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Controversial Hip-Hop Stars Keep Brands Guessing

China’s streetwear market is booming thanks to the local hip-hop scene, but its stars are under the microscope of the authorities.
Chinese influencer Fil Xiaobai | Source: Courtesy
  • Casey Hall

SHANGHAI, China — A famous Chinese saying warns that birds who stick their heads out are likely to get hit, and so it was for the winner of last summer's reality TV mega-hit show "The Rap of China."

The rapper called PG One made a public apology in January and had his music removed from Chinese streaming services when rumours of a relationship with a married woman emerged, alongside old social media posts and tracks seemingly glorifying drug use and misogyny. The show’s co-winner, GAI, meanwhile, was pulled from appearing in a high-profile reality television show and VaVa, a fashion darling and female rapper, was similarly cut from a variety show appearance.

At around the same time, ambiguously worded missives were reportedly sent to public broadcast networks around the country from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) in Beijing, warning against featuring performers who were “a part of hip-hop culture” as well as any visible tattoos.

All this came after a six-month period in which hip-hop and associated visual representations exploded into mainstream Chinese consciousness.

Hip-hop’s rise to prominence

Launched in the summer of 2017, “The Rap of China,” adapted from a similar Korean show called “Show Me the Money,” saw its first season episodes viewed more than 3 billion times on the iQiyi streaming platform.

Featuring superstar Wu Yifan, better known in English as Kris Wu, as a "producer" [what most televised talent competitions in the West would call a "judge"], sparked not only widespread interest in rap music, but also fuelled a hip-hop-influenced, high-end streetwear obsession among Chinese youth, led by distinctive brands such as Supreme, Off-White and Vetements.

Chinese millennials number more than 400 million and they are increasingly demanding more niche, high-end brands that simultaneously offer the comfort of logos, however discreet, while also giving young people space to differentiate themselves from previous generations.

“I think after consuming high-end fashion brands for a long time, [traditional luxury brands] weren’t making an offering that people like, so I think brands that knew how to capture that internet generation, the millennials, are doing very well. At the core of that consuming is just wanting to feel that they belong to something,” explains Kevin Poon, who co-founded Hong Kong-based streetwear brand Clot alongside friend, actor and rapper Edison Chen in 2003.

“Now it's people like Edison or [Chengdu hip-hop group] Higher Brothers and [The Rap of China’s] MC Hotdog, it’s kind of interesting to see that become so mainstream in terms of influencing culture. It’s really a coming of age for the things that we love," says Poon.

Shanghai-based influencer and fashion digital content producer Xu Fengli, also known in English as Peter Xu, first came to public prominence in China as an aspiring rapper on reality TV years ago, only to be told by judges that there were no career prospects for Chinese purveyors of the style.

It's definitely more about people paying attention to what's happening in Korea, not what's happening in Atlanta.

“When subcultures start to expand, those new to it tend to take the surface. The idea of hip-hop within China is to have Versace bling bling chains and Rolex watches and oversized clothes … it’s the 'get rich or die trying' attitude. It’s funny coming from a lot of these kids in China who actually come from a privileged background, they are just copying what they see,” Xu says.

According to figures from Tmall, China’s largest B2C e-commerce platform, streetwear growth last year was 60 percent higher than average apparel category growth, with popular brands on the site including Aape, the youth-centred, price-conscious offshoot of Japanese brand A Bathing Ape, and British brand Superdry. Tmall’s most popular streetwear sub-categories are sneakers and hoodies.

A report released in March from OFashion and Nielsen showed growth of streetwear consumption in China from 2015 to 2017 at 3.7 times higher than non-streetwear apparel, reaching 62 percent last year, compared with 2016.

This intersection between hip-hop culture, street fashion, tough guy attitudes and adjacent markers of a rebel attitude, such as tattoos, is familiar the world over. What happened next in China is also a familiar story, with high-profile contestants of “The Rap of China” coming under intense public scrutiny online and from authorities.

Flying too close to the sun

The crackdown focused on the purported immorality of hip-hop culture, with swearing, drug references, societal disenchantment and political discourse all frowned upon generally by Chinese censors.

Fil Xiaobai | Source: Courtesy

Conjecture at the time surrounded hip-hop’s American origins, pegging its downfall to the fear that Chinese authorities have about the increased cultural influence from the West. But Michael Norris, research manager at Resonance China's consumer insights, naming and brand strategy team, Smart, says these assumptions misjudge how hip-hop influence made its way to China.

Rather than being imported directly from the US, hip-hop came to China via South Korea’s mega boy bands (including Kris Wu’s former group EXO), who have incorporated more and more EDM and hip-hop influence into their pop hits in recent years.

“It’s definitely more about people paying attention to what’s happening in Korea, not what’s happening in Atlanta,” Norris explains.

Peter Xu agrees that while hip-hop from the US has been bootlegged and passed around a small underground fan base in China since the 1990s, the mainstream movement and fashion associations now connected with the genre comes from Korea.

“Sure, it’s originally from the US and then filtered through Korea to get that influence before it comes to China,” Xu says, adding that in spite of political tensions over South Korea’s acceptance of the US-build THAAD missile defence system in 2016: “Korean [pop] culture still dominates in China.”

Understanding the official position

As for the so-called hip-hop “ban”, Norris prefers the term “filter” to describe the ways in which Chinese authorities control cultural representation from the top down to promote the image of a harmonious — and homogenous — nation. Tattoos are seen as a visible marker of distinction or membership in some kind of subculture and are therefore perceived as a threat to the status quo of what it means to be Chinese.

Many Chinese hip-hop stars don’t have tattoos but some of those that do have reportedly started wearing make-up to cover them and even Chinese soccer players with full sleeve ink have been asked to wear skin-coloured long sleeves when their games are to be broadcast. Confusingly, foreign performers and athletes seem to be exempt from the TV tattoo ban.

“My feeling is that the strong suggestion that people cover visible tattoos on TV is a message from authorities trying to remove this delineation between people who are part of a subculture and the rest of the Chinese nation. What they don’t want a repeat of is [Japan’s] yakuza culture — visible tattoos being a mark of you being part of a section of society that engages in unsavoury activities,” he says.

“It comes from a place of homogeny in the sense that, you can be a rap artist or a singer, but you can’t have a visible marker that delineates you as a part of that set or a part of that group. We are ultimately all Chinese.”

Key to understanding how this filter is applied is to look at the area specifically targeted, broadcast television, with print and social media still largely free to feature representations of hip-hop culture and tattoos. As the most mainstream of mediums, Norris posits that television was the most logical place for authorities to most tightly apply their filter. However, it also makes the crackdown less relevant to younger consumers, who are more likely to get their influence and information from online sources.

Aiming for mainstream acceptance

“Compared with 10 or 20 years before, now is the best time. People can express themselves through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Weibo, and more. Even if it’s blocked, we can still access it and use it to get around the government, that’s what most of the young people do,” explains Fil Xiaobai, a prominently tattooed fashion influencer from Chengdu, known for her high-low styling and for working with a number of Chinese celebrities, including Kris Wu, on creating their own luxe-street style.

“Hip-hop is a kind of self-expression. People use hip-hop like they use Instagram to express themselves. It’s a way to [say] that young people [and] society need something like that.”

Tattoo artist Danny Zhu | Source: Courtesy

Tattoo artist Danny Zhu has been working in Shanghai for six years and far from seeing any slowdown in the industry following condemnation from the authorities in Beijing, he conversely says it’s booming.

“Tattoo culture only came to Shanghai about ten years ago but now you just have to look around and see that everyone has a tattoo. [In Shanghai] there’s a tattoo studio on every corner,” Zhu says.

Following increased attention from censors, The Rap of China’s second season, which started airing in July, has taken steps to prove it is a proponent of positive messaging, with Kris Wu releasing a decidedly patriotic track ahead of its first episode called “Chinese Soul.”

A more sanitised mainstream version of rap music, without swearing, political messaging, drug references and misogyny — a genre Resonance’s Norris refers to as “hip-hop with Chinese characteristics” — is now prevalent in advertising and social media and the rise of streetwear in China looks set to continue.

For brands looking to tap into these trends by partnering with associated influencers, Norris says the safest bet will be to look behind the scenes, rather than affiliating with performers necessarily.

“If they are a producer [or] a clothing designer, I would have very little hesitation in partnering with these creatives who are on the front lines of these subcultures [because] they can be a great ally to brands,” he says.

“I would have more hesitation when it comes to the artists themselves. Some sense checking and background checking needs to happen, [including even finding out] what was being sung about two or three years ago. That level of due diligence needs to be undertaken. If they don’t sing [or rap], great. If they do, make sure you do your homework.”

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