Chinese Music Industry Reacts to Government's Hip-Hop Ban

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"Filtration, not suppression, I think, is the operative term," says Stephen Dowler, director of the independent dance music streaming service DianYinTai.

Last month China's state media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China (SAPPRFT), issued a statement apparently banning hip-hop culture and people with tattoos from appearing on television. It suggested stations should not provide platforms for people “whose heart and morality are not aligned with the party and whose morality is not noble” and “not use actors who are tasteless, vulgar and obscene.”

These sweeping pronouncements, particularly those specifically aimed at hip-hop, were met with initial shock, especially since hip-hop acts like Higher Brothers and the TV show Rap of China are -- or were -- hugely popular. Now, the TV show will likely be taken off the air. But it remains unclear to what extent the authorities will try to enforce the media ban, or even what the end game is.

Alan Hsia, co-founder the LOOP Inc., a Taiwan-based dance music agency that often tours artists in China, says, “This ban is more about allowing hip-hop to be on mainstream platforms. It seems like hip-hop culture influenced mainstream culture [in China] too big and too fast.”

Marcus Rowland, head of A&R for the Beijing-based music-services company Outdustry, adds, “This is not the Chinese government trying to ‘fully suppress’ hip-hop. The government exerts massive control over TV and it has decided that hip-hop isn’t acceptable at the highest level of mainstream media.”

Beijing-based hit-making pop producer Billy Koh points out how far hip-hop is already intertwined with Chinese pop, or C-pop. “If you listen to Jay Chou's music in the early 2000s, like, 'Dad, I Am Back,' or 'Shuang Jie-Gon,'" he says, "hip-hop has been part of C-pop and has played a role in super big hits for more than 15 years by now ... way before the variety show Rap of China got hot last year.”

Many believe that TV, and its enormous success in mainstream Chinese media, led to the current crackdown. Says Koh, “This move is individual, [aimed] particularly at those artists who happened to emerge from Rap of China, meaning PG One and Gai, to name a few." (The two rappers have been suspected of involvement in activities that the central government in China finds less than wholesome.)

Rowland concurs. “We have just finished the first six months of ‘post Rap Of China,’" he says. "PG One has been doing nationwide ad campaigns and Gai was a guest on the huge TV talent show Singer. From the government’s perspective, these rappers were quickly becoming major pop celebrities, and celebrities at that level are supposed to self-censor and be good role models, upholding Chinese/Communist values. This ban is the government saying what most of us always knew: that the government sees hip-hop as part of low-level society and not appropriate for mainstream audiences.”

Shanghai-based Stephen Dowler, director of the independent dance music streaming service DianYinTai in China, put a different spin on the ban. “The government is flexing its muscle to guide hip-hop in China to project positivity while filtering out the negativity," he says. "During this process some will get caught up in the filtration, but I don’t mind the ultimate goal of trying to get more positivity out of hip-hop. The government is definitely not trying to suppress hip-hop itself though, as Chairman Xi supported hip-hop at the last government meeting (???????), saying he wanted to support the cultural environment referencing hip-hop specifically. Filtration, not suppression, I think, is the operative term.”

What does that mean for the future of hip-hop in China? There are many underground outlets where it can develop, but the mainstream media does command a powerful space in the Chinese consciousness. Rowland suggests, “I’m hoping this will force rappers to turn their focus away from chasing fame through major ad campaigns and TV show appearances, and focus more on developing a strong, organic fan base on streaming platforms and offline events.”

Hsia sees things similarly and finds a positive in the crackdown: “My prediction is that at the speed hip-hop culture was growing into the mainstream [in China], this suppression will allow the underground foundations of hip-hop culture in mainland China to grow stronger and more dynamic before it goes back into the mainstream again.”

Dowler is more emphatic. “Hip-hop has more die hard fans than ever before -- influential tastemakers as well -- and is going to continue to grow in China," he says. "This is a temporary setback but by no means will hip-hop be eradicated from China. It’s still stronger than ever and the community will adapt how it needs to in China to press forward. Iron Mic isn’t going anywhere. DMC isn’t going anywhere. Breakdancing isn’t going anywhere. Graffiti isn’t going anywhere. Any direct impact on TV and radio will be very likely short-lived.”