Hip hop has long been a male-dominated genre and struggled with issues of misogyny, problems which have flared up on occasion as artists in China attempt to build their own art-form around rap. Yet a number of female figures are increasingly taking center stage and as we noted in our preview, series two of the commercial-focused TV show at the heart of this cultural moment features more female contestants than before.
In last year’s debut season of The Rap of China, Sichuanese rapper VaVa was the only female contestant to crack the final four, eventually losing out to co-champions PG One and GAI. VaVa — aka Mao Yanqi — was also the 2016 champion of Listen Up, another hip hop contest, and since last year’s turn on Rap of China her popularity has ballooned, landing her advertisement deals for brands from Nissan to Kappa, and even earning her a front-row seat at a high-end fashion show in Milan this past June. The 23-year-old rapper has demonstrated her post-contest commercial value better than most of her fellow contestants.
On this year’s season of Rap of China, we can see that the power of women is growing in the male-centric genre of hip hop, where lyrics often display blatant misogyny. Let’s take a look at the female rappers who made it onto China’s most attention-grabbing hip-hop stage this year.
In the season’s fourth episode, which aired this weekend, newcomer Lexie Liu was one of three women — along with TIFA and Zetah — to make the final group of 23. To get there, she passed through a 60-second elimination round, which whittled an initial group of 69 contestants down to 49, a Freestyle Cypher that cut another 3 contestants, and a one-on-one (or 1V1) battle round that decided the final 23.
Episode four ended with a cliffhanger of a two-way selection process by which the show’s judges will further thin this group down to a final 15 contestants — based on the previews we’ve seen so far for episode five, it seems that Liu might already be the last woman standing.
The 19-year-old from Changsha is an international hip hop star in the making. She studied Global Business at a university in New York for three months before dropping out to focus on her music career, building off a fourth-place finish on South Korean reality show K-Pop Star 5. Last year, she went to the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, and earlier this year signed to 88Rising, the New York-based label that also represents rising Asian stars such as Rich Brian, Higher Brothers, Keith Ape, and Joji. Lexie released her debut 88rising single, “Like a Mercedes”, in June.
In a behind-the-scenes interview with RADII in June, Lexie shared her thoughts about the challenges faced by female rappers:
As a female artist, we always have to take more, you know, attacks, verbal abuse. We have more pressure than male artists. Like how we behave, how we sit, how we do our makeup, how we dress, how we walk, how we talk, everything. We have to act more carefully every single second in front of the camera. Yeah, so, it’s a lot of pressure. And people are definitely gonna [think] that female rappers are weaker than male rappers. I don’t know about that, but all I’m trying to say is that I’m just gonna do my best in here, and try to prove that females can do the same thing.
Lexie’s next single “Mu Lan” — named after the historical heroine — should be dropping soon, and will give us another taste of her debut album, scheduled to be released after this season of Rap of China concludes.
Vinida, who comes from Fujian province on China’s southeastern coast, began making hip hop as a member of underground rap group Freedom Plant Music, based out of Fuzhou. After making the top 13 on the show Sing! China in 2016, hip hop label M_DSK signed her and produced her debut, self-titled album, featuring 12 songs written and composed by Vinida herself.
Her lyrics are characterized by a glorification of female power, as on “Queendom” and “Run This”, both of which were both produced by DJ Mustard, a frequent collaborator of Compton rapper YG. With more than 1.2 million followers on Weibo, Vinida was selected along with VaVa and Higher Brothers for Forbes China’s “30 Under 30” music industry list this year.
Although she was eliminated in Rap of China‘s one-on-one battle round — where she lost to Shanghai rapper Blow Fever — Vinida’s next moves are definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Over ten years ago, underground R&B/jazz singer and rapper LaceDoll, a teenager at the time, impressed the whole Chinese hip hop scene with her deep voice and skillful singing.
After graduating from the University of British Columbia and working in real estate in Canada for a while, LaceDoll returned to China as independent musician Angel Mo (莫安琪). She’s since been active on various reality shows, making it into the top 10 on the 2016 season of Super Girl and being selected by Jay Chou on the second season of Sing! China last year.
In this year’s Rap of China, she was booted in the initial 60-second elimination round. Unlike some of the other contestants, her performance in this round was not fully aired, so we don’t really know why she was eliminated.
If there are female hip hop OGs in China, Double. J is absolutely one of them. In 2008, she and her rap crew Uranus — founded in 2003 — won awards at the first Hiphop Awards China, taking home silvers in the “Most Popular Rapper” and “Most Popular Rap Group” categories.
Uranus disbanded in 2012, and Double. J married rapper Xiao Chun — a member of Taiwan rap group Wan Tong MJ116 — and became a stay-at-home mom. On this season of Rap of China, she talks about why she wanted to return to the stage:
I wanna say that I can do more than be a housewife, I can take care of what I’m passionate about. After I have contributed all I have to my family, I can have my own dream, and find what I love the most in an original way. I hope I’ll be the last female rapper hanging on in the contest.
Although Double. J didn’t make it through the freestyle cypher, she undoubtedly earned a reputation as an incredibly cool mom. Here’s her latest music video, “没在怕 I’m Not Afraid”:
TIFA Chen, aka Chen Zitong, started her career on other talent shows, like many of the other contestants above. She took second place at The Voice of China in 2015, signed a contract with Universal Music Group in 2017, and even had a cameo appearance in this year’s Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Chen is a brilliant singer and rapper, proving her talent by passing the 60-second elimination, freestyle cypher, and 1V1 battle rounds. It appears, however, that she will not pass the two-way selection round, failing to be selected by Rap of China judge Kris Wu. Although she is partially involved in the cliffhanger ending to the latest episode, it seems likely her journey in the show ended last weekend (something she understandably looked annoyed by in the closing seconds of the episode).
The style of Zetah, aka Tian Mi, is more in the vein of the Future Bass sub-genre of club music, which has led judge Kris Wu to question whether or not her style of music can even be considered rap. [Editor’s note: Really Kris?]
Nevertheless, Zetah passed the first three rounds of the contest, but like TIFA it seems that she will not make it past the two-way judges’ selection that ended episode four.
With so many contestants vying for the limelight, some elements of the competition eventually didn’t make it into the final edit seen by the audience. Zetah’s 1V1 battle against 屁孩 Ryan was not shown on the normal episode of the show, for example, nor were performances by some of the other female contestants who got booted early on, including Xigga and Desweet, who battled in the 1V1 round, as well as Hamy and Tibetan college student Da Wa Yang Zong, who were eliminated in the 60-second round.
Xigga is also a contestant on this year’s comparatively more underground Listen Up rap contest. Her flow still has room to improve, but at least she’ll have space to flex it on another program.
Overall, it’s clear that many — about half — of the female rappers on this year’s Rap of China come from other reality shows, as opposed to coming from an underground music scene directly. The competition they and those who might follow in their footsteps will encounter will surely become fiercer as hip hop culture continues to spread in China — as that happens, we’d love to see more Chinese women take advantage of this creative and frank artform to express themselves.
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