Masked men and women in Hong Kong this weekend came face-to-face with police in one of the biggest battles of the ongoing protest, getting sprayed with water, tear gas and rubber bullets amid a chaotic tangle of bodies, shields and batons. It’s the biggest political fight the streets of Hong Kong have seen since the “handover” of the former British colony to China in 1997.
Not that there’s been a lack of political turmoil since then. Hong Kong exists in a “one country, two systems” configuration, with a separate governing system apart from the Communist Party in the Chinese capital, Beijing. But moves in recent years have made many Hongkongers suspicious that the peninsula is losing its independence. It’s no surprise that these latest protests, triggered in March by a proposed bill that would allow China to extradite suspected criminals, have evolved into a much bigger treatise on what identity Hong Kong should maintain in the face of a nation that wants to subsume it.
Like it is in protests around the world, young people have thrown their bodies with idealistic abandon into the front lines, shutting down airports and inspiring tough debates around police brutality. “The protests really made me love Hong Kong even more. It can never go back to the way it was, so I’m really going to miss how it used to be. I see how China is slowly taking control and the culture is slowly seeping in. It’s scary. I never really realized how scary the situation is,” a 19-year-old protester named “Chloe” told Vox.
Yet some of Hong Kong and China’s brightest young musical talents aren’t seeing it that way. Instead, they’re speaking out against the uprising.
Political protest in the U.S. is soundtracked by the likes of Public Enemy, NWA and Rage Against the Machine — hard-hitting music with roots in the cultural underground and a proud defiance toward authority and cohesion. But a number of Chinese hip-hop stars, ranging from international crossover artists Higher Brothers to rising rappers to the longstanding collective CD Rev, have all stood up for China.
The methods range from subtle to overt — Higher Brothers’ Melo and DZknow shared Instagram posts of the Chinese flag with short captions in support, while Vava and PG One (both from the reality show The Rap of China) shared a widely circulated meme stating support for the Hong Kong police. CD Rev has even dropped a diss track dismissing the protests, getting boosts from state-sponsored media in the process. A highlight line off the newest cut: “All I see is a beautiful dream, turning to nightmares / Can I say hi there? Hong Kong, they’re all liars!”
Elsewhere, it was Jackson Wang getting embroiled for his own nationalist pride. Born and raised in Hong Kong and a member of K-pop group Got7, Wang fell in hot water after posting on Weibo (aka Chinese Twitter) that he was a “guardian” of the Chinese flag — likely a response to protesters defacing the flag in Hong Kong. That simple statement led to doxxing threats and a backlash from some fans who viewed him as a traitor given his upbringing on the peninsula.
There are many layers of culture and politics to unpack here, but I thought about Wang while standing in the middle of a huge park in L.A.’s Chinatown neighborhood. Three weekends ago, it was the site of Head in the Clouds II, the second music festival from the media company and music label 88rising. Founded by Sean Miyashiro, 88rising is an altar to the intersection between Asian and Asian-American culture, repping a mix of imported and homegrown stars including Rich Brian, Joji, the pioneering Dumbfoundead and the aforementioned Higher Brothers. There’s a reason why the festival was nicknamed “Asian Coachella” after its inaugural year, and standing in that field, within a kaleidoscope of 10,000 Asian faces, it felt like a good experiment for what crossover success looks like on both sides of the Asia-U.S. cultural border.
But on that day, Jackson Wang never showed up. He canceled last-minute. Few at the festival seemed to know why, but online, the chatter honed in on one factor: His support for Beijing over Hong Kong made him an awkward fit, even in L.A. (88rising didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on why and how Wang canceled). “I’m fucking bummed. So he got into trouble for saying something completely unnecessary? I mean, I don’t get what he was thinking,” Melissa Choi, a 22-year-old college student, tells me between sips of a green tea cocktail. “I’m not sure how many people here really genuinely care about the Hong Kong protests. It’s a really big mix ethnically. But I don’t understand what the purpose of him getting political is.”
There’s a weird irony here, given that calls for artists to stay away from politics normally come from socially conservative voices, in reaction to the perceived spread of “liberal” values like anti-authoritarian speech, queerness and identity politics. The Chinese government has long viewed hip-hop as a threat exactly because of that tension, with party officials placing limitations on things like “offensive ideas” and tattoos in permissible media. Rap was seen by Chinese conservatives as an American import with all of America’s trappings, crowned by vain materialism and a lack of respect for social order, says Clayton Dube, director of the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California.
But the increasing appetite for U.S. media, and the economic opportunities that bloom from it, has softened the Communist Party’s stance on cultural hybrids like hip-hop. Higher Brothers, for example, sport a lot of ink and rap about things like big cars, money moves and gang violence. They’re also collabing with American stars like Denzel Curry, which is a galactic leap from what any misunderstood rap fan in Sichuan Province could’ve expected two decades ago.
“The party state wants to use what young people are listening to. It follows a trend going back even longer than 20 years with American pop culture flourishing in China, whether it’s through bootleg cassettes of rap or major American films being shown,” Dube says. “What’s obvious to everyone is that speaking out against the party government, and therefore the values that it holds for the nation, is career suicide. As quickly as the party can give you a hand and make you known across the nation, it can blacklist you from every stage that matters.”
This is a strange twist amid the global appropriation of American hip-hop, given the long tradition of rap being a tool and aesthetic for the counterculture domestically. But even the idea of “counterculture” is challenging in nations where the population is relatively homogeneous — over 90 percent of China’s population identifies as ethnically Han Chinese. That, plus the overarching power of the government and its pro-nationalism propaganda machine, has given a different motivation to the development of rap in China and what it aspires to as an art form, says Oliver Wang, a professor of sociology and rap culture expert in L.A.
The evolution of hip-hop in China never took the politically subversive and rebellious course it did in the U.S., he continues. And while a segment of the rap audience and performers in mainland China may be aware of the political tradition of American hip-hop in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the exposure and influence of it was limited by what bootleggers were shilling. “There was no conventional distribution of rap, right? It was circulated through bootlegs, and the guys making these tapes weren’t really tastemakers. They weren’t thinking, well, Public Enemy is a really important group and so I need to share the music. They’re capitalists, at the end of the day, so they’re going to bootleg what seems most popular in the U.S. So in places like Shanghai, for instance, it was acts like M.C. Hammer and Kris Kross that really introduced people to the genre.”
Early pioneers like Li Xiaolong, D.D.Rhythm (considered the first Chinese rap duo) and MC HotDog bloomed through the 1990s, but major growth came at the turn of the millennium, when figures like Detroit-born Dana Burton began making rap more visible and exciting through the debut of his Iron Mic freestyle event in Shanghai. The rappers Burton met in the early 2000s were more interested in repeating English lyrics than delivering their own bars, and many questioned whether the Mandarin language even worked as a vessel for rap flows. “No one had developed the art of Chinese rap,” Burton recalled in a 2007 interview.
“I’ve actually come to like these Chinese battles more than the stuff going on at home in America,” Burton continued. “It’s a totally different direction they’re taking it, with the rhyming skills and the wordplay and how they perform. The energy level is much more intense with Chinese rap. There are more theatrics. The flow is faster. They’re rhyming words at a faster pace. And they’re starting now to use rhythm a bit more.”
It’s clear that the mindset of the rap battles Burton used to oversee have expanded into an embrace of not just the pop-rap and trap that dominates the U.S. market but the kind of lyrical chops appreciated in the old school. Higher Brothers have done turns on radio shows like Sway in the Morning, dropping bars over new beats on the spot. Fellow rap group Commune has also made an appearance, freestyling and improvising in a whirlwind of Mandarin and English slang. The city of Chengdu has become well-known for its legacy as a hub of hip-hop. Meanwhile, clubs for the genre keep springing up in the underground scenes of Shanghai and Beijing.
Despite the fact that these artists and others like Boss Shady and A.T.M. all avoid the sin of criticizing the nation and its politics, the vibe and aggression of rap makes it an easy target of police and party officials, even today. Given the obvious cultural impact of a group like Higher Brothers, Beijing released a statement in 2018 discouraging the spread of “hip-hop” culture. It’s also blacklisted songs and artists deemed on the fence. “The government holds the notion that there is no art for art’s sake. It serves a purpose. And that is just pounded into the administrative structure that oversees cultural production in China,” Dube observes. “The democratization of distribution is potentially its giant challenge, which is why the Chinese government has invested so much in having various censorship controls and great economic incentives for companies to be compliant.”
So it makes sense that someone like Vava, who has been dropped from concerts because of her material, or PG One, who has been forced to apologize for lyrics, would be willing to stir up a little controversy for potentially a lot of gain. Many artists must be weighing their own genuine nationalistic pride with a more cynical need to gain favor within the party, Wang says, noting that these two elements aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, I see it in a video Dube directs me to, documenting the journey of a Chinese-American rapper to Beijing in 2009 to hang out with then-burgeoning rapper MC J-Fever. “In this year, a Chinese youth’s dream is to be American. The dream is the American lifestyle. For many countries, maybe their dream is the American lifestyle. But I say no. The Chinese lifestyle is sophisticated, and complicated. It’s hard to describe clearly. But I want to learn our history,” J-Fever says to the camera.
This is complicated when you throw an Asian-American fandom’s perspective into the mix. When I posted about the Hong Kong protests and rappers’ reactions in the Facebook meme group Subtle Asian Traits, I received dozens and dozens of reactions, ranging from mildly confused to outright annoyed by the fact that rappers were upholding an authoritarian government. “Sucking up to the government is just not hip-hop,” one man wrote. “When you literally want to fuck the police,” wrote another. (The post was later taken down for being, according to a group admin, “too political.”)
It warps the way that a label like 88rising might deal with Chinese artists in the future, and the way Asian Americans become self-aware of the cultural differences between the U.S. and East Asia. But I also think of Burton, the Iron Mic founder, and his optimistic view on what rap and rebellion means in China, too. “I really admire these Chinese kids because they’re really going against the grain. A couple times I’ve wondered, are they going too far? Am I getting too conservative? They’re rapping about being involved with the mafia, or being underground, or doing drugs. They don’t really rap about the government. But they take it to another level,” Burton said in 2007. “An 18-year-old kid can say whatever he wants, and he lets out his frustration and aggression. That’s how he gets power: on stage. No one has ever given them this opportunity before.”
That opportunity is only set to grow in the future, as China continues to broaden the edges of what’s socially acceptable in art and culture. Just as the nation’s economic loosening has encouraged a major capitalist streak, the exploration of a genre like rap is leading to more curiosity from the party. “It hasn’t been smooth, and it hasn’t been linear. You know, it’s two steps forward, one step sideways, a third step back, that kind of thing,” Dube says. “But it has managed again to put this energy to use in fostering economic growth within China.”
Context remains everything. I think about another moment from the “Jianghu Sessions” video featuring J-Fever and his American counterpart, MC Aidge. “Even though I don’t understand the words, I feel it, you know? I feel everything you were saying. I was like, Ahh! It was beautiful, man,” Aidge says, excitedly.
“What we’re rapping about, I can use a word: luanchibazao. Sometimes we feel angry. Sometimes we’re bored and just joking around. We don’t have a firm foundation. But it’s so much… chaos? I don’t know how to translate the Chinese word jianghu, either. But it’s like outlaw, wildness. That’s what we’re about,” J-Fever replies.
That jianghu idea of chaos in the wild lands remains as true as ever in the Chinese rap scene. The way artists navigate those lands remain to be seen, but waving the Chinese flag is perhaps today’s version of keeping the peace — a way to stay rooted while roaming into uncharted musical waters. And maybe the best way to save themselves (and their careers), no matter the jianghu around them.