with violence and decadence.

Patriotic and uplifting

The genre hit the mainstream stage only recently, with the success of the 2017 singing contest The Rap of China – a reality show produced by Nasdaq-listed iQIYI, often dubbed China’s Netflix.

While initially ambivalent about the political connotations of hip hop, Chinese television and internet censors ultimately allowed rap music to thrive – so long as it promoted the ruling Communist Party’s ideology.

Chinese rap features rap beats, baggy shirts and dreadlocks (zangbian in Mandarin, literally “dirty braids”), but the anti-establishment tone has been replaced with a patriotic, uplifting one.

Nathanel Amar, a researcher on China’s popular music with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Taipei, said the revamped Chinese hip hop was a “non-historical” one, stripped of its links with racism and injustice.

Hip hop is closely tied to the struggles of the African-American community, and has played a key part in their fight for civil rights. But in China, many hip-hop artists do not see themselves as carrying the torch of black music. Instead, they are just riding an international music trend and adapting it to a Chinese context.

Sun, the Beijing rapper, was a contestant on The Rap of China. He writes hip-hop songs about everyday life in China, from complaining about the pressure on young people to get married early to cheering for the government’s efforts against the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 29-year-old believes the F*** tha Police type of protest hip-hop does not suit his own country.

“Black people use music as a tool of revolution against racial inequality. I think it’s the correct thing to do that they are defending the rights of their race,” Sun said. “In China, people live soundly and peacefully. We don’t need to revolt with music.”
Racist sentiment in Chinese society has contributed to the indifference. Black people in China have complained of discrimination and stereotypes. When Chinese rapper PG One came under fire for promoting sexism and drug use in his songs in 2018, he blamed the influence of black music.

Stephanie Shonekan, an ethnomusicologist and professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said while cultural products of black Americans had spread globally, the black experience and histories embedded in them were often ignored.

The refusal to attribute African-American music to black people was part of what the anti-racism movement was fighting against, she said.

“We can’t talk about Western classical music without thinking about Beethoven and Mozart,” she said. “When we think of Black Lives Matter, it symbolises this idea that we are human beings too, that we create foundational knowledge, whether it’s intellectually, musically, culturally. These histories of black geniuses and black creativity matter.”

Beijing’s propaganda against all civil activism has also played a part. In China, the heavily censored state media outlets have reported the Black Lives Matter protests as destructive, chaotic riots that demonstrate the failure of American democracy, instead of a rights movement that could bring positive changes.

Patriotic hip-hop group CD Rev, known for rapping for nationalistic causes, made a music video titled I Can’t Breathe, which trolls American politicians for supporting the Hong Kong protests but makes few mentions of black rights.

“You said you gotta fight, Hong Kong, we stand with you,” the rapping goes. “Why don’t you say this again to your own people. You want this stop, you want a peace demonstration. Not a party of mobs. Stop being the world police and mind your own business.”

A Shanghai-based rapper called Mr. Weezy said he watched the scenes of looting and vandalism posted by state media on Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version. While he was all for racial equality, he said too many “rioters” were participating in the continuing movement.

The musician, who raps in Shanghainese, said his own music would always be linked with black culture, but he did not believe he had a particular duty in fighting for black rights. “You have to advocate for justice, instead of just defending one group of people.”

Dangerous territory

The danger of touching any political topic is also putting Chinese celebrities off. Expressing political views that deviate from the official ideology, even just by tapping a “like” button, could cost one’s entertainment career in China.

Most celebrities in China have simply avoided taking a side on any social issues, except when they share posts from Communist Party mouthpieces. During the Hong Kong protest movement, many Chinese rappers have followed state media in supporting the city’s police.

Shonekan said she hoped more hip-hop artists and fans could speak up. Black people brought with them their music as they were transported to America as slaves, she said, and the legacy could not be removed from today’s blues, soul music, jazz, hip hop and R&B.

“I do believe they have a moral duty,” she said. “Otherwise they are partaking in the legacy of white supremacy, like you can oppress a people to the point where you render them invisible.”

The silence of Chinese rappers has disappointed some of their American peers and fans. Members of Higher Brothers, the most successful Chinese rap group in the US, were criticised for merely reposting their company 88rising’s #BlackoutTuesday post on Instagram, according to a Variety report.

88rising said this month that the company and artists had donated US$60,000 to anti-racism funds. Higher Brothers commands fees of US$50,000 to US$120,000 for individual performances, according to the report.

One of its members, Knowknow, apologised for the late show of support on June 3, adding that he had been thinking about whether there was anything he could do.

“I will be good on my part,” he wrote. “Wherever I am, I will always respect my black friends.” (The top comments asked why he had not spoken up for Hong Kong protesters and the Uygur minority in China.)

Nasty Ray, a rapper in Beijing, is one of the lesser known artists to have voiced support for the anti-racism protests on WeChat and Weibo. He said he was making a new mix titled “Black Lives Matter” to show his support.

“Hip hop is not just music, it is also a culture and a lifestyle,” he said, adding that he grew up listening to black music. “When there’s injustice, any people with a conscience should speak up.”


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