Cultural black-out on China’s hip-hop music

The recent ban on hip-hop is not the first instance of the Chinese government inhibiting the growth of the arts

Karen Zhang

PHOTO: Author

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

27 March 2018

China’s government has banned the promotion of its hip-hop culture despite growing popularity. Why the sudden crackdown? Karen Zhang writes.

On the 19th of January, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) officially called on all Chinese media industries to stop featuring “hip hop culture, sub-culture and dispirited culture.”

But what provoked such a sudden and rigid crackdown from the Chinese government?

In 2017, the Chinese talent show ‘The Rap of China’ quickly became a successful hit on television. It was an influential catalyst for the rise of hip-hop and rap in mainstream Chinese media, giving its young talent and young audience a platform for artistic expression that had never been seen in China before.

More on this: Media control in China

The rise of hip hop culture in China however, was quickly met with its descent. Soon after the show’s conclusion, its co-winners, PG ONE and GAI, released controversial singles in which the lyrics referenced drug use, profanities, derogatory remarks and discontent with society.

In response to this controversy, Gao Changli, director of the SAPPRFT’s publicity department, declared four rigid standards that Chinese media should adhere to:

“Absolutely do not use actors whose heart and morality are not aligned with the party and whose morality is not noble.

Absolutely do not use actors who are tasteless, vulgar and obscene.

Absolutely do not use actors whose ideological level is low and have no class.

Absolutely do not use actors with stains, scandals and problematic moral integrity.”

The ‘ban’ does not exactly outlaw the production of such music per se – it suppresses hip-hop from above by excluding it from all mainstream media. Nevertheless, the vast impacts of this crackdown were immediate, decisive, and have perforated the Chinese music industry since then. One famous example is the removal of hip-hop artist Vava from popular Chinese reality show ‘Happy Camp’ and also the elimination of countless hip-hop artists from Chinese music-streaming sites.

Some say the ban is merely an attempt to promote respect and constructive social norms. “The government is flexing its muscle to guide hip-hop in China to project positivity while filtering out the negativity,” argues Stephen Dowler director of Chinese music streaming service DianYinTai, “Filtration, not suppression, I think, is the operative term.”

But one may wonder – do two controversial songs really justify a total clampdown on the diverse and growing hip-hop culture in China?

Beyond the occasional profanities which may frequent some hip-hop lyrics, there lies a possible greater threat to the security of the Chinese government – and that is the inherent culture of self-expression, revolution, social justice and empowerment in hip-hop music.

Tracing back to its historical roots, hip-hop was born from the political and social struggles of urban African-American youth in New York City during the 1970s. Hip-hop musician and journalist, Davey D says that the influence of hip-hop “always reflects what is going on politically, socially and economically.”

Hip-hop music at its core is a passionate response to inequality, socio-economic conditions, political challenges and boundaries. It harnesses the power of the voice and music to break down barriers.

It is possible then, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is also trying to maximise its use of soft power to safe-guard the cultural sanctity that upholds its own political security. The progression of China’s hip-hop culture into mainstream media threatens the CCP’s political standing as a musical movement motivated by the fundamental values of freedom of expression and the empowerment of social groups, particularly those who are marginalised. It is a genre that has historically invited and encouraged political criticism and social critique.

The CCP has a long history of retaining tight control over media and the arts. In 2009, Chinese poet and Nobel Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned for “inciting subversion of state power,” and in 2011, artist Ai Weiwei was detained for his artistic activism.  In August 2015 the Chinese Ministry of Culture also banned a total of 120 songs from being published online, on grounds that they were “morally harmful.” Hip-hop songs made up a significant number of those banned.

Conversely, China has also encouraged and molded arts to its own political utility. Chengdu Revolution (CD REV) is a government-sponsored hip-hop and rap group that espouses pro-Chinese sentiments on topical issues involving China. In the past, the ensemble has rapped on topics ranging from Cross-Strait relations to the South China Sea dispute.

Either way, the Chinese government has shown that it is readily prepared to employ the arts to its own political advantage, aiming to control the direction of Chinese culture. Music has and always will remain a pivotal agent of expression in society. The recent ban on hip-hop is not the first instance of the Chinese government inhibiting the growth of the arts – and it certainly will not be the last.

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