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.
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.
Even today, in a calmer Urumqi, Ekrem treads lightly. The producer will not release MC5’s upcoming album officially because all the lyrics are in Uighur. To avoid censorship, Ekrem plans to print the album on blank CDs and sell copies for 5 RMB (about 80 U.S. cents) in the capital’s bars and streets.
Nevertheless, the two albums Six City have released have helped broaden their exposure and attract attention from Han Chinese fans. In September, Six City was invited to Beijing to perform their second concert in the capital in the past two years. On a packed floor at the Mako Live House, the mostly-Han crowd eyed Six City’s MCs, who were dressed in bright jumpsuits and baseball caps, with curiosity. Though some of the collective’s music videos have achieved popularity on Youku (China’s YouTube), they still remain unfamiliar to most audiences. Some thought that they were from a foreign country.
“Yo Yo Yo” Murkat, the lead rapper, shouted, waving his arm up and down like Eminem. A thick plume of smoke shot up from the front of the stage. Lights flashed. The beat dropped. And the group launched their most popular song, “Cuyla.”
“Praise, Praise, Praise your land! Praise your homeland!” they sang in Uighur. The crowd danced and cheered wildly. The music sounded fresh. Many started waving their arms—mimicking the Uighur performers.
Word about Six City seems to be spreading. Later on in the trip, in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou, Ekrem was surprised to find himself somewhat of a celebrity. As he was walking through the airport to catch a flight back to Urumqi, a Han fan rushed up to him.
“Hey! Was that you rapping at the concert in Beijing?”
“That was awesome.”