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Chinese Rap Wrap: Hip Hop Reacts to the Coronavirus

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Chinese Rap Wrap is a bi-weekly RADII column that focuses on the Chinese hip hop scene, featuring the freshest talents, hottest new tracks, and biggest beefs from the world of Chinese rap.

Chinese Rap Hits the Spring Festival Gala

No one could think of a worse start to the Year of the Rat. While the CCTV Spring Festival Gala was airing on TV, watched by millions of people, many Chinese viewers were likely more concerned about the horrible coronavirus. We truly hope the catastrophe will end soon.

Nevertheless, there was something new and potentially good to be seen at the Gala: Gem, aka Dong Baoshi, brought a special version of his hit song “Ye Lang Disco” (“野狼Disco” or “Wild Wolf Disco”) to the biggest possible national stage, where he was joined by Hong Kong singer William Chan and LAY of K-pop group EXO.

GEM rapper at 2020 cctv spring festival gala

GEM performs a sanitized version of “Wild Wolf Disco” at the 2020 CCTV Spring Festival Gala

The new version was called “Guo Nian Di Si Ke (过年Disco; Spring Festival Disco),” and saw GEM reword the original lyrics into a more celebratory vibe, rapping about high-speed rail, 5G, dumplings, and family reunions, with a Cantonese hook from Chan and some solo dance moves from LAY.

Related:

China’s Traditional Spring Festival TV Gala Chases Younger Viewers with “Rap of China” Crossover

This could be considered the first time a Chinese rapper gave a hip hop performance on the national Spring Festival Gala, the world’s most-watched live television program. It’s especially remarkable, considering the “hip hop ban” that was carried out at the beginning of 2018 — but it’s not technically the first time a rapper has performed on the CCTV stage. In 2009, Yin T’sang member Jeremy performed in a comedy skit about the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as astute Chinese rap blogger Xiao Qiang Shu Shu points out.

The word “RAP” and a rapping-ish performance even appeared at the Gala as early as 1995, in a classic skit performed by the late artist Zhao Lirong (check from the 10’33” mark):

On the same night as the Gala — January 24, or Chinese New Year’s Eve — Gem also announced that he will donate all of his royalties (50,000USD as of September 2019) from the copyright of “Ye Lang Disco” to the families of medical professionals in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus. “You take care of the patients, we take care of your family. Stay safe until you come back home!,” the rapper said. Since then, the song has also become the subject of a high-profile copyright complaint from a Finnish producer — more on that below.

Earlier that morning, female rap group Bu Liang Shao Nv donated 10,000 N95 face masks to hospitals in Wuhan; on January 25, beatmaker and producer Mai also announced that he will donate income from the beats he made and sold on the app 8 Mile via Alibaba’s online charitable donation channel.

In recent days, more rappers have stepped up to help support the coronavirus effort. Xi’an label NOUS dropped an anti-coronavirus cypher; GO$H and PG One both donated 100,000RMB (about 14,000USD); Key NG and Bridge raised aid funds from their fans; Han Hong, aka XXXL, the pop singer and long-time hip hop lover who just turned to rapping herself last year, has raised more than 11 million RMB (about 1.56 million USD) through her private foundation, and has been helping with supply distribution in Wuhan.

Related:

Kris Wu, Yang Mi and Roy Wang Join Star-Studded Music Videos for Workers Battling Coronavirus

New Chinese Rap Releases of Note

Q.luv, aka Zhao Qin, has long been in the music scene as a producer, collaborating with A-list Chinese pop singers since 2008. He was also the executive music director of Rap of China Season 1, and is an accomplished R&B singer. Zhao recently dropped his latest album, Starlight Portal, which has been in the works for years.

Alongside his smooth urban tracks, some of which feature Chinese traditional instruments, Q.luv invited a few veteran Chinese rappers to guest on five of the album’s ten songs, including MC Guang (“You Win”), AR (“Sex & the City”), CLOUDWANG (“You Deserve That”), Li Daben (“Milk Shower”) and Ki.DAstronaut (“I Am the Dad That You Can Never Get”).

While closely following news about the coronavirus’ spread in China, some rappers have started making tracks to support and empower the depressed people — even staying at home for a week can be torturous for some. AR and Q.luv made a collab called “Hope” to encourage people to be hopeful and optimistic, especially after millions of Chinese fans learned about the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter. The musicians have said that they will donate the royalties from this track to Wuhan.

Mysterious wordplay king Kindergarten Killer, Wuhan rapper Eton, and Beijing group XI SHENG HE all dropped newly-written tracks for the suffering people and medical professionals at the frontline, as well. Here’s Kindergarten Killer’s “Pray for Wuhan”:

Before the virus developed into a full-blown epidemic, there were some brighter songs for the Chinese New Year, too. Rap trio Straight Fire Gang collabbed with fellow Shanghai rappers Cee, Pharaoh, and Kozay and Chongqing rapper MX for a funny and sarcastic track, “Zhuanfa Zhe Tiao Da Jinli (Forward This Big Koi)”. Koi fish is viewed as a sign of good fortune, and in the lyrics, the rappers make fun of the phenomenon of people believing in supernatural phenomena and superstitions rather than working hard on their own.

Chinese Rap Overseas

VaVa was invited to perform mid-court at an NBA game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers on January 25, becoming the first Chinese performer to give such a halftime performance. The hip hop queen performed “My New Swag” and “Rainbow” with the Sixers Dancers. She also talked with legendary player Allen Iverson, and took some time to check out a 76ers practice.

Beefs: Legal Edition

Finally — over the last few days, a controversy has been brewing around Dongbei rapper Gem, fresh off his CCTV Gala appearance. Chinese music fans have taken to YouTube to offer up apologies to Finnish producer Ihaksi after it was alleged that Gem’s breakout hit, “Wild Wolf Disco”, used his beats without proper accreditation. Two weeks before Gem appeared on the Gala, Ihaksi recorded a video demonstrating his ownership of the “smooth and inspiring piano rap beat called ‘More Sun'” — as the description on his YouTube page has it. Ihaksi offers a range of free beats for non-commercial use, but clearly stipulates a series of fees for anyone looking to use them for monetization purposes.

After Ihaksi’s complaint that Gem had used his beat without proper compensation was published online on Monday by music lawyer Eric Zhao, Gem responded the same day with a video showing his ownership of the various instrumental files that make up the track. “If I hadn’t paid properly, I wouldn’t have all these files,” he argues in the video. He also shows screenshots of “Wild Wolf Disco” on various streaming platforms where Ihaksi is credited for the beat, and then produces what he claims is a receipt for use of the instrumental.

For comparison’s sake, here’s “More Sun”:

And here’s Gem’s “Wild Wolf Disco”:

The case has drawn attention to copyright issues surrounding Chinese music, an area that Zhao is at the forefront of trying to improve. The lawyer’s detailed dissection and explanation of the case (link in Chinese) has attracted scores of supportive comments on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat.

“Don’t worry, there are so many Chinese people defending your rights on the Internet, and this will come to an end soon,” reads one of the numerous supportive comments from Chinese fans on Ihaksi’s YouTube.

Related:

“We Need a Generational Effort”: Music Lawyer Eric Zhao Crusades Against Piracy

Others have come to Gem’s defense. The rapper himself showed a DAW (digital audio workstation) file of the beat, a purchase receipt for a price of $99, and a screenshot of the usage rights related to that price point on the platform where he purchased it, including commercial performance, album recording, music video filming, and more. Gem’s agent posted their WeChat conversation on Weibo, supporting Gem’s claims.

It’s getting complicated, and seems like someone might be trying to scam Gem. So far, most musicians in China are defending Gem, while netizens are divided — some cannot even tell the difference between composition and arrangement or beatmaking.

Whether it really will come to an end soon may depend on how Zhao and Ihaksi respond to Gem’s claims. We’ll keep an eye on that for the next Chinese Rap Wrap.

More in this series:

Chinese Rap Wrap: FOX Debuts with “Born This Way” as Higher Brother Masiwei Pregames V-Day

Chinese Rap Wrap: Xinjiang’s AIR Drops the Perfect Album to End 2019

Cover image: Kindergarten Killer’s “Pray for Wuhan” artwork

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van