Hater in the House, Part 1*

During the run up to last summer's Olympics, we ran a series called Bylines at Customs made up of all the stupid pronouncements made by good (and not so good) journos who came to Beijing looking for the "real" story. Journalists come to Beijing, see a small example of something, and want to blow it up into something larger. Often these stories are about making the Chinese seem "more like us", ie they eat fast food, just like us, they listen to such and such music, just like us or are cliches about contradictions in modern China. Stories that are almost completely false or without any real backing, like this waste of space on George Bush remaining popular in China, get printed because to the editor back in the US, it sounds good. To borrow from a Chinese saying, its the case of "the mountains are high and the editors are far away."

Therefore, when the New York Times ran a story last week on Chinese hip hop, it was a "stop the presses" moment here at Modern Lei Feng, almost enough to bring us out of our hibernation. Lots of phone calls back and forth and disbelief, but nobody bothering to pick up the pen. Perhaps its because we thought we dreamed the article, the idea of a burgeoning hip hop scene in China just made us laugh. Then we found this generally on point snark filled blog post about the story and realized we could no longer stay quiet (though his hip hop vs. rap note shows where he's coming from).

Jimmy Wang is generally a good reporter on China, perhaps this article was a case of not having enough material or already being on mental vacation due to the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday. It has all the signs of a hack "they're just like us" story by a Chinese first timer.

The article discusses how Q-Tip and Eminem (first record release: 1999) have been popular in China "since the 90s". Interesting. I defy you to find me 5 Chinese "hip hoppers" who know that Q-Tip isn't one of those things you stick in your ear, or even know what group he belonged to. It talks about hip hop clubs that opened "across the country" and yet the "hip hop clubs" in Beijing or Shanghai cater musically more to the tastes of suburban teens than any real hip hop heads. The article spends so much time building up the idea of hip hop in China, only to end with the reality that its still nothing more than a tiny niche.

While we have a lot of problems with the way the author puts things in the beginning of the article, like: "Over the last decade many students and working-class Chinese have been writing rap as a form of self-expression. Rougher and more rebellious than the well-scrubbed pop that floods the airwaves here," which is just wrong on so many different levels, the big problem is that this story is more expat rag fodder (and something they've been writing since 2001 or so), not the kind of august journalism one (should) expect from the New York Times.

As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words, the main picture that accompanies the article shows 3 "rappers" surrounded by an almost exclusively white crowd with nary a Chinese face to be seen, so much for Chinese hip hop.

*Part 2 is coming soon, our own look at the hip hop scene in China


Brendan said...

Thanks for the link. I agree that Jimmy Wang is no slouch when it comes to journalism -- which is one of the reasons I was so hard on an article that, as you said, wouldn't look out of place in an expat rag. I also read the article as being based on the thesis that rap/hip-hop in China was indicative of some larger social trend towards dissatisfaction and anti-authoritarianism, which is what really set me off.

Also, it is probably true that, as has been alleged, I've just been hitting the haterade too hard lately.

What did you mean about the hip-hop vs. rap note showing where I'm coming from?

Dan said...

Great post. I've heard hip-hop is really catching on fast with the over 50 crowd in Peoria too, these days....