Travel

In Beijing, the hip-hop scene faces down bans and hopes for the future. By Elle Hardy.

Dawei’s rhyme and punishment in Beijing

Music fans mingle outside Dada Bar, in Beijing’s Gulou neighbourhood.
Credit: HARRI JARVELAINEN / FLICKR

I’m not supposed to be in Beijing. I’m not supposed to be in China. But the Kazakh immigration office didn’t care. They were unresponsive to cleavage, tears and a smooth $US100 bill, and they were deporting me on the next plane to the first place that would have me.

I spend a couple of weeks sulking and wandering around Beijing listening to audiobooks. Students are in shopping malls, tourists occupy Tiananmen. Seven people publicly poison themselves just down the road from me to protest compulsory land acquisition in their province. Information is difficult to find. They probably died in vain.

The government’s crackdown on civil society has driven the vestiges of protest away or deep underground. In a city I learn about as I wander, I’m worn down by compliance. I’m pissed off with arbitrary authority. Then I find this little hip-hop bar, Dada, in the inner north.

The American rap promoter is nervy. A bar nearby was recently shut down for a month after the lead singer of a Taiwanese band took off her top. The authorities’ reasons were opaque, but he suspects the move was political. It was the same with China’s last wave of rappers. They were all arrested for weed but, again, he thinks there was more to it than that. He doesn’t care about politics, he says. It’s a Monday night and there’s hardly anyone in the club.

“Given the history of hip-hop, is anyone here using it politically?” I ask.

“How do you reckon I can get the fans to buy drinks?”

“They don’t buy drinks?”

“The scene is immature.”

“Isn’t that why they invented popcorn?” I joke.

 “To be honest, I don’t get it,” he says. “I’d like to know what’s in it for the rappers here. And none of them speak English, you know? It’s hard to wrap your head around. But there’s one guy you’ll be interested in.”

As polluted Beijing chokes in a sepia haze, I sit in a club on the opposite side of the city from the American’s bar. In here, even the girls smoke. David DaWei, 23, wearing a houndstooth shirt, vest, bowler hat and a groomed beard, blows cigar smoke rings with his friend in a fitted white suit, with slicked hair, and a rose in his lapel. The Beijing accent has a slurring Texan drawl that ends everything in a gurgling rrrr. David disguises his accent a little, but on stage he’s all cowboy.

David opens with a display of chain-swirling from his martial arts days. Emma, his sidekick, student, and our translator, wears a sexy People’s Liberation Army outfit. She writhes in a spotlight in the interludes. David’s music is staccato, AK-47 stuff. It’s easy to see how the tonal and rhythmic Mandarin language lends itself to the genre. Between his songs, he engages in impromptu wordplay. The crowd laughs. Someone explains to me that he’s engaging in some political wordplay.

I meet Nasty Ray, another popular rapper. He is so tall and sinewy that his yellow basketball jersey doesn’t drape, it plumes. Polonius could have hidden behind his cheekbones. He reckons hip-hop is the cornerstone of a culture, integral to the development of all the best cities. He sledges through a list of the same rappers the American promoter had mentioned. But I don’t speak Mandarin and Ray doesn’t speak English. We’re standing at the back of the club using a translation app on his phone. “I am authentic,” he types. “I tell stories from the streets.”

After his set, David and I resume our argument, via Emma, about the best Kanye album. Yet all of the rappers are as enthusiastic about classical Chinese music as hip-hop. Someone mentions that David’s mentor, Cui Jian, the godfather of Chinese rock, the man whose song was the Tiananmen anthem in 1989, couldn’t make it tonight.

I buy a nuclear-strength vodka – someone has to – and sit down to watch another MC. The vivid colours of the basketball jerseys soften through the curling nicotine. The smell of weed is absent. I realise the rebellion is all in the aesthetics: the basketball jerseys, the gangster outfits, the girls smoking. The fusion is a counterbalance to the narrative of globalisation: hell, we can import things, too, but we’ll do them our way.

The Spanish architect Gaudí’s surrealist buildings were designed without straight lines because he saw that nature didn’t behave that way. Modern Beijing, however, is ruled by geometry: grid streets, columns of apartment buildings, glistening stacks of chain stores. Twentieth-century authoritarians never inherited the knack for architecture or art from their dynastic forebears. Indeed, art is best distrusted.

Back at the American promoter’s club, we watch some of David’s music videos. The bar lies in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood of Beijing where many students and workers from the country live underground, under people’s houses. It’s illegal but increasingly common. The city is so dense and expensive that, for all the dirt and the flooding, living underground allows them something that at least resembles a life. For many, this means hanging out at shopping malls. “They chase the hype,” David says.

“Will you get in trouble for talking to me?” I ask.

“I’m already in trouble.”

“I’m worried I’ll get you in more trouble.”

“For talking to a Western journalist?”

I don’t know what I am, except for broke and not travelling on a journalist visa. The only thing I know is that being deported is expensive.

“Who are they?”

“G-men,” he says, and raises his eyebrows a little. “They call me and tell me to stop.”

This is art and not just rhetoric; David DaWei is more Václav Havel than Pussy Riot. A Czech dissident (and future president), Havel knew the importance of voice: he noted in an open letter to the Czech Communist Party leader in 1975 that history cannot be brought to a halt; that history demands to be heard.

David’s music has been banned from radio because he routinely criticises the regime. He’s banned from music festivals, too, can only play a few clubs, and has had most of his clips taken down from the Chinese YouTube. His latest video was apparently cleansed from the internet after 12 seconds. It featured footage of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950; the rapper is angry that Chinese students are taught a false history at school. He’s currently working on a parable-style history book, which one can only suspect will be greeted with great interest from those who know his work best: the censors.

I can see what’s in it for David DaWei. But equally I can see what he has to lose. He acknowledges he’s scared. He knows the importance of dissent, but I get the feeling with him it’s more about spiritual purity than solidarity.

I’m the only patron at the bar. David doesn’t drink. He assures me weed is still around, but doesn’t offer any. The American promoter is cleaning spotless surfaces as he listens in on our conversation. So what is David in this for? “I want to play Tiananmen one day: no cops, no army.” He smiles and rolls another cigarette. “Two devils are better than one angel, you know what I mean?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2015 as "Rhyme and punishment". Subscribe here.

Elle Hardy
is a US-based freelance writer.