It’s been three years since the first season of TV talent contest The Rap of China helped hip hop burst into the Chinese mainstream, but authorities’ uneasiness with rap music doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon — as a major controversy this weekend has shown.
The last few days saw not just the final of the hip hop contest that started it all in China, but also of its more “real” challenger, Bilibili’s Rap for Youth. While iQIYI’s Rap of China (led by Kris Wu and GAI) limped to a close amid terrible reviews and rumors it may not return next year, the newer show (headed up by Higher Brothers Masiwei and Know Know) kicked off a social media firestorm.
At the heart of the controversy was Rap for Youth contestant Sheng Dai, after his lyrics denouncing sexual harassment in the workplace and criticizing victim shaming were apparently cut from the broadcast. As the final was airing on Sunday night, Sheng’s teammate on the show, Chen Jinnan (pictured above), took to microblogging site Weibo to post a coded message accusing the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) of being responsible for the omission.
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Chen’s post was akin to a Chinese-language acrostic, with the first characters of each line spelling out the message “In tonight’s final Sheng Dai was cut because the NRTA didn’t approve [the lyrics].” Chen, Sheng and Straight Fire Gang member Feezy performed the song “Medusa’s Manor” as part of the finale, but certain parts of Sheng’s verse were apparently missing from the broadcast on Bilibili. The removed lyrics supposedly included lines such as “using gender to define value / is this era going backwards?”
Chen’s Weibo post subsequently became a major trending topic on the social media site, setting off a wave of outraged comments and overshadowing the crowning of 20 year-old Beijing rapper Lan Duo as champion. Chen herself followed up with a string of frustrated messages, including the comment “I hope you’ll learn to respect women.”
The controversy brought to light a major dilemma for broadcasters. On Friday night, Li Jialong defeated Wang Qiming in an uneventful Rap of China finale to give Kris Wu yet another victory on the show. But there was little enthusiasm around this season, and although that was due to a number of factors, the “safe” nature of its content appears to have played a role.
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While the 2020 edition of iQIYI’s once-flagship show has been panned by critics and viewers (it ended with a score of 4.5 out of 10 on review site Douban), Bilibili’s alternative — which also features Rich Brian and Huang Zitao as mentors — has garnered rave reviews (its Douban score is 9.1). Part of the latter’s appeal has come from its less polished approach and the way it has allowed viewers to feel like they’re getting to know the contestants more, thanks to its mixture of talent contest and Big Brother house-style formats.
As Twitter account Duoduo Diliao points out, a large part of Rap for Youth‘s popularity has come from its edgier, more relevant lyrical content:
The song "A piece of tape" (《一块胶布》) for instance, from Beijing based rapper C-LOW, also talk about censorship in hip-hop music industry. The lyrics were changed from the original version but the meaning is still here. https://t.co/IrGTBETXy5
— 多多底料 D.U.O (@duoduodiliao) November 1, 2020
But aiming to show a more “real” side of China’s hip hop scene, as opposed to the sanitized version often seen on mainstream TV shows, can still come with challenges — as this weekend’s finale demonstrated. And whereas the so-called “hip hop ban” that emerged in the wake of Rap of China‘s debut was largely due to lyrical references to drugs and violence in some contestants’ old songs, that a rapper calling for gender equality is seen as controversial has understandably led to consternation.
“I hope this will be the last time Chinese rap is held back,” reads a piece about the controversy taken from social media and republished on Tencent’s news site. “No matter what difficulties they may encounter, I hope those persistent rappers will not give up.”
Late night on Sunday, Sheng posted a few lines to his Weibo account, ending with “I’ll fight and speak hard until the end of my life / I’ll make my singing deafening, even if one day it falls.”
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