With bilingual bars that switch between Mandarin Chinese and English and reference everything from Kanye West and Rajon Rondo to NASA, Shanghai-based group Straight Fire Gang (SFG) are intent on bringing something fresh to China’s hip hop scene. The three members — XZT, Chuckzigga, and Feezy — were all born in China but spent their college years in the US, influences that they’ve blended on their way to selling out their last few tours in their home country.
Combining high-energy flows with laidback beats, the group’s lyrics mix references to VPNs and China’s internet censorship with their experiences of living in the US.
“In our songs you won’t necessarily learn about American culture, but you can definitely learn about being Chinese in America,” Chuckzigga says. “We want to help people understand that you need to accept new ideas.”
Chuckzigga (real name Jiang Zige) discovered American hip hop music in middle school. His mom wanted him to learn English by listening to music, so he turned to Kanye West and Lil Wayne.
In high school, Feezy (Luo Fangqian) and Chuckzigga started making what they’ve called “rough and amateur-ish” music. Feezy describes those years — from 2008 to 2012 — as relatively liberal for China, a time when it was exciting to be part of the still-underground hip hop scene. “We thought we were pretty much the first people to listen to Kendrick [Lamar] in China,” Chuckzigga laughs.
Both moved to the US for college in 2012. Chuckzigga went to Swarthmore, an eminent liberal arts school in Pennsylvania; Feezy found himself on the other side of the country at UCLA in California. That’s where he met the third member of Straight Fire Gang, XZT (Xie Zitong) and introduced him to hip hop too.
Chuckzigga describes living in America as a chance to soak up a kind of hip hop culture that was nonexistent in China. It was here that he started making friends with people who were actually interested in hip hop. He watched Vince Staples, A$AP Ferg and Chance the Rapper perform live. And he began using the school studio to record music.
When they moved back to China in 2017, reality TV competition Rap of China was bringing in hundreds of millions of viewers with its first series. To an extent, it felt as if the Chinese hip hop scene had exploded overnight.
“It was kind of weird,” says Chuckzigga. “Suddenly everyone was talking about hip hop and acting like they knew it. I thought it was kind of annoying. But hip hop was getting more attention — people were curious about what we were doing.”
While Rap of China has led to a “safe” version of hip hop being quickly commercialized in the country, and SFG themselves have benefited from tie-ups with the likes of Jaegermeister and Beats by Dre, the group insist they’re focused on the genre as a powerful medium to get their voice out. “I always have an urge to express my artistic vision and opinions,” Feezy says. “I felt like this music was a great way for me to do that.”
“If you say something on [social media platform] Weibo no one’s going to really pay attention,” adds Chuckzigga. “But if you put something in music it’ll resonate on a deeper level.”
For a while, Chuckzigga was finishing up a Master’s degree at the University of Chicago, while Feezy and XZT were working full-time as product managers at WeChat. They had a decent following as a group, but didn’t know how to turn that into a steady cash flow. That changed with their first show in Guangzhou in July of 2017. The trio expected 100 people max; instead, over 500 showed up.
That’s when they started to seriously consider hip hop as a career. SFG realized that their fan base was “pretty hardcore,” with many traveling from other cities to see that show in particular. The following year, at Strawberry Music Festival — a touring festival put on by music label Modern Sky — in Chengdu, fans stayed cheering in the pouring rain.
In early 2018, the trio dropped their first album, These Kids Climbing Wall, a reference to the Great Firewall. The record deals with topics such as their culture shock at studying in the US, jealousy over China’s new generation of super rich kids, and their disdain for Weibo conformity.
“Social-awareness and the East-West bridge are always our main characteristics,” Feezy explains.
One song’s title, “udA,” flipped upside down is VPN. The lyrics are meant to challenge assumptions about the Firewall — is it limiting how people think? SFG argue that it isn’t. “So many factors determine your perspective. No matter what, you need to develop your own opinion,” Chuckzigga says.
More recently, criticism has surrounded alleged Asian appropriation of rap, an issue SFG aren’t afraid to engage with. As protests against police brutality and institutionalized racism continue across America, a number of Chinese and Asian American rap artists have voiced some form of support for Black Lives Matters. But critics have argued that many rappers aren’t doing enough considering how much they profit off Black culture.
“Asians show lots of enthusiasm for Black culture. They talk about the hip hop, they talk about the fashion, they talk about the sports. But when talking about the struggles in the Black community, Asians are rarely there for them,” Chuckzigga says. “We need to step up and support them, especially now.”
To Chinese in America: Black Lives Matter Is Our Fight Too
Feezy also acknowledges that there’s appropriation in the Chinese hip hop scene. “However, I feel like the concept of ‘culture’ is always about sharing instead of holding it to yourself. But you have to give credit to the Black community and their struggle,” he says.
Questions surrounding culture, identity, and ownership will continue to come up. But regardless, SFG have a lot planned for the future. Presently, they’re each releasing solo albums after focusing on making music in quarantine. In May, XZT dropped Black Box and Feezy released 2098: The Apocalypse. XZT’s solo project is lyrical with an R&B vibe, while Feezy’s tends to lean further towards the trap end of the spectrum. Both have embraced experimental instrumentals and beats on their solo projects, a departure from their SFG projects.
Similarly, Chuckzigga is preparing two albums for July — one in Chinese and one in English. They’re also planning a tour for the summer, and anticipate coming together at the end of this year for a third studio album.
The trio’s ultimate goal remains to expand overseas, making their music relatable to not just the China market but to people around the world.
That comes with certain pitfalls. They’re trying to avoid going commercial, focusing instead on lyrical music that touches on social issues. Yet they still have to contend with the fact that artists are subject to strict censorship in their home country. “I feel like there’s a strong pressure to figuring out the line between socially-aware and being too radical and getting banned,” says Feezy.
Nevertheless, the group are intent on making their way on their own terms. “There’s no set definition of hip hop. No one can tell you you’re not hip hop, says Chuckzigga. “I really like how diverse the culture is, and I think it’s important to have something that everyone in China can enjoy together.”
All photos by Thana Gu for RADII
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