For the past three years, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has made overt efforts to popularize hip-hop music with communist messaging in the country. It only half-succeed—non-political rappers have made it big—triggering a major crackdown on the “low-taste” genre this week.
China’s media censors banned “immoral and vulgar content,” specifically citing tattoos and rapper, from television this week, according to Reuters. The Chinese state-run outlet Xinhua published a scathing piece urging Chinese people to “say ‘no’ to whoever provides a platform for low-taste content.”
The piece specifically cited one of the most popular television programs in the country, The Rap of China, which featured underground MCs offering dueling rap tracks to win the competition. The winners of the competition, the rappers PG One and Gai, have both found themselves blacklisted by the Chinese government.
PG One found scandal first after tracks he produced before being on the program surfaced online. The tracks referenced drug use, particularly “white powder,” and contained sexual content the government deemed inappropriate. PG One apologized publically and blamed black American culture for wrongly influencing him, but it has not been enough to revitalize his career.
Gai had since moved on from The Rap of China to another reality television program, I Am a Singer. He abruptly disappeared from that program last week. Producers have not provided an explanation, nor has an overt reason—like a controversial rap track—surfaced. Rumors have circulated online that producers faced “pressure from above” to remove Gai, though again without explanation.
Chinese state newspaper Global Times published what it claimed to be an unverified message from Gai following the controversy in which the rapper allegedly writes, “We respect the studio’s decision and I am happy because my first performance was amazing.”
The newspaper, despite being controlled by the Chinese government, nonetheless identified the removal of a third rapper, VaVa, from another program as an “obvious cover-up.”
The BBC notes that Chinese social media has been buzzing with leaked snippets of what is being identified as a government censor’s memo announcing new guidelines for banning what the Communist Party deems inappropriate content.
“Do not use celebrities with low moral values; do not use those who are vulgar and of low taste; do not use those whose thoughts and style are not refined; and do not use those who are involved in scandals,” the memo reportedly reads, according to the BBC.
The Global Times began 2018 as one of the loudest supporters of Chinese hip-hop, with the caveat that the genre should be used only for “patriotic” purposes. “Properly guided and purified, Chinese hip-hop culture develops into a new genre,” the communist newspaper argued in a piece on January 8.
In a profile on The Rap of China published the next day, the Global Times called hip-hop one of China’s “hottest trends” and referred to both PG One and Gai as “national heartthrobs.” It noted that the official newspaper of the Communist Party, the People’s Daily, had warned at the time that “our priority should be thinking about how we should guide hip-hop culture not criticizing individual singers.”
The outsized popularity of hip-hop in China is not merely concerning to the communist regime because it is an American genre of music, but because it has spent the past three years trying to popularize rap music that the Communist Party itself creates and controlled. Dictator Xi Jinping’s regime announced a cleansing of China’s musical palate in 2015, banning 120 popular songs from being broadcast and listened to in China. Most were hip-hop songs, and many were critical of China’s government and culture.
Beijing then set on a mission to fill that void with communist propaganda. The government produced tunes likes “Marx is a Millennial,” “The Four Comprehensives Rap” (key lyric: “Respect, obey and implement the law”), and “The Reform Group Is Two Years Old,” which featured a rap cameo by “Big Daddy” Xi Jinping himself.
The government also elevated the vulgar communist rap group CD Rev to national popularity. With their profane, racist, and misogynistic lyrics, CD Rev has promoted Chinese hegemony and threatened the government of Taiwan, rapping in one song, “Fuck [Taiwanese president] Tsai Ing-wen … Taiwan ain’t a country, bitch—at most a county … fuck that, the bitch Tsai Ing-wen.”
CD Rev’s name did not appear in Xinhua’s call to reject “low-taste content.”
A year after the major push to introduce Chinese “patriotic” hip-hop to the mainstream, the People’s Daily attempted to sell the proper future for any rapper: a career in the Communist Party. In September 2017, the newspaper published a profile of Hao Yu, a former rapper who “became a hip-hop enthusiast in middle school” but, after finding his calling civil service, “found that rap was unable to express his understanding of the world.” Hao “learned to keep his sorrows inside” and work at the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles (CFLAC), an inspiration to all aspiring rappers in China.
Shockingly, this government push failed, and Chinese hip-hop only truly took off through the relatively independent production of The Rap of China—yet the familiarity with rap music that the government helped create through its failed efforts to manipulate the subversive genre into a cudgel for communist politics must have aided the success of the program. That success is leading to the sudden disappearance of its stars from television screens across the nation, a sign the weakened Xi regime fears that it is losing its grip on the nation’s culture.