Singing competition shows have become hugely popular in China in recent years (the Chinese version of The Voice has set multiple mainland TV records and is coming up on its fifth season). But a new contender has jumped into the mix, and caused significant ruckus in the process – 中国有嘻哈, a.k.a. The Rap of China.
The show is broadcast on the country’s iQiyi web TV platform, sort of like a Hulu over here. It follows celebrity judges and the humble rap contestants who vie for their approval, in hopes of receiving a gold chain that will pass them through to the next round. The judges each select their own teams from the pool of contestants, who will receive guidance from their celebrity mentors throughout. Sound familiar at all? I’d say the biggest difference in format between The Rap of China and The Voice is the absence of enormous, rotating chairs.
The show rolled out its debut to a large audience, easily breaking 100 million views in its first few days. The show’s success thus far in terms of viewer count and social media activity is solid, but netizens have been quick to question the credibility of the show’s judges and producers. The judges are Kris Wu, a pretty boyband member and pop performer; Wilber Pan, who was part of the first wave of Chinese singers to incorporate rapping in the early 2000s; and the two-part judging team of Zhang Zhen-yue, a Taiwanese pop musician, and MC HotDog, the show’s lone rapper judge.
Chinese hip hop fans on the internet are not confident in the judges – and probably for good reason. Their decisions come across as completely arbitrary, and their familiarity with hip hop music appears to be very low. Zhang Zhen-yue was quick to eliminate popular and respected rapper Al Rocco on the basis of rapping entirely in English, giving the comment, “His rap is all in English, but now we are in China.” The internet was not happy.
“Zhang Zhen-yue is not even a little bit hip hop,” writes one user on social network Douban. “He writes one ballad from back in elementary school and now he’s a judge?”
“He’s just dressed up all hip hop,” someone replies, “the rest is all his connections with MC HotDog…”
Meanwhile, another “rapper” performed a verse on the show that was not only entirely in English – and objectively bad – but was a verbatim recitation of Iggy Azalea’s pop hit “Fancy.” Her entire segment revolved around her being physically attractive, and she was still somehow given a chain by Wilber Pan. In a conversation about Al Rocco, one user writes:
“Wilber Pan had that girl in his group do a song entirely in English, that was just a cover, and he still passed her. So is it just that the producers are bad?”
Aside from the general question of the show’s knowledge and competency in hip hop, other problems have begun to come to light. One rumor circulating on Chinese media outlets is that, following the recording process, the contestants were rounded up by officials to have their urine tested for drugs. The show’s judges have stated they have no knowledge of this, but it hasn’t stopped the story from spreading across several online news platforms. Not a good look for hip hop culture, which much of China still views with skepticism, and definitely not a good look for the show.
So the show is off to a flashy, controversial, and rocky start. But it is definitely pulling in viewers. One thing’s for sure – we’ve got some great memes out of it. After the show’s very first contestant finishes his verse, Kris Wu responds with a long silence, followed by the now-iconic “有freestyle吗?” (you got a freestyle?)
The meme took off at supersonic speeds, the internet now filled with dozens of iterations of Kris (who is himself awful at freestyling) asking contestants if they have freestyles. You got a freestyle? Please give me a freestyle. Still no freestyles?
The term “freestyle” was trending on Weibo for several days in a row, with web searches for the term skyrocketing immediately following the show’s debut.
I’ll leave you with these:
The first request for a freestyle that started it all
A compilation of host Kris Wu not having freestyles
The full first episode, with English subtitles. Stay for the final five minutes for a surprise appearance by a freestyle legend…
The Rap of China – a hit or miss? Let us know.