长安常安 : a dive in Xian’s lockdown music
Well, I just wrote to my PhD director saying “I’m done with music and Covid-19, I think it’s time to close this chapter and develop other ideas …” but suddenly one thought kept me away from sleeping. The resurgence of Covid-19 cases in the city of Xian has been very strong in the past two weeks and it seems that the 13 million souls living there are going through the same hardships than Wuhan in early 2020. On December 23rd a full lockdown has been declared and since then, several issues made the headlines: lacks of food in some districts revealed the failures in the handling of the crisis, leading to local authorities being punished for incompetence. More tragic events went viral and shook Chinese social media.
While I observed and analyzed the rap production during the first months of the pandemic, back in 2020 in Wuhan, I suddenly got curious about what musicians could have done for Xian this time. Leaving alone rappers, who for the most famous of them remained astonishingly silent this time, I built up a short selection of songs retrieved from the Chinese social network Sina Weibo and propose a few comments.
(NB. To access most of the songs, you’ll need a Weibo account since I can’t find them on Youtube. Hopefully, the links will remain valid for a long time.)
“火种” by 王建房 (& friends)
王建房 is a renowned singer from the city of Xian. In “火种” (that could be translated as seeds of fire, or sparks) he invited other musicians to deliver a heartful song that matches most of the requirements of a charity rock song (公益歌曲) : a collective, positive song, voicing celebrities’ support to a crisis and which alternates pictures of the disaster with pictures of singers in studio. Let’s not forget easy lyrics such as “Heart is the spark, bringing the light upon you” (心是火种, 为你发光) and the syrupy electric guitar.
“爸爸妈妈我在西安挺好的” by 西安外事学院
This folk song has been published by the Xian International University, presented as its original anti-epidemic song. The title shares a message from students blocked in Xian to their family: “Dad, Mum, in Xian everything is okay”. In the MV, shots of young people doing sport in their tiny dorm rooms and massive testing operations conducted on the university’s sport pitch are displaied. Everything in here is aimed to reassure Chinese parents, borrowing students’ voice to send a positive message: “Dad, Mum, when all this will be over, this time I’ll take you to Xian” (爸爸妈妈熬过了这次我带你们看看西安).
“第二故乡” by 西安外事学院BET说唱团
Four students of the same Xian International University took the mic to deliver a rap entitled “My second home”. In the song they praise Xian to welcome them for studying while the MV is displaying landscapes of the city, including snowfall on the iconic drum tower and armies of white hazmat suits mobilized to stop the pandemic. To be noticed: this song has been shared by official political bodies of the Shaanxi region like the Provincial Department of Education (陕西省教育厅), revealing that its content is politicaly safe and valuable so it can be shared as an authentic youth expression about what’s happening in Xian.
“西安高校 CYPHER (病情特别版)” by CRA
While I couldn’t find famous rappers to share a word on the Xian lockdown, rap music still seems to be a very appreciated vehicle for the youth to express itself creatively. In “Xian Universities CYPHER”, students from more than ten local universities and colleges gathered under the name of College Rap Alliance and deliver a stunning 8min track that can’t help but make me think of the old-school practice of hip-hop. Self-filmed on the campuses where they are locked-up, everything in this song is amateurish but full of authenticity. The MV let us have a glance at Chinese universities’ tiny dorms and big classrooms. To be spotted, the fanciest of them proudly wearing brands from their famous rappers like MEDM and A Few Good Kids while spitting their bars. Refreshing, hopeful and moving track.
Several other songs with less importance can be found online, with titles such as “Ancient Xian Forever Safe” (长安永安), “Xian love” (西安之恋) or “Let’s go Xian!” (西安加油!). Nothing much to say about it, except maybe to notice the omnipresence of positive lyrics, hazmat suits, long queues of people being tested and (too many) sunsets which seem to convey the idea that … tomorrow will be better.
In short, what to say about this quick observation? First, looking at the messages sent along with those songs, it seems that the music category “charity song” (公益歌曲) gave birth to a specific category labeled as “Fighting the pandemic song” (抗病歌曲). Second, music videos often relay on the same set of pictures, very likely to be retrieved from a media/state data base. The same landscapes, the same tired doctors and cold policemen are featured in many of them. The same images used in MVs participate in sharing a univocal narrative of the lockdown, but when it comes to self-made productions like the cypher, we got access to more interesting – because unmediated – illustrations of life under Xian’s lockdown. And third, it seems that rap music has become a legitimate music style favoured by the youth to express their feelings and convey their support.
The million dollars question remaining: why did famous Chinese rappers not mobilized at all during this crisis? Not that their status of young celebrities compels them to react, but given their fierce mobilization during previous events (Wuhan’s 2020 lockdown, support to the Xinjiang cotton #我支持新疆棉花 or the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day #国家公祭日) one could have imagined they would have stepped in. Thus, several hypothesis could be drawn from this non-reaction. Is Xian’s lockdown a touchy topic given the zero-covid policy in China and the previous officialy acclaimed people’s victory over the virus ? Are artists and their audience simply tired of pandemic related contents ? Or, to be more prosaic, is that because there is no financial nor symbolic rewards to be expected from such a move ? For now the questions remains open.