CHENGDU, China -- Earlier this week, the Ministry of Culture banned 120 songs from Chinese websites on the grounds that they “trumpeted obscenity, violence, crime or harmed social morality.” Hip-hop accounts for just a tiny sliver of mainstream music in China, but at least 50 of the 120 banned songs are by mainland Chinese and Taiwanese rappers. No one ever thought hip-hop and the Chinese government would be a match made in heaven, but this was pretty cold.
Still, here in a modest apartment covered in cat hair, an architect at the local Chengdu zoo is plotting his takeover of the Chinese hip-hop scene. Xie Yujie, aka Melo, is a 23-year-old recent college grad who spends his days designing structures for animals, and his nights ripping into rival emcees.
Rail-thin and with a chest covered in tattoos, Melo came up in the local freestyle battle scene, plowing through opponents until there weren’t any challengers left. He took on the nickname "Mr. Nobody Can Fuck With Me."
Hip-hop is carving out a niche within Melo’s generation, and he’s confident that his local Chengdu rap collective is going to steamroll rivals and dominate markets.
“Back in old-school China... the emperor was like, ‘If there’s more land and we don’t use it, we’re fools,’” Melo told The WorldPost. “There’s only one standard for success: using rap, using my fame and my music, to earn enough money to really” -- here he switches into English -- “make it rain, get that paper.”
In discussing his plans for domination, Melo likes to allude to the Mongol Empire’s 13th-century invasion of Europe, but for now his aims are more modest. He's in a duo with another rapper, Psy.P, and they've printed 1,000 copies of their first full mixtape, "Prison Trap." The group, Tiandi Hui, is hoping to sell at least 500 units.
The rappers in Melo’s crew are some of the most talented hip-hop artists in China, but only a couple can support themselves with music alone. The crew records songs in home studios and shoots music videos using GoPro cameras on selfie sticks.
For the past decade in China, if you wanted to live like a hip-hop star, you wouldn’t actually go into hip-hop. You’d have a much better chance of partying in the champagne room as a provincial tax official than a top-tier rapper.
That is starting to change -- for corrupt officials and aspiring rappers alike -- but hip-hop still faces a serious culture clash in the Middle Kingdom.
Violence, rebellion and sexually explicit rhymes are common themes for many of the American artists whom local rappers idolize. But the Chinese Communist Party has shown zero tolerance for any of the above, and has blacklisted artists who cross these unwritten lines.
Then there's the Chinese listening public itself. Can chest-thumping emcees find a wide audience in a conservative culture where education, family and personal humility are among the most dearly held values?
Fat Shady, a 25-year-old rapper and a member of the same crew as Melo, is easily one of the country’s most successful hip-hop artists. But he sees China’s culture and history as major obstacles to the art form's growth.
“Chinese audiences can’t accept music with any attitude or individualistic stuff,” Fat Shady told The WorldPost. “China used to be a Confucian society, and it was all about being humble, stifling, smothering, suppressing. Then we went through a lot and everyone dressed in exactly the same clothes. Again -- stifle, smother, suppress.”
But hip-hop is perfect for giving voice to that kind of frustration. That’s exactly what Fat Shady did with his song “Daddy Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow," an angsty anthem in which the emcee rails against the petty indignities of the working world and demands a chance to “live out a little bit of truth.”
“When I finished writing it, I was like, 'This track bangs, the people are going to love it,'” Fat Shady said. “Every week I’d perform it for all kinds of different people -- old dudes in their 50s with gold chains, young tech kids with glasses, soldiers.”
Local love turned to national fame when Fat Shady performed the song on a TV talent show similar to "The Voice." Video of the performance went viral among Chinese workers fed up with the daily drudgery of their jobs.
Video Editing by Audrey Horwitz
Just as important as what Fat Shady was saying in his rhymes was the way he said it: Fat Shady, like all the members of the Chengdu hip-hop collective, raps almost exclusively in the local Chengdu dialect of Chinese.
The languages spoken in China comprise a sprawling family of tongues, some of them as unintelligible to each other as French and Romanian. Today, speaking in dialect or with a regional accent is often seen as a sign of poor education. Ambitious young Chinese men and women work hard to scrub such inflections out of their speech.
But Fat Shady and Melo are proud of their hometown, and when they rap, they don't try to disguise where they're from.
“Every city has its own personality, and the personality is in the dialect,” Fat Shady said. “When you hear the Chengdu dialect, it has a kind of ‘whatever’ feeling to it. Standard Mandarin just doesn’t give you that feeling.”
Staying true to his roots paid off: Fat Shady has managed to turn his song about quitting his job into a lucrative career in and of itself. During a typical week he bounces between corporate events, doing short sets that always end with “Daddy Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow.” Last month, he performed at a local mango festival and the opening of a real estate development called Golden Paris.
Although Fat Shady still believes most Chinese listeners can't really handle hip-hop with attitude, he was able to support himself with these shows while putting together his new album, "People, Society, Money." The album is inspired by trap music, a genre that developed in the American South and takes its name from a slang term for drug houses. That world might seem light-years away from this corner of southwest China, but Fat Shady sees parallels between the seedy underside of his home country and the Atlanta neighborhoods where trap evolved.
“China is full of these low-class, dirty millionaires, and they live the same way,” he said. “They don’t give a shit. They might have people killed, or a bunch of their workers might die on the job, but they’re still rich. Thirty workers die? No problem. They just cover up the news about it. To me, China is one big trap.”
Hip-hop in China -- as in many other countries that have adopted the form -- exists as a striking mashup of global and local cultures. Fat Shady has inked Eminem’s face and the phrase "Hustle & Flow" onto his arms, but he raps in a dialect so local that even other Chinese people can’t understand it. Melo took his alias from the NBA star Carmelo Anthony, but the name of his duo with Psy.P comes from an 18th- and 19th-century secret society dedicated to the overthrow of China’s last dynasty. Rappers mimic the dance moves coming out of Compton, but instead of handguns, they carry blades of the sort favored by local criminals.
Of all the nefarious foreign influences that could have gotten Melo into trouble, it was Uber that finally pushed him over the line. In May, when Melo heard that Chinese police were cracking down on his beloved ride-hailing app, he went straight to his home studio to throw down the gauntlet.
“Where there’s oppression, there’s resistance,” Melo declares at the start of the track. “I only represent myself. I just like taking Uber. It’s just better than your taxi. What you trying to do? Bite me, bitch!”
The song takes aim at taxi oligopolies and meddling bureaucrats. Within hours, the track was trending on social media and gathering hundreds of thousands of hits. But the joy was short-lived. In the second verse, Melo had crossed way over one of the invisible lines.
“I don’t write political raps," he says in the song. "But if politicians try to force me to stop rapping, I’ll cut their heads off with a knife and lay them at the feet of their corpses.”
The song was scrubbed from the Internet, and local police called Melo to the station. After warning him that he could be charged with promoting terrorism, the police made Melo promise never to release the song again.
It was a scare, but one that feels good in hindsight.
“It proves that I can stir things up so much that the government has to hold me back,” Melo told The WorldPost. “I think if I can make one song like this, I can make a second and a third.”
Whatever comes next, the Uber incident changed the game for Melo.
“The path of a rapper is a hard one -- only a tiny percentage will end up succeeding,” he said. “Even though the government stopped one of my songs from breaking out, this gives me a big push. I’m like, fuck, all that practice wasn’t for nothing.”