Thoughts on CCP’s 100th birthday rap and the media coverage of Chinese music nationalism
On Thursday 1st of July 2021, the Communist Party of China turned 100 and, to mark the occasion, the whole People’s Republic morphed into a mass celebration of the world’s biggest political party’s Shanghai founding event. A few days prior to the launching of official celebrations and Xi Jinping’s speech on Tiananmen square, a musical event took the internet by surprise and offered a sweet mise en bouche to international observers of China: on the 20th of June, a 15min cypher entitled “100%” was released on the Chinese music streaming platforms. This cypher (a cypher is a cyclical freestyle where rappers perform one after another) was planned and produced by the Shenzhen company Hiphop Fusion (嘻哈融合体).
According to its Baidu page, Hiphop fusion has been an important contributor to the development of hip-hop culture in China from a very early stage. In 2008, they organized the first Chinese Hip-Hop Awards Ceremony (中国嘻哈颁奖典礼), created with QQmusic an online TV channel dedicated to hip-hop and recorded a documentary series entitled “Hiphop in China” (“Hiphop在中国”). This time, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the CCP, the Shenzhen company invited 100 Chinese rappers to perform a few bars to address the great achievements of modern China under the communist rule and the pride of being Chinese young adults. Among the rappers, only a few (Jiang Yunsheng, Wang Zixin, Max and DengDianGuo) can be said to benefit from some fame on the Chinese the rap scene, while a large majority seems to be very young and unknown.
A few days after its release, more or less everything had been written by international media about this song. Vice extracted a few nationalist quotations and emphasized the idea that Chinese hip-hop relies more on the motto “peace, love and having fun” than on traditional topics (drugs, guns, social issues) usually associated to this music genre. China Talk reminded that in China, there is a rap for everything, and it is only normal that a red rap emerges for this occasion too. The South China Morning Post focused more on the criticisms addressed to a song it described as “objectively bad” and, in a strange echo to the party’s propaganda vocab, “tasteless”. The same sound rang for the Wall Street Journal, who pointed out that 100% is “a bad rap” and that “even among the party loyal, it sank”. In the same time, the most famous English-language Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, observed from the same song a proof that “pop culture can arouse young people’s patriotism” and vividly highlighted the loyal participation of rappers from Xinjiang and Tibet.
吹响号角 (Blow the horn)Hook of 100%
瞄准胜利 (Aim at victory)
众志成城 (United we stand)
绝不放弃 (Never give up)
From a scholar perspective, the nationalist exhibition of 100% works as sweet nectar for the foreign observers watching China from abroad. Despite being performed in Chinese, and thus being firstly aimed at the Chinese audience, the translation of the lyrics and the few parts performed in English turned this song into a must-talk for any international media. The strong nationalist stance expressed in rhymes by the rappers illustrates such a big gap with the original practice of rap music in the US and validates pre-determined western conceptions of China, so that it naturally turned 100% into a hot topic to be discussed in the press. In a long piece for Quartz, Jane Li’s maybe the only journalist that offers a wider context to understanding the track. Drawing on the development of rap music in China, from the roots of the underground scenes to the 2017 mainstream success of The Rap of China (中国有嘻哈) to the “hip-hop ban”, she pointed out the growing co-optation of Chinese rap by Beijing. In the end, Nathanel Amar, who she interviewed, concludes the matter: whether Chinese rappers truly adhere to the state nationalism or not does not matter, this ideology must be performed in order to maintain rap music in the mainstream.
« If he or she is to prosper, each artist must learn to be a cultural politician andGeremie R. Barme, In the red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture (1999) p.8
executive in the streamlined corporate structure. »
Actually, in the last decades Chinese artists understood very clearly the helpful role nationalism can play for their career development. Gao Feng, a former rocker, turned his back to the music genre and gained national success with the song “Great China ” (Baranovitch, 2003 : 235). Cui Jian, Hei Bao or Tang Dynasty all pulled nationalist heart strings in order to advance their musical career (Lee, 1995 : 102). Andy Lau and Jay Chou have been playing the “political safe” strategy to enter the Chinese music market and become cool icons for the youth (Fung, 2003; Fung, 2008). More recently, the quick conversion of Chongqing rapper GAI “from jianghu liu (related to the Chinese underground societies) to xinhua liu” (in line with the national news agency) has been fueling the idea that artists have to endorse the official narratives if they want to flourish in the mainstream (Liu, 2019). Nationalism in music also works as a means for up-and-coming musicians to benefit from the state endorsement and easily gain visibility, a strategy that seems to be at work here, with 100%. According to a rapper who participated in the track, the main purpose of the artists’ involvement in the cypher is not so musical but to show one’s political correctness and to publicly demonstrate rappers are loyal and palatable.
But 100% only represents the tip of the iceberg, the exaggerated illustration of a phenomenon deeply rooted in the Chinese music scene. The single focus given by the international media on this song fails to tackle a very subtle and much more complex issue: the natural expression of popular nationalism from rappers on one side, and the rewarded expression of political nationalism meant to facilitate any career advancement on the other side. Aware of the rules and in order to get « green lights » in the music industry, artists constantly navigate between authentic productions and proofs of loyalty to the authorities. Then, as expected in the beginning of July, many rap songs were released to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Maybe because theses songs are less extravagant and also more complicated to access than 100%, they didn’t benefit from media coverage in the West, despite being at least as rich of teachings as the cypher. I retrieved three of these tracks from the social network Weibo under the #唱支rap给党听 (“sing a rap to the party”) and discuss them below.
On July 1st, the video branch of the Chengdu based media Red Star News (红星新闻), Red Star Video (红星视频) released a rap song entitled “Hundred years” (“百年”). In the background, the music video is split in two, the first half of the pictures retrieved from propaganda movies like « The Founding of a Republic » (建国大业) and « The Founding of a Party” (建党伟业), two movies previously released for the 60th anniversary of the PRC and the 90th anniversary of the party. The other half displays pictures of the modern evolutions of China, whether in space, transportation, trade or in the “People’s fight against Covid-19”. The song in itself adopts the codes of rap music to create an audiovisual eulogy of the party’s hundred years of reign. By the end of the song, the rapper (unknown) concludes its message, looking to the future:
“A century to go through many difficulties, a century of traveling at double speed through trials and hardships /
Never changed the vitality of the Chinese Communist Party /
Transmission of this vitality is immortal, a generation after another carry on /
Let us together march towards the course of the next hundred years.”
Originally advertised as “Century” (“百年”), the bad kid of Chinese hip-hop, PG One, eventually released a song entitled “Dawn” (“破晓”), another piece dedicated to the anniversary of the CCP. Since his eviction from national media and the internet because of the moral panic created by the revelations of advertising drugs and engaging into extra-marital affairs (Amar, 2018), PG One has embraced nationalism and slowly turned himself into a “red rapper” in order to expiate his sins in the eyes of the authorities. In “Dawn”, PG One, who now appears under the name of PeaceMak1r, is set in the very traditional landscape of Xiannongtan (北京先农坛), a temple in Beijing dedicated to agriculture. On a sample of Guzheng, a Chinese traditional instrument, the rapper develops an interesting and very modern drill music, a rap style that reaches fame today in the country. The dragon and the red color, ubiquitous in the music video, accompany the nationalist stance of the lyrics: “A hundred years of history just breaks dawn”, “Let the whole world watch / The forge of the dragon”. Nevertheless, this latest attempt from Pacemak1r to show his loyalty to the party and reintegrate the rap elite has been in vain (again): right after its release, “Dawn” was removed from QQ music without any reason given.
Lastly, a third illustration of red raps released for the centenary of the CCP can be found in “Hundred Years” (“百年” … again) released on July 2nd by Vinida (万妮达), Tizzy T and Jellorio (李佳隆). Unlike the two previous songs, the music video of this track draws less on traditions and history but on the modern achievements of the Chinese society. In the flow of images, very likely to be borrowed from state media, one can spot Yuan Longping (袁隆平), the “Father of hybrid rice”, the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge linking Hong Kong to Macau and Zhuhai, the successful health workers in the fight against Covid-19, the newly opened Beijing Daxing International Airport, the very modern financial bank of Pudong in Shanghai and the massive deployment of the People’s Liberation Army over earth and seas. The three rappers, not particularly famous for being nationalist performers, acknowledge through their lyrics the hardships it took to get there (“A century of oath”), convey the pride of being Chinese (“Let the world look at our goals”) and express their expectations for a bright future (“The future will be filled with miracles”).
The conclusion that can be drawn from the songs on the 100th anniversary of the CCP is twofold. Firstly, nationalism is a complex mechanism at work in Chinese popular music. It is not entirely government driven nor always reflects the genuine expression of people’s love for the country. It doesn’t mean though, that it is not highly encouraged and rewarded by the authorities and that some artists truly embrace the party’s ideology. Second, the focused coverage of the cypher 100% by international media is a counterproductive media exercise that only offers a limited understanding of the Chinese nationalist music production. Unfortunately, the flow of articles written on that occasion maintains the western audience in a stereotyped comprehension of Chinese culture and an idle observation of Chinese rap instead of opening a window on the creative treasures its rappers can produce.