Hip-hop begins to reemerge in Xinjiang after post-riots chill

By Li Jingjing in Urumqi and Huang Tingting in Beijing Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/12 20:38:39 Last Updated: 2016/10/12 20:43:39

Uyghur rapper Adil Kamuna, known as A-Mac, rapped the above lyrics in Putonghua at a show in Beijing on September 17.

His song "Mohammed" tells the story of Uyghurs from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region leaving their hometown and trying to make a living in big eastern cities like Beijing.

He has been pursuing his rap dreams for years in Xinjiang and the capital, where he has lived since the age of 6, together with many other rappers, MCs and DJs from Xinjiang, like MC Ma Jun, with whom he used to be part of a rap duo.

Xinjiang, located in the far west of China, is known for its diverse ethnic makeup. Although its music is well known, most people familiar with the sounds of the region only know its traditional folk music.

But a generation of young artists are trying to get the word out that performers from Xinjiang are just like those in any other part of the world, influenced by contemporary music and capable of producing original work in any genre.

A-Mac performs. Photo: Courtesy of A-Mac

A-Mac. Photo: Courtesy of A-Mac

Huge obstacles

Before 2009, hip-hop was thriving in Xinjiang. A-Mac and Ma Jun told the Global Times that back then events were held almost every week and new groups and studios were regularly emerging, as were stores selling clothes and accessories catering to the growing subculture.

At that time, the pair performed in talent shows across China, earning some fame as the duo 099X.

However, the scene was stopped dead in its tracks amid the tension and official safety concerns that followed huge riots in the regional capital Urumqi which left many dead in 2009, both ethnic Hans and Uyghurs.

"It stopped developing, singers went back to do their old jobs," Ma told the Global Times.

Large-scale outdoor events were temporarily banned in the region due to safety concerns, and restrictions that were placed on the Internet made it harder for rappers to spread awareness of their music.

Akjan Ayden, a 25-year-old ethnic Kazak rapper, singer and producer from Xinjiang, recalled that after he could once again access the Internet, he found an invitation to perform in a music festival overseas in his e-mail inbox. That was the first time he, then still a teenager, was invited to perform outside China. But the invitation had expired long before he read it.

But as the years have passed and these limitations have been relaxed, hip-hop is reemerging among the region's youth.

"It's getting better and better in recent years," Ma said, saying that like in the pre-riots era, new rappers are appearing, more events are being held and some artists are even getting on major talent shows.

During the scene's nadir, A-Mac ended up working in an office and putting his dreams of hip-hop success on the shelf. But in 2012 he got back to the beats.

"Music can help me to leave some trace in this world," A-Mac said.

"I hope music can change people's impression [about Xinjiang]. I will make friends through music," A-Mac told the Global Times.

Deng Yang aka DJ Dyoself. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Rapping in any language

Local rapper Nawkiran Yusupjan is a rising star. The quality of his beats and flow in Putonghua, English and Uyghur impressed the judges on the nationally broadcast Song of China talent show.

The song he performed, "Four Seasons," features traditional Muqam Xinjiang melodies rapping at a break-neck pace and led to some labeling him the "Uyghur Eminem."

Yusupjan started to listen to Eminem while in middle school and the rapper's influence on his MCing is clear. Even though the language barrier meant he couldn't quite make out what the Detroit rapper was saying at first after listening to the hip-hop superstar's songs over and over again he learnt them by heart.

Though Yusupjan has brought rapping in Uyghur to a national audience unfamiliar with the language, he believes that the fact most Chinese people speak no Uyghur will not affect his songs' popularity. Each time he does a live show, he explains the general meaning of each song before he begins.

"It didn't affect me loving Eminem's music when I didn't speak English, so I think it also won't stop audiences from loving mine," he said.

Though he is able to rap in Putonghua he thinks "Uyghur is a better language for rap music," Yusupjan told the Global Times.

Unlike Yusupjan, Ayden does not draw inspiration from the traditional culture of Xinjiang, and is instead primarily influenced by classic and contemporary R&B and electronic music.

Ayden started to listen to Western music at a growing age as his father is also a fan of foreign bands. His music draws elements from the artists he grew up listening to, especially Michael Jackson.

Nawkiran Yusupjan. Photo: Courtesy of Bravo Music

While you can hear the influence of the King of Pop in the smoothly soulful way Ayden sings, his music is no retro throwback and the song he performed on Sing My Song, another TV talent show, could have just easily been written last month in LA as in Xinjiang.

"I'm from a minority ethnic group, but sometimes I'm against bluntly putting elements from the culture a minority ethnic group into the music," Ayden told the Global Times.

He says that sometimes musicians from minority groups only add some elements of their culture to their art to make it more "exotic" and attract attention.

He says that sometimes he feels restricted by the stereotypes many people have about people from minority groups. Audiences in China generally expect singers from minority groups to make music reflective of their traditional culture, but artists from Xinjiang are also influenced by contemporary popular music like hip-hop and rock like everyone else in the world, Ayden explained.

"No matter which ethnic group you are from, you can make whatever music you want," Ayden said.

Akjan Ayden. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Less developed industry

Although Chinese audiences have gotten used to hip-hop music from the West, Chinese rappers of all ethnicities and backgrounds are still struggling to make it into the mainstream of the domestic music industry.

In the past few years, only a few rappers have had a modicum of success in the mainstream Chinese market, including Wilber Pan, Jeffrey Kong, Miss Kong - all Asian Americans.

Most other hip-hop groups and artists are only known in the niche world of hip-hop heads and receive little support from the music industry.

"They (Western countries) have professional producers, we are working by ourselves," A-Mac said. When he first tried to get onto talent shows last year, the show's producers asked him to perform songs that are already popular rather than his own compositions.

"Artists have no idea about business, and businessmen do not respect artists," he said.

The limited number of opportunities to play live for big crowds is another hurdle facing Xinjiang's underground musicians.

Xinjiang's festivals and TV shows primarily focus on pop artists rather than rappers or electronic musicians. Even if one of the few livehouses in the region do try to put on a hip hop show, few people are willing to pay for tickets

"They'd rather spend thousands of yuan drinking fake alcohol in clubs than pay 50 yuan to buy a ticket for our elaborately prepared performance," Ayden said, adding that he has seen people leave venues after hearing the ticket price.

Facing these problems, Xinjiang's rappers have followed in the footsteps of US rap pioneers and are now building their own platforms.

Besides taking every chance to perform, Adyen and Deng Yang aka DJ Dyoself, have started a studio called Dope Shake in Urumqi to produce records and radio shows.

Deng told the Global Times that he plans to use the radio shows as a way to introduce people to music they might not have heard before, opening a window for young people who wish to keep up with the latest bangers coming out of the West. They also accept demo tapes from their audience and play the best new beats on the shows.

"We hope to build a bridge for young people who love hip-hop," Deng said.

Recently they have started organizing a monthly party for Xinjiang's hip-hop heads to get together, freestyle, breakdance, skateboard and network.

"Hip-hop is about peace, love and having fun, and no place than Xinjiang needs it more," MC Ma Jun said.

Newspaper headline: Straight outta Urumqi

Posted in: In-Depth

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