As I continue to learn about contemporary Chinese society, the stories get easier to relate to. My last China-related article was about transgender megastar talk show host Jin Xing challenging her nation’s understanding of gender and family while dominating television ratings. Today, it’s a young Chinese hip-hop group making waves in the States.
The universe wanted me to geek out today, merging one of my greatest passions with one of my greatest fascinations. I never thought rap would help me learn about China, but here we are, a dream come true.
Hip-hop isn’t about being tough anymore. It’s simply being the most confident, authentic version of you possible. And if an Indonesian teenager is getting millions of plays on his very American rap music, there’s no reason why other non-American subscribers to the culture (i.e. the Chinese) can’t catch on.
The Higher Brothers, 88Rising’s Chinese rap duo, are nice. But don’t listen to me. Take it from some America’s hottest hip-hop artists:
My favorite track from this group so far is “Franklin,” heavily inspired by the GTA character of the same name. Their flows are refined and the subtitles reveal the bars are surprisingly hard as fuck:
You might not know shit about China. But it’s the latest source of your gear, the greatest source of visitors to the USA, and home to the largest foreign fan base of the NBA.
Much like their deep infatuation with basketball, young Chinese adults are enamored with and study the shit out of hip-hop. I think I love it.
I love it because they are young people of another culture trying to tell the world who they are in a way that makes the most sense to the most people. The best part? They think hip-hop is the way for them to announce themselves to the world. If the Chinese youth, the youth of the most populous country in the world—the youth of the most powerful nation in the Eastern hemisphere—think hip-hop is the way for them to stake their claim to global culture, it means hip-hop is THE shit.
They’re not singing like Taylor Swift.
They’re not making dubstep remixes or techno-pop joints.
These Chinese niggas? They’re RAPPING.
Say what you want about Famous Dex collabing with them, or cultural appropriation, or globalization, but when it came time for these emerging young adults in an emerging superpower nation to make a name for themselves through music, they rapped.
I don’t know if hip-hop culture is under attack, or undergoing some growing pains. But I’m happy to see people from such a different background embrace the styles, tropes, and aesthetic of a culture that helped me, a first-generation African-American, fully understand my own role in the world. I became someone I liked through hip-hop, and it seems like the Higher Brothers are evolving through hip-hop as well.
I don’t imagine the Higher Brothers—or artists such as Jay Park and Keith Ape from South Korea, and Kohh from Japan—seriously competing with American and Canadian hip-hop artists on a global scale for years to come. But in 2014, I didn’t imagine I’d actually enjoy listening to any East Asian hip-hop artists at all. Hip-hop artists and styles fade into and out of their peaks in less than a decade. Maybe the window for these ambitious Eastern students of the game will open up sooner than we think.
UPDATE 9/24/2020: edited for style and structure
Why can’t (East) Asians sing like Taylor Swift? Personally, I actually want to see an Asian (American) take over arenas through the most widely digested genre next to hip hop.
And I get this piece is meant to illustrate the transnational influence of hip hop and the latest instances of it as a launchpad for creative expression with a commercial scope in non-Western countries.
I’m still not all that impressed if you know anything about me and my stance on “East Asians aping Westerners”. China and Japan are not afraid to look to the states for trends to crib and mold into their own. Which is fine in a creative sense, since their output does sound distinct and self-engineered, rather than attempts at carbon copy.
These countries have the resources, latitude, and other less easy to grasp conditions that aid in their visibility when pushing their product, though. At least compared to non-East Asian countries like, for example, Vietnam. Y’all even know who Suboi is?
Known as Vietnam’s Queen of Hip Hop, Hàng Lâm Trang Anh aka Suboi’s been on the come up not too long now. Her flagship track, “Đời”, doesn’t have a lick of English, just a plucky and spellbinding beat and a somewhat confusing story set to Suboi’s fanged delivery and performance.
I’m gonna wager it takes a listen or six, if you don’t decide to shut it down outright, to get adjusted to all the intonations that runs heavy throughout the track. I keep running into comments that run along the lines of, “I’m Vietnamese and I think this song was p trash”. Wow, way to support one of the few creatives to come out of your country, ass hat.
But that’s something I’ve been thinking about – those less tangible things that may further divide Asian countries, among and within themselves, as they continue to look to the West for new ways to express themselves.
So whether a Westerner likes a work from an Asian artist that follows and refreshes the sound of a given genre is one thing. Which of those Asians, as individual creatives, get to call the shots because they were chosen by Western cultural gatekeepers sets a portal for more tense and embroiled questions.
I see what you’re saying. Most Americans, myself included, already view China and Japan as so foreign they wouldn’t even think of how propping up Western-influenced product affects Asian creatives from other countries.
They can sing like Taylor Swift if they want! I’m just saying hip-hop seems to be growing into, if it isn’t already, the preferred outlet of musical creativity among S. Korean, Chinese, and Japanese young adults. I also think it’s fair to think of mimicry as a form of flattery when it comes to hip-hop. I’d go so far as to say it’s necessary in hip-hop. Even America’s current hip-hop stars grew into their unique styles through existing ones. You have to prove your understanding of the culture before you try to shift it.