In the 21st century, the road a song must travel before it comes into existence is far more winding and complex than it’s ever been before. No longer an individual or small group effort, a piece of music moving from the mind of an artist to the ears of his or her audience will pass through the hands of any number of third parties. These third party influences could range from the input of an online contact, to the practiced touch of a trained audio engineer, to the weight of greater forces like market demographics and industry co-opting.
In China today, the creative community is on the receiving end of a range of factors that make it more difficult for authentic content to achieve a cultural impact over the more diluted products that are engineered to sell from the conceptual stage. The country’s capitalist wave surges forward, with industry funding and developmental effort going to the groups capable of reaching the broadest listener demographics: the ‘largest lowest’ common denominator. Meanwhile, genuine voices often struggle to be heard, or are stifled by the larger processes of what is deemed culturally and legally acceptable. Niche artists (or those who can be considered accurate representations of niche culture) find themselves in new territory, trying to walk the line between being true to their work and being legitimately marketable in a society that is only becoming increasingly commercial and market-driven.
But as China grows, slowly climbing out of their own often-cited domain as a developing country, the communities who live there edge closer and closer to the realities of their American and western counterparts, and the line of “culturally and legally acceptable” begins to blur. Those who hold on to older social norms start to coexist with newer ideas once their validity is established (i.e. what was seen in the 90’s after the initial “explosion” of hip hop fever died down), and legal restrictions on creative output become more difficult to enforce as a new generation comes of age, one whose existence has been defined by the internet, and by a deeper connection to the outside world than their parents had ever had.
At first, it might be natural to guess that China’s eagerness to modernize and its increasing leaning towards capitalist tendencies would spell disaster for the non-commercial hip hop community. That the millions of RMB being poured into the industry would eclipse the smaller artists, and that the country’s white-knuckled grip around the flow of its media would preclude the “self-made” revolution that an increasing number of musicians in America are experiencing, having matured in the worlds of websites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp. And, if you were to have made this guess, you would have some valid points.
But while these factors do have a detrimental effect on the subculture, they are in reality dwarfed by the larger factor of our modern world’s increasingly unilateral global culture. One half century ago, not only were the citizens of China leading lives completely different from their American counterparts, but they were powerless to even understand on a surface level what kinds of things could be going on outside the borders of their country. Information was not just restricted, but nonexistent. In China today, remnants of this history can unfortunately still be seen functioning on every level of society in the forms of media censorship, penalties for criticizing the government, and restrictions on individual freedom of speech. But whereas the last generation was at a loss for even the most minimal piece of foreign news, today's middle schoolers only have to reach for their pockets in order to access detailed information and multimedia on a place, event, or individual. The number of people in China who have access to anti-firewall VPNs or an education in English is growing as well, carving new depth into this well of detailed information.
What's more is that Chinese youth are no longer satisfied with their immediate surroundings. Growing up in a modern China that is poised halfway between millennia-old cultural values and up-to-the-minute transglobal relevance has bred in them a hunger for world citizenship. More and more Chinese high school graduates are traveling abroad for higher education and the country's international tourism expenditure has more than quadrupled in the past decade. After a childhood and adolescence immersed in the maelstrom of subcultural vocabulary that developed alongside social technology in the 2000's, today's Chinese youth are eager to rush into what George Zhao called "a cultural free-for-all", finally equipped with the tools and the knowledge to tap into the practice of essentially any subculture. It's become clear that the outward-expanding force of China's international consciousness is impossible to confine.
I began this project largely in search of understanding, rather than to answer any particular question. I felt separated, in a way, from this mirror image of a cultural practice going on across the planet. I found those who participated in hip hop practice in China to be just like myself; and yet, completely different. In my study of their motives, beliefs, values, loves, and hardships, I began to recognize a set of base hip hop character traits identical to those present in their American counterparts, just focused through the lens of a different lived experience. I started out without any significant view on the future direction of China's hip hop identity, but for this reason, I'm confident that a boom in the development of the country's practice is on the near horizon. Just as the disenfranchised communities of the Bronx took time and generations to materialize the true original identity of the art form they would call hip hop, so too are the culture's practitioners in China slowly building. Hip hop at its inception was a vehicle for a voiceless community to speak, even to shout, and to be heard across the world and across decades. The youth of China today, too, are yearning for their voices to be heard, for their own experiences to be focused through a lens that is uniquely theirs. And in the 21st century, there is no power that can stop them from actualizing that lens.