Gai strutted onto the stage dressed in a traditional Taoist robe, his arms covered in tattoos, his hip retro glasses reflecting a phalanx of flashing lights.
“Wake upppp! Beijinggggg!” he shouted to a crowd of 17,000 young fans in a stadium in the city’s west. Then Gai, 27, began rapping.
He rhymed about spicy Chongqing hot pot, an ancient Chinese method of telling time, and a monk who had endured hardships. “Pioneers must break the old rules,” he rapped. The audience roared.
In China, hip-hop is enjoying a moment. The Chinese reality TV show “The Rap of China” — sort of a hip-hop version of “The Voice” — has amassed 2.7 billion online views since it premiered in June, according to its official page. Gai, whose real name is Zhou Yan, is one of its biggest stars.
While American hip-hop — with its urban origins — gets typecast as glorifying tales of street life and violence, such topics are taboo in China (if not outright banned), and the country’s rap stars take pains to stay government-friendly.
“Hip-hop isn’t all and just about moaning and criticism,” Gai said in an interview after the show. “Chinese hip-hop has a mission to promote positive energy which suits China’s reality.”
Not that Gai doesn’t have a whiff of a gritty past to bring to the hip-hop stage.
Gai, born in a remote section of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, refuses to discuss details of a less than enviable youth. Tai Du, a Taiwanese news website, said he warded off bullies as a child and landed in a youth detention center as a teenager. One of his early songs, now censored, is titled “Gang$ta.”
“I was once poor and overlooked,” Gai said. “I fought hard to turn my life around. I want to be an inspiration for many young Chinese people, to show them that you can make it to the top.”
Gai spent years performing in underground clubs in Chongqing, a nearby metropolis. Last year, he competed in “The Rap of China” — and with a major assist from his local fan base, he won. His Cinderella story has endeared many young fans to his lyrics.
Hip-hop started to generate attention in China in the early ’90s, when technology — first cassettes, then CDs, then the internet — became widespread. Since then, it has largely been an underground phenomenon, hobbled by a lack of mainstream interest and by government censors who chafed at its rebellious overtones.
In 2014, President Xi Jinping, in a wide-ranging speech, said writers and artists should “serve the people,” and castigated those who “exaggerate society’s dark side.”
“Art and culture will emit the greatest positive energy when the Marxist view of art and culture is firmly established,” he said.
The following year, his administration tightened the screws. The Ministry of Culture blacklisted more than 120 Chinese songs, the vast majority of them hip-hop. Three Beijing-based members of the hip-hop group In3, which had 17 songs on the list, were reportedly detained briefly.
Banned songs included titles such as “Fart” and “Don’t Want to Go to School.” Some delved into politics, criticizing authoritarian rule and restrictions on free speech.
Just this month, well-known rapper PG One was forced to apologize for lewd lyrics about women and drugs. Gai, who held third place in “Singer,” a televised competition, was yanked from the show with no reason given. The state-run Global Times warned that hip-hop grew from a “culture of black people’s defiance” and couldn’t thrive in China.
“Technically, Chinese rappers can express whatever they want to express, but they have to deal with the consequences,” said Xiao Qiangshushu, 27, an independent music critic based in Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu. “If you want to gain more commercial exposure, then you may consider self-censorship.”
As a result, rappers often refrain from writing about sensitive topics such as politics, gun violence, gangs or drugs.
Yet Jonathan Stock, a Chinese music professor at University College Cork in Ireland, said some Chinese youths do have a political consciousness and often rap about topics the authorities won’t necessarily censor: environmental degradation, social alienation, class divides.
“There are plenty of pressing social issues for Chinese rappers to address,” Stock said.
Just as American hip-hop has spun off countless regional genres, Chinese hip-hop artists have embraced their local identities. While they admire American hip-hop, they also develop uniquely local music, complementing their raps with Chinese traditional instruments and samples from classic operas. Some rap in their local dialects.
Chinese rappers shouldn’t try to mirror their U.S. counterparts, because China doesn’t deal with the same level of gun violence and drugs, said Al Rocco, a Hong Kong-born Chinese American rapper living in Shanghai. (Unlike in the U.S., most citizens in China are not allowed to own guns. Certain drug-related offenses carry a death sentence.)
“Fans will be less engaged with imaginary scenarios they haven’t experienced before,” he said.
Rocco, who wears a bandanna, gold watch and gold necklace, said he’s inspired by Wu-Tang Clan and Tupac Shakur; he has lived in Hong Kong, London and Los Angeles.
“After coming back to China, and learning my own culture, I feel different dialects can help me to achieve certain flows and beats which a single language cannot do,” he said. “I rap Cantonese in one line, then standard Mandarin in the next one, then English.”
Young rappers using their local dialects have grown popular across the country, primarily in Sichuan, which is known for its spicy food and giant pandas.
Higher Brother, a popular hip-hop group based in Chengdu, raps in the local dialect but has performed live in Guangzhou and Hong Kong and overseas. Group members typically rap about themes such as money, parties and personal struggles. In one of the group’s best-known songs, “Made In China,” they rap: “My chains, my new gold watch, made in China.”
But along with its rising popularity, Chinese hip-hop also faces challenges. Most hip-hop fans lack a basic understanding of the genre’s history and conventions, and many simply see the genre as a fad, one that could pass as quickly as it began.
On a recent Friday night, Gu Jia’ning, 17, a high school sophomore in Beijing, attended a rap show with her classmates. “They’re so cool. Their clothes are cool. Their songs are cool. Everything is cool,” she said afterward as her classmates screamed excitedly.
Some critics believe that the genre’s popularity has diminished its quality. Wang Peng, 31, chief editor of Noisey China, a music promotion website, criticized “The Rap of China” and many breakout hip-hop artists for being too commercial and sanitized.
“There are still underground hip-hop artists who keep pushing the boundaries and speaking about meaningful issues, even if they’re not necessarily political,” he said. “Obviously, they will be less likely to be commercially successful.”
Zhang is a special correspondent.