On China’s ‘Rap for Youth,’ the Medium Is the Message

The mainstreaming of rap is part of a broader effort to reach younger audiences through their favorite genres and hobbies.

As the latest viral hit to emerge from the online reality show “Rap for Youth,” “We We” makes for an intriguing entrant in the annals of Chinese hip-hop. Based on the 1991 pro-peace anthem “Amani” by Hong Kong rockers Beyond, it forgoes the swearing and cynicism of American rap in favor of patriotic language, boy band outfits, and an acoustic guitar solo. Over the course of just four minutes, six rappers intermingle the chorus of “Amani” with stinging critiques of the Gulf War, praise for the sacrifices made by the Chinese military, and calls to end racism.

Whatever its politics, the song struck a chord with the show’s young audience. On Bilibili, the increasingly mainstream ACG video site that produces and airs “Rap for Youth,” clips of the performance quickly racked up millions of views. Commenters heaped praise on the show and song alike, with viewers leaving messages like “Absolutely divine,” “Rap can blow up, too,” and “They simply have to perform on the Spring Festival Gala (annual television special).”

So how did American countercultural music become one of China’s preferred vehicles for conveying mainstream values to young audiences? To understand, it is important to start by examining the shift of variety shows — an important and wildly popular genre in China — from TV to the internet.

Chinese teenagers have been crazy for singing competitions and studio-produced game shows since TVs became widespread in the country in the mid-1980s. However, the demands of advertisers and official ideology meant TV programs were careful to keep things family-friendly and with broad appeal.

Beginning in the 2000s, as rising online video and streaming platforms looked for ways to poach audiences from their more established competitors, teenagers and young people — naturally alienated and often disinterested in the bland, carefully curated programs found on TV — seemed an obvious target. One of the most iconic in the raft of new shows aimed at young people was streaming giant iQiyi’s “I Can I BB,” which premiered in 2014. The show enlisted a bunch of fast-talking young contestants to debate topics relevant to young Chinese, ranging from life and love to work.

“I Can I BB” became a template for a new generation of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”-flavored variety shows. Many of their stars went on to become influencers in their own right, utilizing their talent for witty remarks and fast talking to build their fan bases and grow their sway over public opinion.

Meanwhile, as singing competitions waned in popularity, rap exploded onto the scene. In 2017, “The Rap of China,” based on the South Korean program “Show Me the Money,” broke ground in this area, becoming an instant hit and offering new ways to reach young people. Rising hip-hop performers like Vava and Gai became stars rapping about the confusion, incomprehension, and anger in their personal lives. Continue to read the full article here


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.