How China seeks har­mony through hip hop

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - NEWS - ASIA COR­RE­SPON­DENT BEI­JING NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE

Pop­u­lar rap­pers play up pos­i­tives about trou­bled Xin­jiang re­gion in tune with the gov­ern­ment

Flick­er­ing pil­lars of light flash from blue to red to white as the cam­era flies to­ward the stage, where two rap­pers are pranc­ing in white sneak­ers.

“I am made in China,” one yells in English, over a big tri­umphal beat. “We have dif­fer­ent faces and dif­fer­ent eyes,” his Uyghur part­ner re­sponds in Man­darin. “Let’s unite and fly, break­ing through the sky.”

The rap­pers, legs thrash­ing, then join in the cho­rus: “We all made in China, what!”

It’s an un­likely mes­sage from mu­si­cians hail­ing from China’s far-western Xin­jiang re­gion, where the gov­ern­ment has been ac­cused of mass de­ten­tions of Uyghurs, a largely Mus­lim Tur­kic mi­nor­ity.

Hip hop has been used by eth­nic mi­nori­ties to lyri­cize de­fi­ance else­where in China, in­clud­ing by eth­nic Ti­betans in Sichuan who have rapped about dis­crim­i­na­tion. But at a time of heavy gov­ern­ment pres­sure in Xin­jiang, the re­gion’s hip-hop en­try onto the Chi­nese big stage has been less sear­ing than salv­ing.

The rap­pers have gained pop­u­lar­ity on The Rap of China, a tal­ent show on which a group of acts this year have been dubbed the Four Tian­shan Broth­ers.

Three of the four so-called broth­ers are Uyghur, an eth­nic mi­nor­ity that has been the pri­mary tar­get of a de­ten­tion cam­paign in which schol­ars es­ti­mate hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, and per­haps a mil­lion, are be­ing held in cen­tres for po­lit­i­cal in­doc- tri­na­tion. Chi­nese author­i­ties say the de­ten­tion cen­tres are de­signed to pro­vide “em­ploy­ment train­ing” and erad­i­cate the “virus” of ex­trem­ism.

“Xin­jiang re­minds me of Cal­i­for­nia, which rep­re­sents free­dom,” says Duo Lei, one of the Xin­jiang rap­pers who comes from Ghulja, a small cen­tre not far from the Kaza­khstan bor­der.

“Be­cause peo­ple in Xin­jiang are hugely uni­fied,” he says in a re­cent in­ter­view. “There are lots of dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties in the re­gion, so peo­ple with dif­fer­ent cul­tural back­grounds are able to min­gle and con­verse.”

It is an im­age dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent from the mil­i­tary mien of mod­ern Xin­jiang, where ar­moured ve­hi­cles slowly pa­trol streets and trav­ellers must pass fre­quent check­points.

The ap­pear­ance of the Four Tian­shan Broth­ers comes amid broader ef­forts by the Chi­nese state to pro­mote cul­tural unity. China has long sought “to make en­ter­tain­ment con­tent more at­tuned to state pro­pa­ganda ob­jec­tives – and one such ob­jec­tive in the past few years has been the theme of ‘sol­i­dar­ity of na­tion­al­i­ties,’ ” says Yuezhi Zhao, Canada Re­search Chair in Po­lit­i­cal Econ­omy of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Si­mon Fraser Uni­ver­sity.

“My im­pres­sion is that as a re­sult of this, there has been more in­cor­po­ra­tion of Xin­jiang and other eth­nic fig­ures and themes in en­ter­tain­ment.”

In Xin­jiang, too, there is a his­tory of mu­sic be­ing put to po­lit­i­cal pur­poses. “Mu­si­cians have been pro­moted af­ter vi­o­lent in­ci­dents,” says Dar­ren Byler, a Uni­ver­sity of Washington an­thro­pol­o­gist who has stud­ied mod­ern Uyghur mu­sic.

Af­ter vi­o­lence in 2013, a bilin- gual Uyghur-Man­darin song called Har­mo­nious Xin­jiang was re­leased by En­wer­jan, a Uyghur pop singer. Its lyrics in­clude the lines: “Har­mony will give you a smile / Play that tam­bourine / Leap in dance / and sing about the good­ness of Xin­jiang.”

“What’s hap­pen­ing with these hip hop guys doesn’t seem like it’s as clearly di­rected by the state,” Prof. Byler says. “But there’s maybe some res­o­nance there.”

At the same time, it’s a re­flec­tion of the ways youth in Xin­jiang have em­braced artis­tic cre­ation in a re­gion un­der au­thor­i­tar­ian rule, bound by tra­di­tion and vul­ner­a­ble to com­mu­nal vi­o­lence.

Re­la­tions be­tween Uyghurs and Han Chi­nese de­te­ri­o­rated badly in 2009, when deadly ri­ots broke out in Urumqi, the Xin­jiang cap­i­tal. Author­i­ties cut off in­ter­net to the en­tire re­gion for 10 months. When on­line con­nec­tions were re­vived, sites once rich with lo­cal mu­sic failed to re­turn. “The 2009 in­ci­dent made a bunch of peo­ple give up their mu­sic dreams,” many for good, says Air, a Uyghur rap­per from Kash­gar who is one of the Four Tian­shan Broth­ers.

Then, as hip hop be­gan to grow in pop­u­lar­ity across China, the genre staged a come­back in Xin­jiang, where lo­cal artists saw a chance at wider renown. In 2012, Air com­peted for the first time at Iron Mic, the coun­try’s big­gest rap bat­tle; two years later, he placed sec­ond. In 2015, he was crowned cham­pion. He per­forms in Man­darin Chi­nese, the bet­ter to ex­pand his reach.

Still, the re­gion’s mod­ern mu­sic ex­em­pli­fies China’s con­straints on artis­tic cre­ation, par­tic­u­larly in ar­eas it con­sid­ers restive. Two high-pro­file Uyghur mu­si­cians have dis­ap­peared in the past year; sup­port­ers believe they have been taken into po­lit­i­cal in­doc­tri­na­tion cen­tres.

There is no hint of that in I’m Go­ing to Xin­jiang, an Air song in which he urges peo­ple to see his home­land the way a tourist brochure might: “Come to this mul­ti­cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment / I as­sure you that your views will be re­freshed / Throw away all those old la­bels you have for Xin­jiang / Bring your lover and all your [cam­era] film.”

He re­jects the idea that Uyghur rap­pers have cause to rhyme about prej­u­dice.

“Is any­one dis­crim­i­nat­ing against me now?” he says in a Bei­jing cof­fee shop, days af­ter win­ning en­try to the next round of The Rap of China. He of­fers only a hint that Uyghurs have faced dif­fi­cul­ties.

“If there is dis­crim­i­na­tion against eth­nic mi­nori­ties, some­one should stand out and do some­thing to se­cure their dig­nity, by achiev­ing some­thing real.”


Duo Lei, a mu­si­cian from China’s western Xin­jiang re­gion, is part of the Four Tian­shan Broth­ers, who have com­peted on a high-pro­file hip-hop tal­ent con­test.

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