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Exploring the history and culture of Chinese hip hop

Terra Molengraff/Daily
Andreas Hwang (stage name Young Kin) spoke and performed on campus last Friday Buy this photo

BY LUCY PERKINS
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 13, 2011

Each country has an icon that represents its national identity to the world. There’s beer in Germany, there are pyramids in Egypt and Panama has its canal. But these associations can’t and don’t encompass each country's culture in its entirety. For example, China has the Great Wall, but it also has an extensive underground hip-hop scene. Who knew?

On Friday, a student-organized event sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies and the Confucius Institute featured Chinese rapper Young Kin, B-boy Fishball from Hong Kong and DJ Rocklee from Macau. Through performances and showcases from these Chinese-speaking hip-hop artists, attendees had the opportunity to experience this lesser-known aspect of Chinese culture.

“Our main goal was to spread awareness on campus that hip hop in China exists,” said LSA senior Eric Couillard, who organized the event. “But at the same time, we wanted people to learn how hip hop is different in the developing world versus in the United States.”

Andreas Hwang, who has taken on the professional name Young Kin, is one of China’s most well known rappers and was the featured speaker at the event. Born in Switzerland, his parents moved to Beijing when he was three months old. When he was ten, Hwang saw a group of kids rapping at school. It was something he hadn’t been exposed to before, and he was hooked immediately.

“They kind of impressed me,” Hwang said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “I always wanted to do something that motivates people, like speaking publicly or rapping.”

In high school, Hwang began writing his own lyrics, freestyling and exploring the underground hip-hop scene of Beijing for rap battles. After he graduated, one of the biggest hip-hop crews in Beijing at the time, Yin Ts’ang, took him under its wing. The group released mixtapes, one of which included Hwang’s first hit “Made in China.”

“I got a lot of attention for that song and I started getting approached by record labels like Warner Music and Universal,” Hwang said.

Even though Hwang was beginning to be recognized as one of the most popular rappers in China, there was still a source that continuously worked against him and the other members of Yin Ts’ang: the Chinese Ministry of Culture.

“You end up feeling really restricted as an artist,” Hwang said. “(The Ministry of Culture) will have so many limitations on what you can do that it inhibits your growth.”

Yin Ts’ang chose to ignore The Ministry of Culture in order to maintain its authenticity. The group released most of its music illegally online to express the ideas that were important to its members while escaping government regulation.

“It’s very frustrating. The only way that hip-hop artists can stay true to their culture and keep their credibility is to do it all underground,” Hwang said. “If you follow (The Ministry of Culture’s) rules, hip hop isn’t a true form of self-expression. It’s a tricky game and we’re up against a very smart opponent.”

According to Hwang, Yin Ts’ang used rap to expose the people of China to new ideas and opinions.

“Hip hop is an art form that is very direct, so it’s really useful for hipping people to new slang and concepts,” Hwang said. “It’s perfect for presenting ideas vocally and showing how you feel the country is changing.”

Chinese hip-hop groups like Yin Ts’ang may have exposed followers to new concepts and ideas, but their influence on areas outside the country will be slow at best.

“We’re just beginning to see a wave of Chinese youth culture spreading to other countries,” said Mary Gallagher, director of the University’s Center for Chinese Studies. “It’s just a matter of time, though. China is still relatively poor and developing — it’s not able to have a big cultural impact yet.”

According to Gallagher, language barriers may also be a factor slowing down China’s cultural influence.

“The culture is closely tied with the language,” she said. “If you don’t have the language ability, it’s that much harder for the culture to be shared.”

Couillard expressed similar sentiments about the spread of Chinese hip hop.

“It’s not something that could be exported at this point,” Couillard said. “At least right now, it’s not something that anyone outside of China could appreciate, because it’s so specialized.”

Couillard pointed out that Chinese hip hop often talks about things that wouldn’t necessarily be popular in the U.S.

“One of the most popular hip-hop songs in China is about some guy cussing out his teacher,” Couillard said. “It’s not about the song being good musically, but it’s just a cultural thing that everyone there hates their teachers so they can identify with it. But unless you speak Chinese, it’s impossible for you to relate to that song.”

But for those who can relate to it, hip hop is a big part of the underground Chinese culture, and its presence has the power to gain momentum in the future, with dedication from artists like Young Kin.

“The future can look really good if we work hard,” Hwang said. “We can take this really far.”