On China’s ‘Rap for Youth,’ the Medium Is the Message
As the latest viral hit to emerge from the online reality show “Rap for Youth,” “We We” makes for an intriguing entrant in the annals of Chinese hip-hop. Based on the 1991 pro-peace anthem “Amani” by Hong Kong rockers Beyond, it forgoes the swearing and cynicism of American rap in favor of patriotic language, boy band outfits, and an acoustic guitar solo. Over the course of just four minutes, six rappers intermingle the chorus of “Amani” with stinging critiques of the Gulf War, praise for the sacrifices made by the Chinese military, and calls to end racism.
Whatever its politics, the song struck a chord with the show’s young audience. On Bilibili, the increasingly mainstream ACG video site that produces and airs “Rap for Youth,” clips of the performance quickly racked up millions of views. Commenters heaped praise on the show and song alike, with viewers leaving messages like “Absolutely divine,” “Rap can blow up, too,” and “They simply have to perform on the Spring Festival Gala (annual television special).”
So how did American countercultural music become one of China’s preferred vehicles for conveying mainstream values to young audiences? To understand, it is important to start by examining the shift of variety shows — an important and wildly popular genre in China — from TV to the internet.
Chinese teenagers have been crazy for singing competitions and studio-produced game shows since TVs became widespread in the country in the mid-1980s. However, the demands of advertisers and official ideology meant TV programs were careful to keep things family-friendly and with broad appeal.
Beginning in the 2000s, as rising online video and streaming platforms looked for ways to poach audiences from their more established competitors, teenagers and young people — naturally alienated and often disinterested in the bland, carefully curated programs found on TV — seemed an obvious target. One of the most iconic in the raft of new shows aimed at young people was streaming giant iQiyi’s “I Can I BB,” which premiered in 2014. The show enlisted a bunch of fast-talking young contestants to debate topics relevant to young Chinese, ranging from life and love to work.
“I Can I BB” became a template for a new generation of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”-flavored variety shows. Many of their stars went on to become influencers in their own right, utilizing their talent for witty remarks and fast talking to build their fan bases and grow their sway over public opinion.
Meanwhile, as singing competitions waned in popularity, rap exploded onto the scene. In 2017, “The Rap of China,” based on the South Korean program “Show Me the Money,” broke ground in this area, becoming an instant hit and offering new ways to reach young people. Rising hip-hop performers like Vava and Gai became stars rapping about the confusion, incomprehension, and anger in their personal lives.
The rebellious side of hip-hop proved to be a good fit with teenagers in terms of both culture and outlook, but the success of “The Rap of China” didn’t just prove its viability as a genre, it also awakened producers to new ways of thinking about and reaching young Chinese. In contrast to shows like “I Can I BB,” rap shows and their heirs target niche groups, rather than young people as a whole, by reaching out to various subcultures.
While some producers and networks were delving deeper into hip-hop, others were on the lookout for similar “niche” cultural products, whether break dancing, electronic music, video games, anime, idols, or battling robots. These new-style shows use cultural or literary themes relatable to youngsters, giving them avenues to express their bold, if somewhat naïve values and opinions. Another hit track from “Rap for Youth,” Jiang Yunsheng’s “Resist,” is a full-throated condemnation of the pressures society puts on young people to succeed, for instance.
One reason “Rap for Youth” struck such a chord with young Chinese is its raw intensity. Yan Min, a well-known variety show director, repeatedly places contestants in extreme, do-or-die competition with each other, thereby drawing out unfiltered and diverse performances that hit home with audiences tired of more formulaic fare.
Of course, as the influence and reach of these shows has grown, they’ve drawn increased attention and scrutiny from the state and official organs like the Communist Youth League. In recent years, the authorities have embraced digital platforms like Bilibili evermore tightly, seeking to incorporate them into their traditional networks of social mobilization and governance.
But how should youth culture be represented and guided? Televised study sessions? Officials are generally aware that such programs aren’t exactly gripping for modern audiences. Instead of trying to exert direct control, they often give outlets, and by extension producers like Yan, considerable freedom to experiment. In return, they are careful to monitor their own content and ensure it does not conflict with official priorities.
Balancing this necessity with the demands of their audiences, shows often rely on the universal, depoliticized discourse known in China as “love and peace.” Such language is harmless enough from an official perspective, while still sufficiently capacious to fit nods to state priorities or ideologies when needed. “We We” is a good example: Couched in the perspectives of ordinary people, it pivots from a positive reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall — “even the strongest of walls will tumble.” — to low-key praise of People’s Liberation Army rescue efforts, before swinging back again.
The idea is to open up a non-threatening channel for reconciliation between potentially alienated viewers and society, without seeming to force-feed them the official line. But while they may be made for youngsters, they’re written and produced by adults and according to adult perceptions of youth culture. Online variety shows thus subject traumatized — either physically, materially, or mentally — adolescents to societally acceptable emotional patterns and rules of discourse.
In short, performers and artists now have real space to explore issues important to their young audiences, even as their newfound platforms keep them from coloring too far outside the lines. It’s a delicate dance, as variety shows always make sure to stay on close and friendly terms with the state and official ideology, while still finding ways to connect with their frequently heterodox viewers.
Ultimately, the authorities still set China’s cultural agenda, but the work of actually realizing this agenda is increasingly decentralized, as the numbers of producers, creators, and even influencers involved has multiplied in recent years. In an ocean so vast, the currents are always shifting.
Translator: David Ball; editors Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still from the online singing competition “Rap for Youth,” 2020. From @说唱新世代 on Bilibili)