Alternative Voice and Local Youth Identity in Chinese Local-Language Rap Musicby J. Liu

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Alternative Voice and Local Youth Identity in Chinese Local- Language Rap Music

Jin Liu

Rap music and hip- hop culture, usually perceived as originating in the local

African- American street culture of the South Bronx area of New York City, have been continually relocalized and thus globalized by youth speaking different languages all over the world. The distinctive linguistic feature of the localization of rap music in mainland China is not so much that it is rendered in the official national language, the Standard Mandarin ( putong­ hua, literally “common speech”), but rather that the rhythmic vernacular transforms into distinct colloquial, nonstandard local languages or dialects ( fangyan, literally “regional speech”).1 Particularly since 2001, there has been a proliferation of rap songs, sometimes blending English and Standard

Mandarin words, in Shanghai Wu, Hangzhou Wu, Suzhou Wu, Wenzhou

Wu, Yixing Wu, Jinyun Wu, Changsha Xiang, Hakka, Nanjing Mandarin,

Yangzhou Mandarin, Wuhan Mandarin, Beijing Mandarin, Northeastern positions 22:1 doi 10.1215/10679847-2383840

Copyright 2014 by Duke University Press positions

Published by Duke University Press positions 22:1 Winter 2014 264

Mandarin, Sichuan Mandarin, Qingdao Mandarin, Guangzhou Cantonese, and so on. Moreover, although a handful of (semi- )Chinese rap songs predate the Internet, the wave of rap songs did not hit until the emergence of Internet- mediated songs (wangluo gequ) in China, which was arguably ushered in by Xue Cun’s Flash- accompanied hit song “Northeasterners

Are All Living Lei Fengs” (“Dongbeiren doushi huo Lei Feng”) in 2001.2

This song, with a strong Northeast flavor, initiated a trend of Internet songs rendered in local languages. Besides reworking popular songs whose lyrics were originally in the dominant Standard Mandarin, Internet- savvy youth began to write rap songs in the various Chinese regional languages. The principal focus of this essay is to examine this emerging trend of Chinese local- language rap songs in the age of the Internet.3

In one of the few critical studies on Chinese hip- hop, Jeroen de Kloet, inspired by Rey Chow’s reading of Walter Benjamin’s translation theory and

Mary Douglas’s book Purity and Danger, views Chinese hip- hop as cultural pollution and contamination that affects both the “assumed origin” and the “alleged copy.”4 Taking the Yin- Tsang band, which is composed of members from various nationalities, as a case study, de Kloet argues that the impurity and dirt in such a band renders the notion of Chineseness “highly problematic” and therefore subverts “any longing for cultural essentialism and nationalism.”5 Viewing inauthenticity as a productively postmodern sort of impurity, de Kloet also briefly discusses how the “inauthentic” Chinese hiphop pollutes the imagined and constructed “origin” of hip- hop. However, his comparison of the Chinese “copy” and the Western “origin” is cursory.

Using a stereotyped US- based hip- hop ideology as the yardstick and evaluating the oeuvre of Yin- Tsang alone, de Kloet lists a series of superficial “absences” in Chinese rap songs, for instance, “the absence of (the violence in) the ghetto or the ‘hood,” and fails to explore many underlying “presences,” or the intrinsic generic similarities in Chinese hip- hop, something this essay tries to demonstrate.6 Taking an explicit US- centric approach, several critics covering the emerging rap music scene in China for Western media also fault Chinese hip- hop for its lack of rebelliousness and explicit social and political commentary. They thus dismiss Chinese rap as being too mainstream and further suggest that Chinese youth have been brainwashed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s official ideology.7 positions

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Liu ❘ Chinese Local- Language Rap Music 265

It is important to recognize that in one sense, Chinese hip- hop is, in fact, imitation. The perceived origin of rap music in the United States is a source of inspiration and aspiration for young Chinese rappers. Wang Fan, a Shanghai- based pioneer of rap, named himself BlaKK Bubble, the double

Ks paying homage to his favorite rap duo, Kris Kross. Wang was first introduced to hip- hop music in the 1990s through the dakou (cut) audiocassettes and CDs illegally imported from the United States.8 He became friends with

Dana Burton, a Detroit native who is credited with founding an annual rap competition in China in 2002. For the local Chinese wannabe emcees (MCs), the element of the ethos of freestyling and US gangsta rap they espouse the most is the freedom “to speak your piece,” although this perceived freedom would merely mystify their peers in the United States. They identify with this US minority youth music genre in part because it empowers marginalized, alienated, and restless teenagers, which is evidenced, for example, in Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) Frontline interview with the Beijing rapper Wang Xiaolei in 2008 and Jimmy Wang’s New York Times reportage on the Northeastern rapper Wang Li in 2009.9 In addition, in terms of rap production, Chinese rappers freely and sometimes mindlessly borrow the

Western beats that they download from the Internet. For instance, the beat for Beijing In 3’s furious “Hello Teacher” (“Laoshi hao,” 2008), which I will discuss later, is from the slain Tupac Shakur (2Pac)’s “Hit’Em Up.”

However, as Ian Condry warns, amid the never- ending charges of “imitation” leveled at hip- hop musicians in Japan, original authenticity and local creativity are often inextricably intertwined in these transnationally oriented productions.10 He suggests, for example, that “if we define imitation as working within a genre of music, in the case of hip- hop perhaps characterized as sampled and programmed tracks over which emcees rap rhythmically nuanced rhymes, then all contemporary hip- hop, in Japan and anywhere else, for that matter is imitation.”11 Rather than arguing over the extent to which Chinese rap is imitative, this essay is more interested in exploring the performative force that Chinese rap achieves through imitation or appropriation — in other words, the music’s impact on the local community and the local significance that Chinese youth create by mobilizing the generic conventions of hip- hop. Moreover, this essay disputes the common criticism of Chinese rap as lacking social and political commenpositions