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Making China cool again: Chinese hip hop – an emerging soft power?

Do artists like Higher Brothers have the potential to boost the image of China abroad and finally bring Chinese societal resources to generate soft power?

This summer, a night club in central Frankfurt was full of young Chinese with Supreme caps, Jordan shoes and other high-end fashion brands. They were students, young professionals and other Chinese nationals – representatives of the new generation of post 1990s Chinese residing in Germany who had come to watch their homegrown heroes, Higher Brothers Chinese rap group concluding their World Tour, “Wish You Rich”.

Although Higher Brothers are nowhere near to global superstardom, they have been performing throughout Asia, in North America and in major cities in Europe including London, Amsterdam and Berlin. In fact, just weeks earlier Higher Brothers had shared a stage with the likes of Kings of Leon and Rita Ora at the one of the most popular festivals in Berlin, “Lollapalooza”.

Today, Higher Brothers is by far the most successful Chinese music export, especially within the new emerging musical genres such as hip hop. Until recently cultural products that came out of Mainland China struggled to find appeal in the world outside. Higher Brothers represent a new generation of Chinese artists that are gaining traction outside of China, allowing China to become active participants in cultural exchange, instead of merely being consumers of foreign imports.

A new counterculture?

What marks Higher Brothers out is that, unlike the vast majority of Chinese rappers throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, they are not just mimicking their western counterparts. The package they present contrasts sharply with the very dull cultural arena in China. Guided by the CCP, it combines elements of both systems: Carefully curated communist state ideology and transmission of these ideas through the means of conforming and manipulative pop culture from capitalist societies. Higher Brothers, on the other hand, seems to represent the bursting out of the next generation - post-Tiananmen Chinese who have grown up with a mix of patriotic education and an ever more competitive market mechanism.

A key move for Higher Brothers’ global exposure was signing with New York-based music label “88rising”, a company founded to promote Asian-American artists on a bigger stage. Joining this label provided the group a gateway to American and broader foreign audiences. Many Chinese artists have since followed this route. Indeed “88rising” would be the reason many Germans and foreigners who had come to see Higher Brothers in Frankfurt would give if asked how they first heard about the band.

Hip hop as propaganda tool

Pioneering this new generation, Higher Brothers has played a key role in popularizing the genre. In 2017, Rap of China – a Chinese reality TV began airing. It has broken records in viewership, placing hip hop as a new medium in Chinese popular discourse. Previously categorized as subculture or “scene”, hip hop now became part of mainstream Chinese culture. Around the same time, the Chinese authorities noticed its growing popularity and decided to jump on the cultural bandwagon. They formed their own hip hop group called Chengdu Revolutionary, stylized as CD-REV, which operates directly under the Communist youth league, a youth organization run by the CCP.

Hip hop today is part of the CCP’s regular propaganda repertoire. The most recent example of this is CD-REV’s Hong Kong song, which mirrors the official narrative portraying the protests as unlawful riots instigated by foreign “black hands”. The list includes several songs on politically “sensitive” topics: “One China policy” with a tasteless attack on Tsai Ing-wen, a 2017 song against South Korea deploying THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) system, and a 2018 song about an incident in which a Chinese tourist was “mistreated” by police in Sweden.

In discussion among political and academic circles about Chinese hip hop and new emerging youth culture CD-REV have stolen the limelight. “Propaganda rap” is overshadowing the more naturally grown artists like Higher Brothers.

In contrast to CD-REV, it seems like the path Higher Brothers are taking is what Joseph Nye, the man who coined the term “soft power”, meant when he talked about the importance of popular culture. He argued that societal forces are far more productive in creating soft power than state-led initiatives. A comparison between Higher Brothers and CD-REV confirms this. While CD-REV are mocked as the latest propaganda technique from the CCP and have no noticeable following, Higher Brothers have had significant impact on the global stage and generated a fanbase at home and abroad.

Unlike other “societal” rappers from China such as Gai, who fans criticize for coopting the CCP too soon, Higher Brothers have always been seen on the “liberal” side of the conversation. In particular, they are some of very few Chinese artists that have been popular both in Hong Kong and Taiwan – something that is not easy for Mainland artists to achieve, especially for their younger audience because of the political tensions.

Propaganda or patriotism?

However, things may look different after this summer, when two members of Higher Brothers followed many other Chinese public personas in expressing support for the Hong Kong police in the ongoing Hong Kong protests. Given what’s at stake, it is possible “going political” might have hurt their reputation among their international followers, specifically those in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

While many were left disappointed, this expression of nationalism was not totally out of character – their most famous songs are called “Made in China” and “Wechat, and their 2019 album “Five Stars” refers to the five stars of the Chinese national flag. Whether pressure from higher authorities was involved or Higher Brothers were simply showing their patriotism remains unclear. Compared to other Chinese societal rappers, Higher Brothers are still at the milder end of the spectrum, but the question remains whether the move will backlash with their fans abroad.

What the case of Higher Brothers shows is that while China may be learning how to gain cultural influence abroad and possibly project soft power through its societal resources, the very nationalism – even in its faintest form – that is a product of the nation-building process might undermine these efforts and render them less appealing to the global audience.