Chinese Rappers Will Not Be Silenced
Oct 11, 2019
In 2017, the television series Rap of China debuted to 100 million views in the first four hours of its release. Prior to the show, rap had existed in China only in underground circles; it had become mainstream overnight. But its ascendance to the realm of pop culture would have dire consequences for freedom of speech in the country.
A year later, as Rap of China headed into its second season, the Chinese government imposed widespread restrictions on the country’s nascent rap scene. It blacklisted 150 rappers. References to hip-hop culture were banned from appearing in all media sources, including television and movies. Although the laws governing the censorship were left deliberately vague, they were strictly enforced. Artists “whose heart and morality are not aligned with the party and whose morality is not noble,” the Communist Party said, were no longer able to perform in public.
"In China, you never know exactly what is forbidden,” says a Chinese rapper in David Verbeek’s short documentary Trapped in the City of a Thousand Mountains. “That’s actually a very clever tactic. It makes everyone more careful. Without a clear boundary, people will be more prone to self-censor."
The atmospheric film follows a group of Chinese rappers through the streets of Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities, as they discuss life in the surveillance state as marginalized musicians. Verbeek, who lived in China for 12 years, tapped his network to find subjects for the film. Some of the musicians who appear in the film, such as “Mister Da,” have been forced to abandon their music as a result of the new regulations. Others, like “Ghostism,” continue to use the genre as a platform for fomenting dissent.“Wherever there is repression / There will be rebellion,” he raps.
The film’s cinematography is ominous—shot mostly in the shadows of the night, flashes of neon lights intermittently puncturing the darkness, as if evoking the role of the artist in the resistance.
“The essence of hip-hop is to be a critical voice that empowers communities,” Verbeek told me. Now, however, “the role hip-hop plays in China is marginal, because it is castrated.”
According to Verbeek, censorship, digital espionage, and surveillance have had a widespread impact on Chinese youth. The situation “has numbed people’s brains to critical thought, and has, ironically, turned them into the perfect consumers for Western materialism,” he said. “But despite all the brainwashing, the Chinese remain soulful people, full of character and spirit. Their openness and generosity will always continue to surprise me—it’s in direct contrast to their government.”
“China doesn’t have freedom,” says one musician who appears in the film. “That’s real talk.”
His friend gets the last word: “You better stop talking now.”
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Author: Emily Buder
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A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.