The following story appears in Banana Magazine Issue 03
Underground music shouldn’t exist in China, yet it’s thriving and might just become the country’s next great export. Both my parents are Chinese Americans born and raised in the Bay Area. As American as my upbringing was, I grew up proud of my dual heritage, knowing that a constant negotiation between East and West would always be a part of my identity.
Yet the words “Chinese music” once brought to my mind age-old traditional folk songs, Western copycatting or the karaoke pop ballads of my parents’ generation until I met Bohan Phoenix, a Hubei-born, Brooklyn-based rapper whose lyrical blend of Mandarin and English mirrors the conflicted upbringing we share…
Bohan moved to Boston at the age of 11 and visits China frequently to see his family, who now live in Chengdu. Earlier in 2016, he was selected for a nine city tour through China with VICE, and has since been pursuing his music career on both sides of the world simultaneously. Bohan was the first real player in China’s underground music world I could relate to as an American, and, with a rare understanding of both countries, he became my de facto translator in both language and culture. After riveting conversations about race and culture from the comfort of our Brooklyn homes, my curiosity led me across the world with Bohan for a ten day trip to Shanghai, Taipei and Chengdu last September. In each city, he performed, I DJed, and we partied ’til the morning, eating delicious meals and crashing with members of the local scenes to soak in everything we could.
Before the trip, I had ideas about the challenges of developing underground music in the mainland. The first and most obvious was censorship, which is hardly news in China. Bohan explained that today, most young people use VPNs to connect to overseas private networks that circumvent China’s so-called Great Firewall, which prohibits Google, Youtube, SoundCloud, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Still, the majority of young people’s music sharing remains on Chinese platforms like Weibo, the Twitter of China, or Xiami, a SoundCloud-like service that isn’t even available outside the country. In the West, we take a constant cross-cultural exchange of musical ideas for granted, but artists in China have never enjoyed this luxury. I wondered what presented a greater challenge: the struggle to see beyond the Great Firewall or being hidden from the rest of the world behind it.
Right after stepping foot in Shanghai, I broached this topic with Beijing-born Howie Lee, who some call the father of underground music in China. Howie, alongside Shanghainese DJ/producer Billy Starman, is the founder of Do Hits, the country’s best known bass music collective, who are starting to make waves outside China after hosting the nation’s first ever Boiler Room shows in the spring of 2016. When asked about the Great Firewall today, Howie said “It’s like your parent putting another lock on your bedroom. The smart kids know how to escape and the stupid ones gonna stay at home … so why you complaining about that?”
While most young people now consider the Great Firewall a mere inconvenience, its long term effect on music in China is significant. Howie admits that especially a few years back, not all Chinese youth possessed the same curiosity that led him to look beyond the wall. He once felt that the music he made and loved was invisible to people outside the small expat communities who already knew the genre from home. In 2013, Howie left China for 18 months to study at the University of the Arts in London. “I was sort of trapped in China before I went to London,” he said. “I would think about [going to] study abroad, but I wasn’t sure until I was like ‘OK I have no hope here.’ I think at that time … it was like no audience [in China]. No audience at all.”
Yet today, Howie supports himself comfortably, living between his hometown of Beijing and Taipei. He performs throughout Asia and feels positive about the future of underground music. “Five years ago, it was nothing. In the next five years, people start to realize they’re already in the future,” he said. “We’re already in the future. People will be like ‘oh shit- this IS the future. And the future belongs to you.”
Do Hits is the perfect example of this “oh shit” moment. Members of the collective come mostly from mainland China and make leftfield bass music and soundscapes with traditional Chinese instrument samples and Eastern melodies. A lot of China’s modern music is criticized for being an imitation of the West, and Do Hits deliberately flips this stereotype. Do Hits strives to create a voice that is boldly by China and for China. It mirrors an inspiring new sense of mainland pride amongst young people, where everyday trendsetters are trading in their iPhones for Huawei or Xiaomi phones, consciously supporting Chinese brands and businesses like never before.
I witnessed “the future” of Chinese music Howie mentioned firsthand at two Do Hits shows: one in Shanghai at Shelter, a dingy, dimly lit ex-bomb-shelter-turned-venue, and the other in a modest multi-media arts space called Korner in Taipei. At each, I saw the expected handful of foreigners, but was surprised to find that locals made up the majority of both crowds. Bohan noted that “everyone is pretty hungry for new music and real interesting and different music,” and both nights were filled with smoke, dancing and unapologetic partying. I felt a magical sense of excitement amongst young Chinese people coming together for Do Hits, a new part of a new world that belonged distinctly to them.
By this point, I was convinced that underground music was alive and well in the metropoles of Shanghai and Taipei, but I wondered about cities with less international influence. Three days in Taipei flew by, and Bohan and I soon found ourselves over a thousand miles west in Chengdu, Sichuan province—the “wild west” of China. Chengdu felt different all around. Locals pride their distinctive Sichuan identity, from the region’s famously numbing spicy food to the local dialect, whose uniquely blasé feel lends itself well to rap, despite being unintelligible to those from other provinces. In many ways, Chengdu marches to the beat of its own drum, and, especially with fewer expats around, I soon found the city’s underground music was no exception.
At the forefront of the local rap scene are a four-man rap group called the Higher Brothers. Their frontman MaSiWei, a thin, tatted up 23-year-old from Pixian just outside of Chengdu, touts a rare effortless panache, and his signature short dreads are just as distinctive as his high-pitched, raspy voice. His partners in crime are Melo, a clean cut Chengdu native whose music has been trivially censored by the government in the past, Psy.P, who is tall and thin with a definitive scratchy low voice, and 19-year-old DZ, the group’s chubby Nanjing-born jokester whose lightning fast delivery puts other rappers—Chinese and otherwise—to shame.
Hip hop is relatively new in China. MaSiWei told me the first time he heard hip hop was through watching an NBA game. DZ discovered hip hop by way of a grade school friend who started teaching him to beatbox. There are still relatively few producers in China, so finding beats is a constant challenge. Years ago, when DZ first started spitting, it was worse. He’d wait for his mom to go to sleep before logging into her karaoke chatroom account in search of instrumentals. Using a chatroom mic, DZ would obsessively record rhymes he’d written, refining his technique quickly, as every recording had to be done in one take.
Just about everything the Higher Brothers do is still very DIY, though the quality of their photos, videos, home studio and custom merch are far from amateur. According to MaSiWei, content in China can be produced relatively inexpensively with the help of a strong and growing network of young photographers, videographers and graphic designers. Perhaps their eagerness is fueled by the same desire to shape the creative future Howie saw developing around Do Hits.
In my last night in Chengdu, The Higher Brothers sold out their show at Nu Space, a new venue in the city’s hip Qingyang neighborhood. Fans lined up as early as three hours before doors, swooning at the sight of the Higher Brothers and clawing to the front for a closer look. With not a single foreigner in sight, the show was living proof that the underground music of China could and already was thriving without the help of expats—by China and for China.
Today, the Higher Brothers support themselves completely independently, which is uncommon for young Chinese. They live together in a rented flat complete with nice wallpaper and a home studio, while most kids their age stay at home with their parents. The group sells out just about every show they play and have toured most major cities in China. Their story mirrors hip hop’s familiar underdog narrative, but with the added twist of censorship and pursuing a path with no precedent. A rapper really has yet to make it big in China. To this day, the group has no manager, record label, publicist or booking agent, though not for a lack of trying. The young industry’s infrastructure is just beginning to take shape.
Despite no Chinese success stories to look up to, the Higher Brothers are moving full speed ahead. They recognize that stardom in the world’s largest nation is dependent on the support of TV and radio, which are still tightly controlled by the government. Over the last few years, watered down, G-rated “rappers” have popped up on talk shows and daytime TV as sensationalist flashes in the pan, designed to appear controversial without pushing any real boundaries. Mainstream media has yet to treat rappers like real, serious artists. Despite the odds, the group firmly believe that in five years, hip hop in mainland China will have nationally known, commercially successful rap icons like the West. They estimate it will take ten years before they get a mainstream rap superstar as famous as the nation’s biggest pop strongholds. China has a long way to go, but fortunately, it’s progressing much faster than expected.
By the time I left China, I still had so many questions. I was fascinated by my first glimpse into the country’s underground, watching Howie and the Higher Brothers support themselves against all odds. So far, their income arrives almost entirely through shows produced, sponsored and attended by a fast-growing group of curious cultural consumers and creators. After a long road of sleepless nights, it’s only been within the last year that both Howie and the Higher Brothers have been able to support themselves with music alone, and today they are living proof of the rapid growth of China’s underground.
Now is the time for young creatives to shape the future of China. As a Chinese rapper living in America, Bohan contemplates moving back to the mainland frequently. “I just feel like, frankly, a smaller chess piece in New York than I do in China, in terms of how much I can do,” he said. “In NY, I’m occupying a unique lane, but for some reason it’s easier right now in China than it is in NY.” The reason I see is that the music landscape in the States may be over-developed and the industry’s gatekeepers—independent and not—are already well-defined. Here, greater numbers of creators are competing for shrinking attention spans. In China, it’s the opposite.
One thing that’s for certain is that mainland China is no longer just the rigid, conservative country I once thought it was. I’m proud of its underground cultural renaissance and because of it, closer to the Chinese part of my identity than ever before. The mainland’s conservatism and censorship may never go away, but neither will the determination and curiosity of China’s youth. Maybe the shared struggle of overcoming the obstacles young creators face has united them to fight back harder. Or maybe it’s perseverance and age-old Chinese work ethic rearing its head in the 21st century. Like Howie said, the future of China is now.
Banana is a print magazine dedicated to contemporary Asian culture and serves as a platform to feature, celebrate, and join the conversation with Asian creatives in a journey to define our collective identity.
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- Writer: Allyson Toy
- Photography:Kaley Emerson, J.C. Cochran, Nanzilla, Allyson Toy