“Black as hell but 帅 as well”. Black culture and Chinese hip-hop in the times of Black Lives Matter movement.

In the midst of the post-coronavirus and while several countries are slowly lifting social restrictions, the murder of George Floyd, a 46 years old black American, by a white police officer sparked one of the biggest uprisings of the last century in America. Handcuffed, kneeled upon and repeating that he could not breathe, George Floyd shockingly reminded of Eric Garner six years ago and several other cases of police arrests leading to the death of Afro-Americans (Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, etc.). Taped on a cellphone, the pictures of the murder triggered reactions and demonstrations all over the world against police racism and brutality.

In the streets and on the Internet, the Asian community in America quickly joined the contestation, resuming the old alliance of the Yellow Peril and the Black Power, a symbol of the Afro-Asian solidarity from the Liberation Movements in the 1960’s. In China, where the media often display “chaos narratives” about the US, social networks have reacted to the event and framed some constructive but polarized discussions. Following many artists, rappers from China like the Higher Brothers, Vava, Bohan Phoenix and others expressed their support through posts over Instagram – a social media blocked by the Chinese Great Firewall – though numerous critics pointed out their lack of deeper commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The lukewarm mobilization of major acts of the Chinese rap scene, while reminding the localization of the global hip-hop nation’s roots into Black culture, opens an interesting window to tackle the complicated appreciation of Blackness in the Chinese society. Since Mao Zedong, defending the Afro-American movements in the wake of the third world and up until the recent hip-hop craze among the youth, China has for long been exchanging with Black culture. Nevertheless, the country has also been developing an ambivalent relation to blackness, observable through several racial incidents which lead commentators to denounce the Chinese rampant racism. As of today, the development of rap music in China might have only promoted a musical fad, while missing educating the youth on the deep roots of the hip-hop culture.

Recontextualizing China and its relation to Blackness : Black like Mao ?

In the early stages of the creation of the People’s Republic of China, black leaders around the world and Chinese communist officials developed strong relationships in order to support each other’s revendications. In 1940 in New York, the baritone singer and Afro-American activist Paul Robeson included the “March of the volunteers” (义勇军进行曲) in his concert, in support of “the heroic Chinese people in the battle” against the Japanese aggression [1]. By interpreting and further recording what became the Chinese national anthem when the Communists took power eight years later, Robeson offered one of the first illustrations of the fruitful relation between Afro-Americans and Mao Zedong’s China.

Paul Robeson performing the Chinese National Anthem in his 1949 European tour.

In the aftermath of the second World War, China was determined to play a leading role and to influence non-aligned countries by providing a third way for those who also suffered from the imperialist oppression [2]. The successful peasant’s revolution lead by Mao Zedong offered an important frame for Black people over the world, and especially for Afro-Americans, that discovered a successful pattern of coloured Marxism that could fit their own cultural and political realities [3].

Black organisations in the United States like the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Black Panthers were closely studying Maoism, the Panthers famously renowned for selling the Little Red Book (毛主席语录) in the streets to fund their organization. Their motto, “to serve the people”, was indeed in right line with the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology. Many famous leaders from Afro-American civil rights’ organisations also visited China like W.E.B Dubois, Robert F. Williams, Huey Newton and Vicky Garvin. These prominent figures were welcomed as dignitaries by the Chinese rulers, as Mao Zedong himself took stand in public statements against the racial discrimination exercised by the U.S. imperialism.

I call upon the workers, peasants, revolutionary intellectuals, enlightened elements of the bourgeoisie, and other enlightened personages of all colors in the world, white, black, yellow, brown, etc., to unite to oppose the racial discrimination practiced by U.S. imperialism and to support the American Negroes in their struggle against racial discrimination.

Mao Zedong. August 8,1963.

The American Civil Rights Movement was not only observed by the Chinese officials as a fight against the racial oppression in the U.S. but was also used to fuel their discourse against the global monopoly of the capitalist class. Therefore, Black literature was early translated and studied by Chinese students. Black figures were integrated in the Maoist iconography, offering to Chinese people an accessible encoding of the Afro-American’s plight. Nevertheless, after Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972, the slow shift of China towards capitalism, its changing politics with African countries and the decline in Black radicalism in the United States slowly lead to an end of “Black Maoism” [4].

There is no racism in China because there are no black people”

A Chengdu University Student, Shanghai Star. April 17, 2003.

Despite the close relationship that enjoyed the CCP leaders with their Afro-American counterparts, the Chinese society has developed an ambiguous relation to Blackness that is still deemed problematic today. Presenting China as a “colored world”, not concerned with racial struggles, tends to omit major history points, like the fact that there were African slaves in Guangzhou in the 12th century and that Chinese foreign policy in Africa have often been driven by opportunism rather than by athird world spirit of revolution” [5]. As Robeson Taj Frazier reminds in a conference at USC, while black activists were welcomed as dignitaries in the 1960’s, African students in Chinese universities suffered severe racial discriminations and mistreatments. Such statement is not without recalling the recent racist outburst aimed at the African population in Guangzhou during the Covid-19 outbreak.

A vintage advertisement for Darkie toothpaste (South China Morning Post. December 10, 2018).

The problematic racial representations of Blackness in China have been enhanced during the 1980’s, when the country was taking the path of globalization thanks to the economic reforms (改革开放). One famous illustration of it is the “Darkie Toothpaste”, a toothpaste shockingly represented by a buffoonish black character inspired by Al Johnson, that is still available on the Chinese shelves today under the name of “黑人牙膏(black people’s toothpaste). Several black writers also reported in ethnographic articles about the racial misunderstanding and stereotyped attitudes they encountered while living or travelling in China.

These incidents of being gazed upon are routine for us. […] No I don’t rap, if that’s what you’re asking.

Robin R. Means Coleman

In one of these studies conducted during a trip in China in 2007, Coleman argues that the local clichés towards Black people seem to be driven by the “Black entertainment industry”, mainly represented by sports and music [6]. In that case, should the Chinese inappropriate reactions be considered as racism or only naiveness ?

While contained to personal experiences in the mainland for long, the media are now providing a stage for racial controversies. Some Chinese TV-programs, including the New Years CCTV Gala (the most watched TV-program in China each year), have recently contributed to spread wrong racial perceptions of black people through the display of black-faced actors and racist advertisements. In several occasions like the release of the American blockbuster “Black Panther” and more recently with the death of George Floyd, the internet reactions on Chinese social networks also mirrored a rampant racism that hasn’t been tackled yet in China.

Why hip-hop matters ? Race and authenticity in the Chinese scene

In the last days, several media outlets reported about George Floyd’s past career as a rapper in the 90’s, operating under the alias of Big Floyd with the Houston’s Screwed Up Click. His racist murder and the involvement of the entertainment industry in the following protests necessarily brings back the sensitive question of race into the debate on music.

From a black noise to a global noise

We may look different, but we see the same sky / We may see different, but we cry the same cry

MC Jin, Same Cry (2004).

Rap music is inseparable from its origins, as a black lyrical form of expression emanating from the suburbs of the American society in the 1970’s. As Tricia Rose argues, the stories in hip-hop “represent the creative fantasies, the perspectives and the experiences of racial marginality” [7]. With the participation of non-black people through the evolution of this culture, rap has turned into a worldwide popular music. Despite claims of “theft of black culture”, scholars have documented local appropriations and original reinterpretations of the hip-hop culture from France to New-Zealand [8]. Today the rap scene is more diverse than ever and gathers a multiplicity of styles, as varied asCeltic, “aboriginal”, “emo” or evenPharaonic rap.

The album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), from the New York based group Wu-Tang Clan, illustrates the influence of the Asian culture on Afro-American rappers.

In the hip-hop world, the question of race often comes along with the question of authenticity and Oliver Wang’s work showed how Asian-American rappers in the 2000’s faced a major dilemma by not meeting racial expectations nor standard of authenticity in the eyes of the audience, thus being marginalized by the music industry [9].

Yet, it should not be eluded that Asian culture has never been completely out of the hip-hop picture, as evidenced by the reoccurring use of Asian elements in American rapper’s productions. The orientalist aesthetics in songs of major artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes, Mariah Carey or Jay-Z have been largely documented by scholars [10] who pointed out some repeating and often fantasized pictures of Asia : the sexualized Japanese geisha, the Chinese Kung-Fu warrior etc. Those examples comfort the assertion that rap music has today turned into a hybrid music style, borrowing from several cultural forces without avoiding occasional cultural misappropriation.

Keepin’ it real vs. blunt appropriation

There’s no such thing as Chinese hip-hop. Hip-hop is black and will always be black. We’re just participating in it and we happen to be Chinese. Imagine the same if Black starting to do martial arts would be like “this is the Black Shaolin”. No bro.

Bohan Phoenix [11]

Challenged by the racial criteria of authenticity, the development of Chinese hip-hop seems to have shifted away from the racial question, leaving room for blunt cultural appropriation and racist misconducts to happen. The rapid development of rap music in China, engaged through to the success of the TV show The Rap of China (中国有嘻哈), has opened the gates of this culture at an unimaginable scale. Overnight, the Chinese youth embraced the music, the style, the haircuts and the tattoos, which have finally been localized in the Chinese context, without necessarily making the effort to understand the deep roots of this culture.

In an interview with Kafe.hu, a soul-jazz Chinese rapper, he acknowledged the cultural gap that has been settled in China, recalling the negative opinion jazz players were greeting their audience in Becker’s Outsiders [12] : “LA, NY, are hip-hop cities. It is the home of hip-hop. There is no real hip-hop in China. It is all entertainment.” [13]

“I was deeply influenced by Black music in the early days when I was exposed to hip-hop culture, and I didn’t have a correct understanding of core values of hip hop culture […].”

Facing the rising success of this music style in China, the ruling authorities were quick to react. In a very conservative statement, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television – the supreme authority of the Chinese media – categorized the hip-hop culture as “tasteless, vulgar and obscene and forbid traditional media to offer visibility to its agents. After being chased upon by the Communist Youth League for lyrics advertising drugs and his extra-marital relationship, the Xi’an rapper PG One, co-winner of The Rap of China, was forced to retreat from public stage. His attempt to come back through public apologies only worsened his case and offered the perfect illustration of a racial bias frequent among Chinese youth today. By linking his past misbehaviour to the deep influence of black music, the rapper made an awkward and controversial statement that encountered the anger of the netizens and precipitated his relapse to anonymity.

Another controversial misappropriation of the hip-hop culture lies in the use of the n-word among Asian rappers. Even if the trend seems to be lessening as the exposure of Chinese rappers is growing, numerous texts used to make reference to it in a naive attempt to “keep it real” by mimicking Afro-American rappers. 88Rising, a US media company that raised to stardom famous Asian acts like the Higher Brothers and Keith Ape, also developed the Indonesian rapper Rich Chigga (now renamed Rich Brian). The term “Chigga”, a contraction of Chinese and “Nigga” which often refers to an Asian person in love with black culture is detrimental to both identities involved : it not only perpetrates a common stereotype in the West that generalizes the Chinese nationality to any Asian people, it also illustrates the lack of consideration and education of some Asian youth on Afro-American community’s culture and vernacular language [14].

It’s not only about music, it’s about education

The ambivalent relation to blackness in Chinese hip-hop has yet to be counterbalanced by the determination of several actors committed to open the eyes of the local audience on the racial heritage of this culture. The music label Music R, who actively promotes international collaborations, has produced an interesting series of short documentaries entitled “Street credit”, where Chinese rappers meet and collaborate with UK grime artists. These experiences of “poly-culturalism”, in the words of Prashad [15], push Chinese artists and their audience to discover and deepen their understanding of a fundamentally black music style.

Bridge x Lady Leshurr : Street Credit [Grime] episode 1 (2018).

Therefore, in 2018, the Chongqing rapper Bridge (布瑞吉) met the UK Queen Lady Leshurr and gave birth to the featuring  “Nei Lit” (内力– Internal force), a “grime song in Chinese style” (一首中国风的 grime). This collaboration was further recounted in a four-episodes documentary that provided a meaningful illustration of the cultural ties bonding rappers around the world. The other way around, the Xinjiang rapper After Journey (艾福杰尼) went to London to discover the local life and collaborate with British grime artists.

You have the ressources and the responsibility to start this education.

Bohan Phoenix, June 4, 2020.

Several other Chinese rappers have collaborated with famous black artists in the past. Higher Brother’s Knowknow benefited from Snoop Dogg’s endorsement for the release of his album Mr Enjoy da Money and the crew’s first hit “Made In China” has been introduced to the world through the (subsidized) reactions of Afro-American rappers like Lil Yachty, Migos or Playboi Carti. However, while these collaborations have been very helpful to their career development it seems to have failed enlightening the mainland audience on the roots of hip-hop culture.

In the midst of the social uprising sparked by the death of George Floyd, the Sino-American rapper Bohan Phoenix has been one of the loudest voice preaching for a deeper understanding of the racial issue and the importance of black culture for artists all over the world. Despite many calls to Chinese rappers to endorse the movement, an overwhelming majority of the latter (at the exception of AR and a few others) did not take on the Chinese networks, showing a lack of desire to use their voice to educate the local audience.

Conclusion : too little too late ?

The murder of George Floyd by a white American policeman triggered an unprecedented global mobilization against racism and reopened a racial debate that should have been handled long ago. Among the protesters, artists from all around the world expressed grief, solidarity and paid tribute to the black culture that has been deeply influencing the cultural landscape over the past century. The lukewarm reaction from top Chinese rappers, whose art is enshrined into black American history but whose country still faces rampant racism, has largely been criticized for being too superficial. If their non-mobilization can be seen as inappropriate and de facto contributes to the theory that Chinese hip-hop has been emptied of its societal meaning, as the interpreter and videographer of the Higher Brothers, Lana Larkin, told me once : “I don’t think any artist has moral imperative to be a political activist.” [16]

As the hip-hop landscape is expanding in China, new TV shows dedicated to this culture are meant to be broadcast over the second semester of 2020. In a promotion clip of one of them, “Rap Star” (说唱听我的), a young Chinese boy is going through different places that are meant to recall the audience of the “real” the hip-hop environment : a dump, a barber shop, a laundry. While none of these stereotypical situations are likely to be found in China and as the background music includes Afro-American legends Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, nothing is made for the Chinese public to understand the colored roots of hip-hop culture. Once again, the Chinese entertainment industry seems to take the path of a blunt cultural appropriation, embracing the shell while eluding the substance.


[Illustration] Reproduced with the very nice consent of Hannah Pham. (Instagram: @iamhannahpham) 

[1] Frazier, Robeson Taj. 2015. The East is Black. Duke University Press.
[2] Dirlik, Arif. 2014. "Mao Zedong Thought and the Third World/Global South". Interventions 16:2, 233-256, DOI: 10.1080/1369801X.2013.798124.
[3] Kelley, Robin D.G. & Esch Betsy. 1999. "Black like Mao: Red China and black revolution". Souls 1:4, 6-41, DOI: 10.1080/10999949909362183.
[4] Frazier, Robeson Taj. 2015. op.cit.
[5] Kelley, Robin D.G. & Esch Betsy. 1999. op.cit.
[6] Coleman, Robin R. Means. 2009. "All Around the World Same Song: Blackness, Racism, and Popular Culture in China". Journal of Media Sociology (1), 5-21.
[7] Rose, Tricia. 1994. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Wesleyan University Press.
[8] Mitchell, Tony. 2001. Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA. Wesleyan University Press.
[9] Wang, Oliver. 2006. "These Are the Breaks: Hip-Hop and AfroAsian Cultural (Dis)Connections" in Raphael-Hernandez, Heike & Steen, Shannon (eds.) AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics. New York University Press, 146-166.
[10] Whaley, Deborah Elizabeth. 2006. "Black bodies / Yellow Masks: The Orientalist Aesthetic in Hip-Hop And Black Visual Culture" in Raphael-Hernandez, Heike & Steen, Shannon (eds.) AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics. New York University Press, 188-203.
[11] Bohan Phoenix, interview with the author. December 6, 2018.
[12] Becker, Howard. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Free Press of Glencoe.
[13] Kafe.hu, interview with the author. November 2018, 11.
[14] Kennedy, Randall. 1999. "Who Can Say "Nigger"? And Other Considerations". The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, (26), 86-96. DOI: 10.2307/2999172.
[15] Prashad, Vijay. 2001. Everybody was kung-fu fighting.Beacon press.
[16] Lana Larkin, interview with the author. October 17, 2019.

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