Hip-Hop in Beijing
In the last few decades, authenticity has become an increasingly popular area of social research. While much of the published work within this area has focused on authenticity in regards to notions of self, a growing body of literature has emerged that has sought to examine the relation between authenticity and popular culture. Within this burgeoning field, David Grazian’s Blue Chicago is perhaps one of the most critically acclaimed works. In Blue Chicago, Grazian uncovers what precisely an “authentic blues” experience means for different social groups, including blues musicians, blues patrons, and even blues club owners. Among his findings, Grazian illustrates how for many patrons, an “authentic blues” experience involves more than just the proper set list and style of play. Performers must also conform to certain racial and class characteristics. To be considered “authentic” for this particular social group, blues must usually be performed by seemingly poor, out of luck African-Americans.
This concern with “authentic” styles of music also appears in a recent NY Times article on China’s underground hip-hop scene. For the Chinese M.C.s interviewed in the article, authentic hip-hop is about more than just the speedy delivery of lyrics. According to these artists, hip-hop must also serve as a form of social commentary and self-expression. Using this criterion, these artists and their supporters criticize mainstream performers who claim to be rappers because they incorporate rap techniques into their pop songs. These pop stars are contrasted with “real” Chinese hip-hop artists, such as Wong Li, who in the article claims to have started rapping to deal with his realization that “he is one of the millions left out of China’s economic boom.”
By focusing on Chinese notions of “authentic” hip-hop, a style of music originally popularized in America (with connections to other cultures as well), this NY Times article serves to remind interested scholars that authenticity is not primarily a local phenomenon but may also have global roots.
“Racial Authenticity in Rap Music and Hip Hop” by Anthony Kwame Harrison
Hi, it is great to think of authentic Chinese rappers! It would be interesing to find out, though, how they make this image, and how they practically maintain it, where for instance they buy their clothes, and what journey these did before getting there (probably, a global adventure). Is there a grammar of being ‘authentic’ rappers or blues musicians? What practical actions would this involve, I wonder?
I think the themes that Chinese hip-hop artists regard as authentic might match with American hip-hop artists as well. It is really interesting that the importance of social commentary translates across language, distance, and culture.
I really appreciate the feedback. I too am fascinated by this notion of what may be considered “authentic” hip-hop in China and how it relates to American hip-hop. The emphasis on social commentary certainly seems to be similar to notions of authentic hip-hop by American MCs as well. It would be really interesting to examine these claims to authenticity in a global comparative format, tracing out what authenticity “means” to different social groups (not just MCs, but also fans and perhaps label execs).
As a researcher here in Beijing, its great to hear interest in chinese hip hop, especially concerning issues of authenticity. Authenticity isnt a word that often comes to mind when most people (Western or Chinese) think of their impressions of Chinese hip hop–most think its simple imitation. Its especially true for a country without copyright laws, and a culture of DVD and videogame and rampant commercialism.
…but like in any music culture, even one which draws many of its influences from the parent culture third party interaction (the internet, media, music videos, music and lyric translation), authenticity is a central issue within the community itself, and is quintessential to the creation of cultural product.
If i were to compare notions of authenticity between countries, in the case of the United States, authenticity often relies on a participants particular socioeconomic status or racial identification. But in a racially homogenous population such as China, which has experienced 30 years uninterrupted prosperity since 1979, perceptions of chinese hip hop artist’s “authenticity” rely on behavioral and consumptive patterns. The case is somewhat similar to blacks in urban hubs during the great migration, where a behavioral change, ie. speaking “proper” and wearing a suit to the same menial labor job seperated them from their country cousins, not deterministically racial or socioeconomic criteria.
Authenticity doesnt stem from concrete cultural or socioeconomic differences between patrons, (but how concrete are those differences anyway?)– but rather from a constructed identity–style and knowledge. Its all about which style you choose to display.
To some, the difference in authenticity is outlined by the two terms Hip Hop and 喜哈 (xiha). 喜哈， the phoenetic translation of ‘hip hop’, has come to represent the gaudy, materialistic, ‘inauthentic’ arm of hip hop, while hip-hop, in english, is reserved for those who ‘keep it real’. Language, and the choice to rap in Mandarin is also quite determinant of one’s authenticity as a chinese rapper.
For emcees in Beijing, authenticity is a matter both as simple as just spitting the truth when you’re on the mic–没有废话 (no bullshit)– and as complex as catering to different parties with the same music: your fellow artists, the materialistic masses, record labels, endorsers and in few cases the dreaded cultural bureau. Not to mention one’s own artistic standards.
As you might expect, practioners of the other three pillars (graf, djs, b-people) have different notions of authenticity, but all which consider the questions of reconciling a foreign born art form with its local development, in particular and the artist-patron relationship in general.
I hope we can continue the dialogue.