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Interview: Rapper Chen Jinnan on Causing a Stir with Her Socially-Conscious Lyrics

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Chen Jinnan, dropped her single “The 87th Weight Losing Attempt” on March 8, International Women’s Day. In it, the plus-sized rapper tackles ideas about body image and proves herself to be a legitimate and unique voice in contemporary Chinese hip hop music.

The track comes after Chen’s lauded appearance on Bilibili’s hip hop talent show Rap for Youth, which aired on the streaming platform in 2020 and featured celebrities such as Masiwei and KnowKnow of Higher Brothers, as well as 88Rising’s Rich Brian, hip hop icon MC Hotdog and former EXO star Huang Zitao.

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The 22-year-old, former teacher says that when she was initially approached to appear on the show, she thought that it was joke. She spent hours talking to the director, going through various interview processes and explaining the content of the lyrics that she wanted to sing. When she travelled to Wuxi to film the series, she explains her thought process, “I brought a very small suitcase, and I wondered if it was possible to come back within a few days.”

Chen’s part in Rap for Youth featured some standout moments. While she finished in the show’s top eight, her performance of her track “来自世界的恶意” (which loosely translates to “Malice from the World”) entranced viewers as she rapped about experiences of depression and bullying in school.

If I could go back to my time in middle school, I wish someone — whether it is my sister or a rapper that I like — could talk to me about my experiences,” she says of the song. “Because if it’s a teacher or a parent telling me these things, I might not be able to hear them.”

In another key moment on the TV show, Chen’s performance of “Medusa’s Manor” with fellow contestants Sheng Dai and Feezy went viral on social media due to its socially-conscious lyrics, some of which were omitted from the final broadcast. Chen took to her own account on microblogging site Weibo after the episode to comment further, winning widespread support from users on the platform.

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Chen hasn’t been dissuaded from tackling important issues however. On “The 87th Weight Loss Attempt” she focuses on empowerment and self-worth, with lyrics such as, “Don’t pay attention to the eyes of others, you have an innate light.”

“I have always wanted to make a song like this,” she says. “That is: beauty is not defined, no matter what the appearance is, whether it is consistent with mainstream aesthetics, whether we are afraid of our fat or thin body, or have appearance anxiety or body anxiety. I think you are not defined. Whether a girl or any person looks good or not depends on who they want to be. If they think they are beautiful, appearance is actually their own business.” 

Overcoming the opinions of others has helped to establish Chen’s attitude over the years. And now that she is firmly in the limelight, this mentality has been valuable when it comes to online trolls and to fans alike. “The price of people seeing you is that someone might praise you, someone will see your advantages and your advantages will be infinitely magnified, and so everyone will love you and give you encouragement and support,” she says. “But your shortcomings will also be magnified.

“You can only balance your own mentality — and if you are not ready, don’t appear in the public’s field of vision. I think it is difficult to face criticism, but you have to overcome it by yourself.”

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Her own preparedness can be seen in the way Chen thinks about approaching negative online comments in particular, as she tells us, “sometimes they become my inspiration. If bad reviews have some negative comments, they may also become my inspiration.”

In this way, Chen is part of a new crop of talented young women intent on using rap as a way to have a positive impact in China. “The 87th Weight Losing Attempt” is released on W8VES, a label backed by both Bilibili and Asia-focused label 88rising, and on the same day that Chen’s track dropped, her labelmate Yu Zhen began to trend on Chinese social media with a video addressing gender stereotyping. Produced in collaboration with state-run media China Women’s News and domestic cosmetics brand Proya, the popular video showed how W8VES have taken a particularly gender-conscious stance in relation to their artists and the industry.

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Yet Chen says that while she values the fact that her songs reach new audiences and deliver important messages, her ultimate aim is to use music and lyricism to engage in self-exploration.

“If I don’t have any fans listening to my music, is my song meaningless? No! I still have spent some time in self-reflection, including a process of self-encouragement, which is also a process of dialogue with myself.”

Chen’s lyrical style is a breath of fresh air in a Chinese hip hop industry that has increasingly become dominated by lyrics that talk about money, cars and power. “I like money and sports cars, but it’s just that I personally hope that when I express myself, I can make more meaningful songs,” she tells us. “The essence of rap in my understanding is to respect others, to be equal, to be true, and to be free.”

For now, Chen is unsure of where her future will take her. While she has been making music for a decade, she has ideas about going back to school to study music in a more systematic way. In the meantime, she is busy making songs and writing socially-conscious lyrics for a new generation of Chinese kids who are struck by her attitude, her aura, and her beauty.

Readers in China can access “The 87th Weight Loss Attempt” on QQ Music here.

Cover image courtesy of W8VES

Bryan Grogan
Bryan is RADII's former culture editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with an interest in culture stories with a social bent. He once correctly guessed all 151 original Pokemon in seven minutes for an online quiz. He also correctly guessed all 100 second generation Pokemon in eight minutes for an online quiz.