Vava is one of China’s most compelling hip hop artists.
Catapulted to success after her appearance on the first season of The Rap of China, the 24-year-old has been able to avoid many of the pitfalls that have accompanied her companions from that first season. While she has been outspoken on certain topics, some of which have landed her in hot water with her international fan base — such as her controversial Instagram post about the Hong Kong protests — she’s come away from three years of intense media scrutiny largely unscathed, and still seems filled with an urgency and energy to carve out her own path in a popular music industry that can often feel stale.
Born as Mao Yanqi in Ya’an, a town just outside of Chengdu in western China’s Sichuan province, Vava discovered her flair for music early in life. Coming from a poor family, she taught herself to sing and rap by listening to her favorite musicians, eventually dropping out of school after junior high to follow her musical dreams by taking a gig as a singer in bars at the age of 16.
She got her big break on a pair of variety shows, Listen Up in 2016 (which she won) and The Rap of China in 2017, in which she made it to the final four. The massive success of that latter show, alongside her intrinsic star appeal and talent, led to a meteoric rise. “I was one of the very few girls who managed to enter the finals during Season 1,” she says. “So for me it was quite a challenge but also a great opportunity.
“I wanted to prove myself, and prove the point that girls can rap just as well as any guy.”
Her rise through that first season of The Rap of China paved the way for more female excellence in hip hop in later seasons, with artists such as Lexie Liu following in her footsteps. She’s since gone on to appear on the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack, be labelled “the Chinese Rihanna,” and become the face of an Alexander Wang campaign.
Now, rumors of Vava rejoining The Rap of China, this time as a mentor, have been swirling ahead of the show’s 2020 edition — proof of her staying power and cemented celebrity status. (She refuses to be drawn on the record about returning to the show however: “I do not have any comment to the rumors, so you’ll have to keep guessing!”)
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Her newest release, the collaborative EP Vow, lends more evidence to her willingness to experiment musically, as it sees her team up with 20-year-old Shanghai-based EDM DJ Chace on a record that blends hip hop with a pulsating electronic backdrop.
“I met Chace initially at drinks with a group of friends,” she tells us. “We were hanging out one day and we started talking about music and realized that we had some creative ideas that could work together. He’s a young producer and has his own views on music, some interesting ideas, so creatively it just kind of sparked and we came up with this EP.”
The duo create a wall of sound throughout, using music to pave over just about every hint of space, resulting in a colorful cacophony that’s hard to describe with reference to any one genre.
Speaking to the array of influences that went into the making of this new EP, Vava tells us, “I was listening to various hip hop artists, some emerging, some experimental during the creative process and was also inspired by Tyler, The Creator and Kanye West.”
She’s also planning an album release later in the year, while talk of a collaboration with a famed NBA player has been making the rounds for a while, though plans for that latter project have ground to a halt because of the Covid-19 outbreak.
“The track is actually already done,” she says. “We were hoping to film a music video but because of the current situation, it’s difficult for me to get to the US and he’s unable to fly to China so we have to look at how we can complete it and debut it.”
The identity of the NBA player she’s teaming up with is also a mystery. While she performed at the halftime show of an NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers earlier this year, she has also been conspicuously liking a lot of Orlando Magic power forward, Aaron Gordon’s Weibo posts through May and June. That’s not much to go on, and Vava isn’t helping — she remains tightlipped over exactly who the collaborator is.
For Vava, as with other superstars, with more success comes more scrutiny. Navigating political and social issues has proven to be somewhat troublesome for the rapper over the past few months. In some ways, her story mirrors that of the star of upcoming Disney Mulan live-action film, Liu Yifei, who has also fallen afoul of fans for her opinions on social issues.
While Vava’s rejection of the Hong Kong protests was applauded within China, it sparked backlash among the international community. Meanwhile, she recently showed her support for the Black Lives Matter protests on her Instagram with a blacked out post and screenshot of NWA’s “Fuck the Police,” though she failed to address the issue on her account on Chinese social media platform Weibo. On Instagram, she boasts just over 300,000 followers; her Weibo is followed by over 5 million people.
“The Black Lives Matter movement has impacted and touched all cultures, everyone around the world,” she says when we ask about her views on the movement. “It’s a wake-up call. It’s up to each of us to eliminate the prejudice and discrimination between each other.
“We have to be more compassionate toward each other and fill the world with love.”
Despite such comments, there may linger some reticence in addressing wider social issues with her Chinese audience (her stance on the Hong Kong protests was a safe one within China). With the so-called “hip hop ban” of early 2018 still fresh in the memory of many within the industry, staying on the right side of the censors feels imperative for hip hop stars who want to make it big.
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Vava has her focus very much set on her music for now, stacking up high-profile collaborations and preparing to drop an album later this year. “The new music incorporates some new concepts and sounds, and I feel like I pushed myself creatively to go outside my comfort zone a bit,” she says. “I don’t want to reveal too much now but I am really excited about it and can’t wait to share it with my fans.”
It’s set to be a another prolific year for the Sichuan artist, with a pace of production and creativity that she continues to welcome. “It’s not just about the quantity or pace in which new music comes out but the quality and how the music matures. That’s the real growth of a music artist.”
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