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.
The collective has had to adapt to government pressure in other ways. “There’s a lot of lyrics we can’t express, so we have to be smart” Behtiyar said. Six City steers clear of politics and discrimination, and instead focuses their songs on Uighur pride or problems of drug and gambling addictions in Urumqi’s low-income neighborhoods. It’s an important way to raise awareness about the culture, and “show China that we’re not a bunch of primitives” says Ekrem, referring to a frequent Han stereotype of Uighurs.
Still, Six City struggles when hit with events outside their control, such as the ethnic riots that shook Urumqi in July 2009.
Following the turmoil, which pitted the city’s Han and Uighur populations against each other, Urumqi’s hip-hop scene shut down for a year. Groups like Six City couldn’t hold concerts because of a ban on public gatherings, or spread new music online because of severe Internet restrictions. The collective decided it was too dangerous to hold their famous underground house parties, and didn’t perform together again until 2011.