With hip hop being banned on television in mainland China, Taiwan is leading the way for Chinese-language rap.
In the middle of Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park, where the former Chinese president’s memorial hall sits on one end and the temple-like National Theater and Concert Hall stand on the other, an 11-story, cartoon-like sculpture, the biggest ever by the street artist KAWS, towered over a large crowd vying to take a photo with it. Just across from the KAWS sculpture, an audience of twentysomething Taiwanese waved their hands in the air, bobbing their bodies and waving their hands to the motions of American DJ J. Espinosa, who was performing for the final round of the DJ competition Red Bull Music 3Style, playing DMX’s “Party Up (Up In Here).” When they heard DMX say, “Y’all gon’ make me lose my mind, up in here, up in here,” that’s exactly what they did, jumping in the air wildly to the blaring horns and bass.
Hip hop has become the language of the Taiwan’s youth in recent years, with, its dance, rap, and DJ culture blowing up across the country. Taiwan is taking what once echoed American hip hop culture, and making it its own, with more Chinese-language hip hop songs being released and played in the clubs. “It’s for now, it’s a new generation, especially for the young kids,” said Mr. Skin, a Taiwanese DJ and Red Bull Music 3Style 2015 Taiwan champion, who came of age in the ‘90s and early aughts, during hip hop’s so-called golden age. “Now it’s totally different. There’s new school rap and trap. Lots of young kids are listening to hip hop, especially Chinese rap.”
The new interest in hip hop can be traced to a Chinese television program called The Rap of China, a competition reality show which debuted in 2017, that is akin to the United Kingdom’s Pop Idol, or America’s Got Talent. Prior to that, according to DJ Question Mark, the 2011 DMC Taiwan Champion, the scene was underground even though it’s been around for over 15 years. “It’s like people being independent, without any support from labels, so they were recording in back rooms, or a friend’s studio,” he said. The series is credited for bringing the genre to the forefront and crossing it into the mainstream. “After that, everybody thinks that hip hop was the dopest music ever,” said RayRay, one of the few female DJs in Taiwan, the Red Bull Music 3Style 2013 Taiwan champion, and an influencer with nearly 50,000 followers. “Taiwan, we used to have a lot of rappers, but no one is famous, [there are] only one or two that people knows. Now after the show, everybody tries so hard because they see the opportunity.”
But, the rise of hip hop in Chinese-language countries was soon squashed in mainland China, after the government’s media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China, banned hip-hop culture from television in January 2018. Time reported that Chinese-language news outlet Sina stated that the government now “specifically requires that programs should not feature actors with tattoos [or depict] hip-hop culture, subculture (non-mainstream culture) and dispirited culture (decadent culture).”
“They block a lot of things, like in your lyrics, you can’t talk about the violence, you just talk about the love and your dream,” said Mr. Skin. “Only positive,” added DJ Question Mark.
The move may have pushed hip hop in China back to the underground, but, the country’s attempts at censoring hip hop is nothing new to Taiwan, and the fact that they have freedom of speech there makes hip-hop musicians more daring with their lyrics. Mr. Skin told the story of an underground rapper whose lyrics offended the Chinese government last year. “He just wrote a song, and the lyrics are talking about China, and he just kind of, like, make fun of it,” said the DJ. “He’s an underground rapper, but China has already banned him.” In 2002, Dwagie—one of Taiwan’s old school rappers, who is credited with releasing the first full hip-hop album in Chinese—released “Taiwan Song,” a pro-Taiwan anthem. “The rapper is already banned by China,” said Mr. Skin.
“What we’re doing here, the Chinese government will know because of the internet. They still want to control the information. But Taiwanese—we don’t give a fuck,” said DJ Question Mark. “We just do whatever we want, so that’s why they become really aware of it, so some of the artists got into the black list, so they can’t get into China.”
RayRay even noted that Taiwanese hip hop musicians need to be mindful of their set list when traveling to mainland China to avoid being banned by the country. “You really have to be careful there because they have a lot of limits,” she said. “Sometimes they give you a list [of banned tracks], or you have to give your song list to them, and they look it over, and they tell you, ‘Okay, you’re good to go.’”
Although he is banned in China, Dwagie caught the attention of American hip-hop artists like Nas, who worked with him on “Refuse to Listen,” and DJ Premier, who collaborated with him on “Classic.” The Dalai Lama even appeared on his socially-conscious track “People.” Dwagie isn’t the only Taiwanese rapper who has collaborated with western musicians; Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes worked with Grimes on the 2015 song “Scream.”
While Chinese politicians shun hip hop, Taiwanese politicians have embraced it, using it as a way to appeal to younger voters. “In Taiwan, young people, they don’t really care about politics, but they’re there, so they’re all the votes, so the candidates, they just try their best to grab their attention,” said DJ Question Mark. Current Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je even used rap—trap, specifically—in a reelection bid. Ko chanted, “do the right thing, do things right,” dressed in a white collared shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, over a trap beat in a YouTube video that went viral—it currently has over 3 million views. One of the country’s biggest rappers, Chunyan, made an appearance in the video, giving it some well-deserved street cred.
Hip hop may have been invented in the United States, but Taiwan is taking the genre and adding its own twist, taking it into the mainstream, and into one of Taipei’s most iconic landmarks. “People love to use our own language to deliver something, and in the past we just follow the US, what they give it to us,” said DJ RayRay. “We are proud of our language now, because in the past, sometimes the club, they don’t want you to play your own language music because they think it’s not at the level, but now everybody appreciates it. All the clubs want to play the rappers.”