Season two of The Rap of China concluded on Saturday night amid a near-two hour-long flurry of advertising, product placement and a little bit of music, with two Uyghur rappers from Xinjiang facing off for the 2018 “R!CH” title. Aire, born in the region’s far western city of Kashgar, ultimately swept to victory over Nawukere (who hails from Urumqi) to land the much sought-after prize of a hug from Kris Wu.
After the troubles that have befallen last year’s Rap of China co-champions GAI and PGOne, and against a background of “re-education centers” in Xinjiang and some high profile figures “disappearing” in China, we’re not sure whether now is a good or bad time for a Uyghur performer to win the competition, but putting all that to one side for a moment, Aire is certainly a deserved winner. In our piece last week looking at the background to the finale, we suggested Urumqi-born Nawu was the more likely victor, yet as the program unfolded it quickly became clear that Aire would be the one to triumph for the “west side”.
Helping to swing it for Aire were the votes of contestants knocked out in previous rounds, 75 of whom backed him compared to just 25 who supported Nawu. The latter, who uses the English moniker of Lil Em and who started out by doing covers of Eminem over a decade ago, has been accused of ripping off the US rapper. On the day the final was pre-recorded, Yunnanese artist Toxic西米 dropped a “skr”-laden diss track suggesting Nawu was merely doing Eminem “cosplay”.
Judge and team mentor Kris Wu used the “Chinese Eminem” tag as a compliment in previous episodes when talking about Nawu, but given Wu’s own struggle for authenticity in the hip hop sphere this appears to have compounded the issue. It seems some of the previous participants in this season of The Rap of China, perhaps forgetting they were part of a heavily-branded mainstream pop show, also didn’t feel Nawu was “real” enough. Or maybe they simply preferred Aire’s flow. Either way, they voted overwhelmingly for the latter.
As a riposte to the criticism levelled at them in the build-up to the final, Nawu and Kris Wu threw out a track that, compared to the usual “positive energy” proclaimed throughout the series, came packed with venom:
And in the final round Nawu turned in another impassioned performance in which he basically provided a potted biography of his career to date and repeated the line “Now you tell me who’s fake” — all while using musical elements taken from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”. He also acknowledged that “despite lots of friends liking what I’m doing, to be honest in the scene it’s not been well received.”
This subplot made for arguably the most interesting part of the episode, and the tension was addressed explicitly during the show in comments from Kris Wu, who knows a thing or two about hip hop haters. “A lot of people have asked what is Kris Wu doing here? But this [hip hop] culture has only just started in China,” said Wu, who didn’t exactly emphasize his originality by dressing like Michael Jackson for the night. “I don’t really care if I’m here in 10 years, 15 years; I’ll still be doing this, because I really love this music — just like Nawu.”
Meanwhile Aire, who within the narrow confines of what the show’s producers have shown us, has always come across as a thoroughly magnanimous, likeable figure, cut through the melodrama and his team coaches’ apparent preference for fellow finalist and teammate ICE with yet another full-blooded performance — one which ended with him collapsing on the floor.
Before this season began Aire was a relative unknown, especially compared to finalists Lexie Liu and Nawu, both of whom have appeared on other reality TV shows in the past. Even up until the final, he had only the most cursory of entries on Baidu Baike (a Wikipedia-like site), but his appearances and now victory on The Rap of China have catapulted him to mainstream fame. What he does with that platform will be interesting to watch.
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