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Sep 16, 2016

AThree-Arslan is an hour late for his rehearsal. Shanghai has been the young Uyghur rapper’s home for several years now, but he’s still learning his way around its streets. He and fellow hip-hop artist Red Monkey squint at maps on their phones, men at the mercy of an intermittent GPS signal. Minutes later, Monkey gets reception and the two jet off down the road into the fading September sunlight.

The “A” in AThree-Arslan’s name stands for A-grade, and three is a Uyghur holy number signifying the same thing: supreme. His real name is Arslan Adil — or Aresilan Adili according to the Chinese transliteration written on his ID card — and he comes from Bole, a city in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that sits beside the border with Kazakhstan. Out in the far northwest of the country, Bole is almost the farthest point from Shanghai, some 4,400 kilometers away, where the 21-year-old is studying English at East China Normal University.

AThree, who raps exclusively in the Uyghur language, says violence between ethnic groups in Xinjiang has given the region a bad reputation, and people like him sometimes face prejudice.   

Arslan Adil — or AThree-Arslan — performs with other members of HA$ at the On Stage live house in Shanghai, Sept. 9, 2016. Darnell Gardner Jr./Sixth Tone

AThree started listening to American rap when he was 12, before he even knew how to speak English. “The music was just so free,” he says. “You could say anything over a beat.” As he scoured the web for new music, he began molding his ethos after a seminal American rapper who repped his own west side — Tupac Shakur.

Almost 10 years on, AThree is churning out solo material, and has his own rap crew called HA$, a fluid collective made up of childhood friends like Red Monkey. When he needs to record, he travels to a producer’s home in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and then makes the trek back to Shanghai or Bole. Off the strength of some of his earlier songs, he is now represented by GangsaMosa, a hip-hop promotional unit founded by the leader of legendary Xinjiang rap group Six City, who also rap in Uyghur. 

AThree’s online following measures a few thousand people across different social media platforms. At the release party for HA$’s most recent mixtape in Urumqi, he was thrilled when more than a hundred people showed up: “I was so happy, it was crazy!” But it’s not enough for him. He has a lot to say, and he needs more people to listen.

In Xinjiang, a lot of kids don’t even go to high school. There’s no money for it, and the parents think the kids should just work. It’s not a good thing for us as a people.

Realness, or truth, is a constant in AThree’s music. He named his 2015 solo album “Eng Az, Eng Ras,” which translates to “It’s Rare, But Real.” The first track, “RealTalk,” mourns a Uyghur kid who is kidnapped, shuttled across the country, and forced to steal for a ring of criminals, speaking to an issue that plagues Xinjiang and many other poor rural areas of the country. Child trafficking in the region continues despite heightened efforts in 2011 by China’s national Ministry of Public Security to reunite trafficked Xinjiang children living on city streets around China with their families.

Another song, “Sowghatliq Ketmen,” focuses on education. The video for the track is a slick friends-and-family production, directed by AThree and SAM, another member of HA$. AThree’s dad, supportive of his son’s music, scouted out locations. In the video Red Monkey plays a Uyghur kid struggling to convince his family to let him go to school in Shanghai. “Education is important,” says AThree. “In Xinjiang, a lot of kids don’t even go to high school. There’s no money for it, and the parents think the kids should just work. It’s not a good thing for us as a people.” 

On its face, “Sowghatliq Ketmen” might appear autobiographical. But AThree says his parents are different from most. When he started rapping six years ago, his parents complained he wasn’t studying enough. It took the release of “Eng Az, Eng Ras” to convince them he had a gift truly worth pursuing, and that his culture needed his voice. His cousin Shayda Tayir, who is studying in Xian in China’s northwestern Shaanxi province, believes his fans see themselves in the music. “His songs are like stories, they express our feelings,” she tells Sixth Tone. “He talks about our culture and customs. He loves his country, and he loves his people.”

Back in Shanghai on rehearsal night, AThree and Red Monkey are done practicing and are hungry for a late-night snack. “No lamian,” AThree says, referring to the dish of pulled noodles originating from northwestern China that is served in Shanghai’s ubiquitous halal eateries. “I get so tired of that stuff,” he says. 

People at home think rap is weird, like it’s something satanic. I rap in Uyghur for them though, so they can know about something outside of their world.

In a patois blending their native Uyghur, English, and Chinese, AThree and Monkey go back and forth with each other about the options available to them, settling eventually on McDonald’s. “I don’t know if it’s halal, but what can you do?” AThree says he’s “almost Muslim,” a believer but for now not a committed practitioner. He says the subject is too sensitive to talk about in his music.

Despite the popularity of Muslim-inspired cuisine in China, AThree says Xinjiang people remain unwelcome in some corners of Chinese society. Over burgers and fries, he launches into a story about being turned away from a hotel after a late-night performance. After checking his ID, he says, the hotel’s receptionist refused to check him in and disappeared somewhere in the back.

“How can they do that?” AThree asks. “This is our country too. This is why we do this music.” He faces the same kind of scrutiny and rejection at home, where he says police stop him and check his ID regularly. Shanghai is a much more welcoming host for his music than his home however — a telling paradox considering the linguistic barrier between him and his non-Uyghur audiences. “People at home think rap is weird, like it’s something satanic,” he says. “I rap in Uyghur for them though, so they can know about something outside of their world.”

Arslan Adil gestures as he rehearses at a studio in Shanghai, Sept. 8, 2016. Darnell Gardner Jr./Sixth Tone

That night’s rehearsal was for a gig the following day at a cramped live house in Shanghai’s bustling Xuhui District. AThree, Red Monkey, and SAM walk into the venue all smiles. Throughout the evening AThree keeps a pack of cigarettes within arm’s reach, but not for his nerves. “The only time I get nervous is when I’m speaking in English,” he laughs.

After an almost two-hour delay, the trio take to the stage in front of an impatient audience. The three share the spotlight equally, switching places to hype the crowd while the next man leads. Not one to miss a chance to rep Xinjiang, AThree twists his fingers into a “W” to signify “west” as he zips across the stage, just like his idol Tupac. The crowd eats it up. There are excited whoops, and people in the back stand on chairs to get a better look.

Sometime after 1:30 a.m. SAM is leaned back in a seat at the rear of the venue, trying to catch sleep through the last few performances. Monkey is chatting up a fan who’s forced her way to his side. AThree, standing on the dance floor, has just softly rejected a dance partner. “My dancing is ugly,” he confesses later. He won’t dance, but he’s still buzzing and wants to go to an after-party across town. The rest of the crew, ready to call it a night, take a lot of prodding, but eventually AThree’s energy wins out, and they’re off.

In the months following the performance, AThree says he’s going to put that seemingly boundless energy into writing lyrics for his next mixtape, which he plans to release in four to five months. He wants his music to go bigger and hopes the next release will help that happen, but he’s under no illusions about success as a rapper putting food on the table. After graduating he wants to put his English to good use and “go home and teach some Uyghur kids, let them know what’s happening in the outside world.” 

“I don’t know how long I’ll be a rapper, but I’ll feel hip-hop forever,” he says. “And maybe one of my kids will do it next.”

(Header image: Arslan Adil (left) — better known as AThree-Arslan — performs at the On Stage live house in Shanghai, Sept. 9 2016. Darnell Gardner Jr./Sixth Tone)