China’s Uighur minority, who hail from Xinjiang Autonomous Region, have struggled to retain their traditional culture in the face of widespread assimilation from the country’s Han majority. As Beijing has developed its western frontier through resettlement programs, many Uighurs feel they have become strangers in their own land; for instance, in Urumqi, the region’s sprawling capital, Uighurs now represent just 12 percent of the city’s population.
But in the city’s poorest districts, some Uighur youth have turned to a non-traditional outlet for maintaining cultural pride: hip-hop. Since 2006, this home-grown rap and dance scene has drawn together thousands of Uighur fans across Xinjiang, and has even managed a feat the founders didn’t expect to achieve: attracting Han Chinese fans.
Ekrem, aka Zanjir, was the first Uighur rapper and a co-founder of Six City, Urumqi’s most popular rap collective, for which he now serves as producer and business manager. It’s a part-time gig. In his spare time, he moonlights as a software developer, while other members of the collective drive hospital shuttles or work in traditional Uighur dance shows to make ends meet.
It’s easy to see why Six City’s young rappers feel marginalized. They hail from Tianshan, a neighborhood on Urumqi’s southern edge, away from the elevated freeways and skyscrapers that have transformed the city over the last 15 years. The buildings in Tianshan are squat and gray, and feature the Uighur language’s Arabic script on storefronts. One resident, an interpreter, described the neighborhood as “Urumqi’s Harlem.”
In a simple basement studio wedged between tire stores in a Tianshan strip mall, Ekrem and three other Six City MCs crammed around a computer and a single microphone. On a shelf was a stack of records from their idols—American hip-hop stars like Snoop, Eminem, Ice Cube, and 50 Cent. The men would have fit comfortably in urban America: Ekrem wore a black Dodgers cap, while Behtiyar, a fellow member, had slick-backed hair and wings tattooed on his forearms. Eager to show off, one rapper called “MC-5” started to freestyle.
He was good. Rap in Uighur is fluid and quick, and the vowels come in rapid succession, from the back of the mouth, producing a smooth sound.
“Uighur is much better for rap than Mandarin,” Behtiyar explained. “Uighur is phonetic, like English, so it’s easy to make dope rhymes.” By contrast, he said, it is more difficult to sing in Mandarin.
Six City has other reasons to rap in Uighur—it’s part of their heritage. Because it’s difficult to get a job with a degree from a Uighur school, more Uighurs are studying in Chinese. “It’s important to protect our language. Sometimes I see these Uighur kids out in the street speaking Chinese to each other,” Ekram said, shaking his head. He added that there are only ten really good Uighur rappers. “Most Uighurs rap in Chinese. They go study Chinese in school, and they just can’t find the right words in Uighur.”
But even Six City writes half of their lyrics in Chinese. Their reasoning for this is purely pragmatic. According to Ekrem, it makes Six City’s music more accessible to the mass market of Mandarin speakers. “And the Chinese Government censors less when you mix in Chinese lyrics” he said, with a smile.