“Rappers React to Covid-19”: What the Mobilisation of Chinese Rappers Teaches Us about Artistic Engagement in Times of Crisis
This article has been published in the pages of China Perspective (2021/1), a French peer-reviewed academic journal. To read it fully, please visit the journal’s website.
“It’s for the soldiers fighting in the hospitals all night
Thanks for the lanterns lighting up the dark” — AR ft. Q.luv
The “ad hoc coming together of popular musicians to record discs and/ or perform on stage with the aim of raising funds for philanthropic purposes is known as charity rock.” Charity songs rely on the media system and the recording industry to transmit a “collective conscience likely to induce change” (Carlet and Seca 2005). The mobilisation of artists in times of humanitarian crisis is far from new. George Harrison (1971) and Bob Geldof (1984, 1986) were the first celebrities to use their fame and artistic network to support populations in danger. In China, the first recording of a charity song (gongyi gequ 公益歌曲) dates back to 1986, when a hundred young singers dressed in yellow and pink jackets sang “Let the World be Full of Love” (rang shijie chongman ai 讓世界充滿愛) in the Beijing Workers’ Stadium to celebrate the International Year of Peace. More recently, new charity songs have emerged following certain catastrophes: “Hand in hand” (shouqianshou 手牽手) in Taiwan and “Walk All the Way” (yilu tongxing 一路同行) during the SARS epidemic (2003); and “Wings in the Wind” (feng zhongdi yuyi 風中的羽翼), “The Same Dream” (tongyige mengxiang 同一個夢想), and “Promise” (chengnuo 承諾) after the Wenchuan earthquake (Sichuan, 2008). During the first weeks of the Covid-19 epidemic that became a pandemic, a not inconsiderable number of charity songs were recorded by Chinese musicians, with technological developments facilitating online artistic collaborations whilst at the same time helping them reach a wider audience thanks to streaming platforms. On the initiative of iQiyi, “Let the World be Full of Love” was revived and recorded by international singers and a hundred Chinese artists under the direction of Guo Feng. The music streaming platforms also opened sections to songs dedicated to Wuhan and the pandemic (shengyuan wuhan 聲援武漢), where amateur artists rubbed shoulders with professionals.
Chinese rappers were amongst the first artists to act in the days following the quarantining of the country, providing observers with an illustration of the social and political role hip-hop has acquired in just a few years. From an underground practice adopted by marginalised young people, rap has become music for a wide audience in China, notably thanks to the success of the programme The Rap of China (Zhongguo you xiha 中國有嘻哈), broadcasted in 2017 on iQiyi. As a result of their increased visibility on Chinese social media, certain rappers have become very well-known (Flew, Ryan, and Su 2019), to the extent that the doors of CCTV’s 2020 New Year’s Gala were opened to this type of music. This whirlwind success amongst young people in China has nonetheless been carefully controlled by the authorities, who censure aspects considered unsuited to the political context, whilst favouring artists who embrace the national narrative (Amar 2018). The digitalisation of music consumption as well as shortcomings in the system of protection of royalties in China has contributed to the tightening of controls on the Chinese music industry and on the content of the work published, allowing the authorities to decide which songs to make available to Chinese listeners. In this respect, several academics have therefore been able to demonstrate the relationships (voluntary or otherwise) between Chinese hip-hop and the central government (Zou 2019; Gu and Zhou 2019) whilst voices have been raised abroad criticising its representatives’ lack of political engagement.
In the present circumstances, it is interesting to examine the way in which Chinese rappers used their art during the first month of the Covid-19 pandemic by developing a non-official – but not necessarily subversive – discourse on the health crisis. Between 23 January and 26 February 2020, 21 songs on this theme were put on the Internet, and a considerable number of rappers expressed themselves via posts on the Sina Weibo microblogging site and on Instagram. Although this form of action differs from the classic charity rock model, it nonetheless enables us to analyse a public and artistic expression of opinion in the midst of a health crisis as well as the fresh political tensions it has brought to the surface in China. Acting on the principle that catastrophes influence the production of music on occasion but that music also nourishes the narrative that is constructed from the events, might it not therefore be appropriate to examine the significance of music production in China in a time of crisis?