China’s Hip-Hop Haters Turn Their Ire to ‘Hanmai’

Though many rappers dis the northeastern performance style, to officials, it’s all the same.

Students livestream a musical performance at an arts school in Faku County, Liaoning province, Oct. 26, 2017. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Hip-hop has recently found itself in the firing line of Chinese authorities. In the last month, several rappers have been criticized by censors and banned from television. But now even hanmai — a style of emceeing popular in northeastern China — has come into the crosshairs of the country’s culture wars.

Last Friday, YY — one of China’s earliest and most popular livestreaming platforms — announced a string of measures aimed at “cleaning up the online livestreaming space.” One new rule was forbidding usernames that contained the words “MC” or “hanmai” — literally “microphone shouter.” Offenders, the notice warned, would have their accounts shut down, and severe violations could result in legal action.

Hanmai is a homegrown genre of online performance that was once described by GQ China as “county-level DJ music + tractor-fast tempo + loud voice + northeastern accent.” It’s popular in China’s countryside and lower-tier cities, and most of its performers are men from the country’s northeast — the only region of China with more male than female livestreamers.

As part of the cleanup, YY banned 1,000 livestreamers and 77 popular hanmai songs, reported a media outlet on the Jiemian business and finance news platform. Scores of livestreamers swiftly changed their usernames, including MC Tianyou, a hanmai celebrity with over 24 million fans on the platform. He removed “MC” from both his YY and Weibo microblog accounts.

The ban comes in the wake of the official clampdown on hip-hop — though many urban hip-hop artists sneer at hanmai and don’t consider it to be part of their genre at all.

“You can’t even call it a style,” Liu Liangji, a Shanghai-based rapper better known as “Mr. Weezy,” told Sixth Tone. “It’s just a freak product made by Chinese farmers, country bosses, village folks, and second-tier city residents with low culture.”

Hip-hop — with its roots in African-American culture — has been around in China since the 1990s but exploded in popularity last summer when the hit shout flashy “The Rap of China” premiered. However, PG One, one of the show’s two winners, has run into a spate of troubles since his rise to fame. First, there were allegations in December that he was having an affair with a married actress; then state media criticized him for his lyrics, saying they condoned drug use and disrespected women.

In January, several hip-hop artists were banned or cut from television, starting with GAI — the other winner of “The Rap of China” — who was cut from Hunan TV’s television singing competition “The Singer” and the broadcaster’s YouTube channel with no explanation given. A week later, Shanghai-based rapper Vava had her appearance cut from variety talk show “Happy Camp.” A TV quiz show even blurred out flashy, hip-hop-style jewelry worn by one contestant.

On Jan. 19, online news outlet Sina Entertainment published a directive from the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT). In the notice, SAPPRFT publicity department director Gao Changli stated that television series must not depict hip-hop culture, subcultures, sangculture, or artists with tattoos.

“Absolutely do not use actors whose hearts and ethics are not aligned with the Party, and whose morality is not noble,” the notice says.

The changes deal a heavy blow to China’s burgeoning hip-hop scene, say industry pundits. Jiang Yao is a teacher and rapper who performs in a Shanghai-based group called “Xiyong Boys” using the stage name “P.J.” He told Sixth Tone that the genre’s future in China is on shaky ground.

“Most rap artists in China like hip-hop because they think it’s cool, especially the ‘gangsta’ style … which isn’t allowed,” Jiang said. He says his own group’s music is “healthy” — though government departments unfortunately view all rappers as “gangsta,” hence, his group having to relabel themselves online as “pop singers.”

Andy Lee, the creative director of Shanghai-based entertainment company CAPO, told Sixth Tone that a small number of top artists have ruined the genre’s reputation by blaming their personal scandals — like drug use — on hip-hop culture. “It made the government feel that if hip-hop grows, then there will be more scandals,” Lee explained. “The lyrical content and the culture was already edgy for the government.”

In Lee’s view, it’s a few bad apples spoiling the barrel — a situation not unlike one badly behaved Chinese tourist tarring the name of the whole country.

But Shanghai rapper Liu is not too concerned, having mildly described the ban as “an adjustment.”

Rock, too, suffered official ire during the 1980s, Liu said. “They’ve been through the same thing — so we’ll just keep calm and take it slow.”


–This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone