Underground Hip-Hop: A Voice For Many

Over the past twenty years an underground hip-hop scene emerged in China. This underground hip-hop culture consists of young students and members of the young working class, who use underground hip-hop as a form of creative self-expression. By analyzing the underground hip-hop group Yin Ts’ang, the cultural significance of their music becomes clear—providing an outlet for Chinese youths to express their anger and frustration with the government. Importantly, this form of self-expression is not sanctioned by the state, and so it faces government opposition and intervention.  While the Chinese government is set on halting the growth of the underground Hip-Hop culture that is emerging in China, it is important to support efforts to preserve this form of creative self-expression, as it provides a wide range of benefits to those involved in it.

Although the Chinese government has tried to isolate and disassociate its youth from the western youth culture, United States music and popular culture has had a significant influence on the country of China. Television shows, such as MTV, have grown popular and found their way to the younger generations of Chinese citizens. With the growing popularity of American music and popular culture, many American rappers, such as Eminem and Jay-Z, have become well known, and hip-hop has infiltrated Chinese society[i]. And once hip-hop began to reflect the perspective of the Chinese youth, underground hip-hop was born.

The group Yin Ts’ang, whose group name means “hidden,” was one of the first underground hip-hop groups to write in this perspective, consequently making them one of the first underground hip-hop groups to emerge in China.  The music of Yin Ts’ang is not sanctioned by the state, but it has nonetheless inspired the Chinese youth to write their own rhymes. According to Zhong Cheng, a member of Yin Ts’ang, “the big change was when rappers started writing verse in Chinese, so people could understand. Before that, kids listened to hip-hop in English but maybe less than 1 percent could actually begin to understand.”  By changing this from of creative self-expression to the Chinese perspective, Yin Ts’ang and underground hip-hop in China took the country by storm. Indeed, the youth in China were able to relate to the problems and circumstances Yin Ts’ang addressed in their songs, which confronted issues such as government influence and the Chinese education system, as well as the struggle Chinese citizens face on a daily basis.  Yin Ts’ang took advantage of this momentum when in two thousand one, the group released their hit song called “In Beijing,” which was the first of several songs by Yin Ts’ang that was relatable to the Chinese youth while also addressing the problems facing Chinese society. [ii]

The documentary Underground Hip-Hop In China by Jimmy Wang examines underground Chinese hip-hop and illustrates its growing popularity among students and the Chinese working-class. It also highlights that because this type of music is not sanctioned by the state, it is a profitless activity for its artists, who are often viewed as rebels.  Wang’s documentary follows the story of MC Weber, one of Mainland China’s first hip-hop rappers.  Weber was born into the working class of Beijing and was raised in a very poor neighborhood. Eventually, his love for hip-hop led to him forming the group Yin Ts’ang, which is today considered the godfather of underground Chinese hip-hop.

The documentary also examines the story of many post-Mao citizens who are part of the young working class, as well as the young migrant workers of China. Feeling that they have been isolate from the country’s meteoric rise, they struggle with finding their place in modern China. But with the underground hip-hop music of Yin Ts’ang, these citizens find an outlet for their anger and frustration and a voice for their hopes and dreams.

Quickly, the music of Yin Ts’ang became very popular after developing a grassroots following, and this creative form of self-expression began to inspire China’s urban youth to form their own hip-hop groups in cities across the country. But the strong social commentary of the underground hip-hop culture that caused Yin Ts’ang to gain such a large following also became the reason for the government’s opposition, and so along with this growing popularity also came strict resistance from the state. Yin Ts’ang and other underground hip-hop rappers face state censorship preventing their music from being created, and also face state-backed pop stars that seek to steal the hip-hop following for their own personal gain. Clearly, the Chinese government is opposed to and is trying to stop to the underground hip-hop culture developing in China.

Through interviews with various Chinese underground hip-hop artists and fans, the documentary makes it clear to its audience that underground hip-hop music and culture is incredibly significant, as it offers many citizens the ability to express their feelings and critique problems in society. According to Wang Liang, a young hip-hop DJ in China, “The education system here feeds you a lot of stale knowledge and rules. Study this. Memorize that. Hip-hop is free, like rock ’n’ roll. We can talk about our lives, what we’re thinking about, what we feel.”  And Zhang Yi, a college student in China said “I use hip-hop when want to say something. Something I dislike, something I love. And hip-hop brought us more freedom, just be yourself.” Undoubtedly, these followers of underground hip-hop in China need this creative form of self-expression to be true to their feelings and to be free.[iii]

Additionally, the various music videos produced by Yin Ts’ang are able to show how and why this type of music became so popular with the Chinese urban youth. It is obvious that the controversial lyrics appeal to and attracts many of China’s urban youth. Nevertheless, the way in which the members of Yin Ts’ang move and interact in these performances can also be viewed as another way of appealing to the Chinese youth. Just by watching a few seconds of these music videos, it is apparent that the members of Yin Ts’ang move with a rebellious swagger that cannot be denied. They appear to be cool, tough, intelligent, and real –an appearance that is not only hard to obtain, but also appealing to the younger generation.

Screen Shot of Yin Ts'ang "Welcome to Beijing" Music Video

Yin Ts’ang Music Video “Welcome to Beijing”

In the music videos “Welcome to Beijing[iv] and “Don’t Worry,”[v] Yin Ts’ang is able to portray this persona quickly. They are aggressive and assertive in their posture and in their interactions with one another. These music videos start with the members of Yin Ts’ang standing and moving around confidently. This confidence causes them to look cool and tough before they even start rapping.  And once they start to rap, the members of Yin Ts’ang instantly appear to be authentic and intelligent. They begin to rap about the problems facing Chinese society, and the audience is captivated by their lyrics and tone. For many, this was the first time hearing music with such strong and controversial lyrics. Undoubtedly, the appearance of the members of Yin Ts’ang during their performances, in conjunction with the divisive topics in their songs, helped Yin Ts’ang gain popularity with a majority of China’s urban youth.

Screen Shot of the Yin Ts'ang Music Video "Don't Worry"

Screen Shot of the Yin Ts’ang Music Video “Don’t Worry”

Wang’s documentary, along with the various Yin Ts’ang music videos, reveals how underground hip-hop culture emerged in China, the challenges that this culture currently faces, and the benefits that this type of self-expression provides for all of those who follow it. Evidently, the government in China fears the underground hip-hop culture currently developing in China. However, it is imperative to save this form of creative self-expression due to the overwhelming benefits it provides for all of those involved.

Before analyzing underground hip-hop in China, it is important to acknowledge the interculturalism and global transmission of hip-hop all around the world. Dr. Tony Mitchell believes “that hip-hop has been “indigenised” by performers around the world who’ve adapted the template to fit their own language and political concerns.” Hip-hop has reached rappers all across the globe. These rappers have different backgrounds of nationality and race, and they use this form of self-expression to open dialogue about politics in their respective countries. The end product of hip-hop through global transmission is contrary to hip-hop in the United States, where hip-hop culture as a whole generally lacks any hip-hop perspective.  Evidently, hip-hop has been an important tool across the globe for citizens to express their opinions about the political landscape in their country and to express their frustration with their daily struggle through life.[vi]

When looking at the benefits of the music underground hip-hop provides to those who listen to it, it is crucial to discuss the lack of self-expression in Chinese culture. Throughout the life of a young Chinese citizen, they are told and taught to not express their emotions and to not challenge the problems they notice with the government. Instead, they are told to focus on the idea of a national identity and a national pride that is supposed to boost citizen morale. Unfortunately, this feigned national pride and national identity has not helped many youths in the middle class. These youth’s feel that the country has slighted them during its meteoric rise and these youth’s lack an outlet to voice their concerns.

Mr. Wang is a twenty four year old underground hip-hop rapper in China who uses this creative form of self-expression to help him deal with the bitterness that comes with realizing he is one of the millions left out of China’s economic boom. He often performs in a downtown nightclubs and he uses Chinese proverbs in his lyrics to create a social commentary that helps many other Chinese citizens in his position find a voice for their frustrations. “If you don’t have a nice car or cash, you won’t get no honeys. Don’t you know China is only a heaven for rich old men? You know this world is full of corruption. Babies die from drinking milk” are lyrics from one of his verses that highlight the problems he sees in society. Undoubtedly, Mr. Wang sees a major problem with the economic discrepancy present throughout China, and he uses underground hip-hop to voice his opinions and to evoke social change in the youths of China.

Moreover, underground hip-hop is also used to critique the education system in China. One of the most recent hit in underground hip-hop has been “Hello Teacher” by Yin Tsar. This song challenges the authority of unfair teachers. It also provides an outlet for many youths who have been treated unfairly by the education system to express their aggravation and to voice their concerns. Clearly, underground hip-hop does not only provide a social commentary on China as a whole, but it also creates a more specific social commentary. A social commentary that is able to relate to the daily struggle faced by the young working class who were left behind during China’s rise to economic prominence. Most importantly, due to the ability of underground hip-hop to provide a social commentary that many other citizens can relate to, its following has been increasing dramatically. Hiphop.cn is an underground hip-hop website that in 2007 had just a few hundred members. In 2008, it received millions of views. ii This growth shows the importance of underground hip-hop to all of those who listen to it. Evidently, underground hip-hop provides an outlet for the millions of individuals who have been voiceless and struggling to finding their place in this new China.

Although there are apparently many benefits to the underground hip-hop scene that developed in China, it still faces strict opposition from the state. The music of underground hip-hop is much more sensitive than the music created by the stated-backed pop stars, causing underground hip-hop to not be sanctioned by broadcast media producers and by the state. This form of government intervention has kept underground hip-hop from reaching its full potential and has kept is popularity to its relatively small grassroots following. Furthermore, the government also intervenes by promoting the music of many pop stars that have their own spin on hip-hop. These pop stars dominate the mainstream and use government support to further fuel their fame. The government promotes and prefers their form of hip-hop due to its uncontroversial topics and its lack of political perspective. The government also uses these pop stars to promote a nationalist pride through their mainstream reach and popularity. These pop stars create a form of hip-hop that is completely different from the sounds, lyrics, and passion in the music of underground hip-hop.[vii]

All of this government intervention has prevented underground hip-hop from gaining the popularity it deserves. Additionally, the government intervention has left underground hip-hop rappers in a financial hole. All of this government intervention has prevented their music from becoming popular and it has prevented their music from having monetary potential. The pop stars that are backed by the state have been reaping the monetary benefits of the popularity of hip-hop in China. For example, MC Zhong and MC Johnston of the famous group Yin Ts’ang, still struggle till pay their bills because they have not stopped using hip-hop as a way to make a living. ii  Undoubtedly, the government needs to stop intervening in underground hip-hop because this form of creative self-expression should be viewed as beneficial for the Chinese people.

Now, it is clear that the Chinese government is opposed to and is trying to stop to the underground Hip-Hop culture developing in China. However it is essential that the government starts supporting the preservation of this form of creative self-expression, as it provides a wide range of benefits to all of those involved in it. And by further exploring underground hip-hop and relating it to topics discussed throughout our class, the overall meaning of this analysis becomes even more significant. An important figure in our class discussion of Mandopop was Jay Chou, and according to Wu Zhiyan and Janet Borgerson, support from the Chinese government has been crucial to his ability to generate endorsements, sponsored events, and advertising contracts. “A good example of this strength of Jay Chou’s political endorsement is his frequent appearance singing Chinese-themes and styled music for the New Year’s Gala on CCTV, the outlet for China’s Central Propaganda Department.” [viii]

Obviously, Jay Chao and other pop stars receive this government support while the rappers of underground hip-hop receive government intervention due to their different lyrical content. This form of Mandopop is able to provide a small outlet for emotion for many Chinese citizens by talking about the struggle many individuals face in life, most notably about love and heartbreak. These songs may even include some political perspective, but this does not compare to the intensity and passion in the political perspective found in underground hip-hop’s music and culture. And it is for this reason that underground hip-hop has suffered in both its popularity and lacked in its monetary potential.

Underground hip-hop is a very rare outlet in China that allows individuals to incorporate a political perspective into their daily lives. Underground hip-hop opens discussions about the numerous problems associated with the Chinese government. With more supporters, underground hip-hop can grow into a powerful force that helps bring about a political change. This potential for change that underground hip-hop provides has evoked fear in Chinese government officials, and they are doing everything in their power to stop this form of creative self-expression from growing any further. Without government intervention, underground hip-hop has the potential to spread throughout the entire country. And with a strong following, underground hip-hop will then be able to influence and change the political landscape that is currently found in China.

Evidently, the Chinese government is opposed to the underground hip-hop culture developing in China. However it is imperative to save this form of creative self-expression due to the variety of benefits it provides to those who follow it—an outlet for many young youths to express their anger and frustration with the government. Since this form of self-expression is not sanctioned by the state, it faces strict government intervention in a variety of different ways. This government intervention has hindered underground hip-hops popularity, and has caused many underground hip-hop rappers to be financially distressed. Undoubtedly there is a problem at hand. Underground hip-hop faces opposition from the Chinese government, and it is crucial that underground hip-hop survives in order to provide a voice for the millions of citizens who have been struggling to find their place in modern China.


[i] Osumare

[ii] Wang

[iii] Underground Hip-Hop

[iv] Welcome to Beijing

[v] Don’t Worry

[vi] Mitchell

[vii] China’s Hip-Hop

[viii] Zhiyan

 

Works Cited

 

“China’s Hip-Hop Underground.” China Digital Times CDT

Chinas HipHop Underground Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 08

Dec.2013. <http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2012/04/chinas-hip-hopunderground/>.

 

Don’t Worry. Perf. Yin Ts’ang. N.p., n.d. Web.

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAYmfzW2LLw>.

 

Mitchell, Tony. Global Noise: Rap and Hip-hop outside the USA.

Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Print.

 

Osumare, Halifu. The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-hop:

Power Moves. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

 

Underground Hip-Hop in China. Dir. Jimmy Wang. 2012. DVD.

 

Wang, Jimmy. “Now Hip-Hop, Too, Is Made in China.” The New

York Times. N.p., n.d. Web.

 

Welcome to Beijing. Perf. Yin Ts’ang. N.p., n.d. Web.

<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjvyzrMYEYw>.

 

Zhiyan, Wu, Janet Borgerson, and Jonathan Schroeder. From Chinese

 Brand Culture to Global Brands: Insights from Aesthetics,

Fashion and History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.