Reality TV series The Rap of China started breaking records four hours after its premiere on June 24, 2017. According to an official source from video streaming platform iQiyi, which produced the show as part of its suite of original programming, Rap of China received over 100 million views hours after the first episode was released online, a record for reality television programs in China, they claim.

iQiyi, which launched as the video arm of search giant Baidu in 2010, began airing original content the following year, and now produces a steady roster of series like the pouplar comedy Two Idiots (废柴兄弟). In late 2016, iQiyi CEO Gong Yu was approached by Chen Wei, who’d previously produced American Idol-style show The Voice of China, and Che Che, who’d produced a show called Mask Singer for Jiangsu province’s public television station. The duo wanted to produce a new music show for iQiyi, targeting the platform’s viewer base of young digital natives.

Rap of China: New Reality Show Stirs Controversy and Memes

After a month of pitching and brainstorming earlier this year, Chen Wei suggested a focus on hip hop, citing Fox drama Empire and the recently canceled Netflix series The Get Down as inspiration.* According to a source at iQiyi, Gong had two questions before giving Rap of China the green light: Will young people like this? And (perhaps more importantly): Will it break even by Season 2?

Confident on both fronts, Chen Wei got the go-ahead, and Rap of China began production in a studio in the southern Beijing suburb Daxing. Its first two episodes aired without any sponsorship, but brands like McDonald’s, smartphone maker Xiaomi, and beverage company Nongfu Spring quickly took note of its staggering click-counts and the gravity with which the show’s host, Kris Wu, was pulling in a coveted new demographic: the so-called “95后,” Chinese youth born after 1995.

Kris Wu on adjacent ads at a Beijing bus stop, August 2017

Over the next two months, Rap of China would generate 2.68 billion clicks, countless memes and catchphrases (the English word “freestyle” has now entered the mainstream Chinese lexicon), and one mass-produced trademark: R!CH, a slogan standing for “Rise! Chinese Hip Hop” that iQiyi has printed on hats, shirts, and chains.

The show also netted a record-setting (according to iQiyi) ad buy from Xiaomi, who spent 30 million RMB (over $4.5 million USD) for an on-air spot during the show’s season one finale, aired on September 9.

iQiyi says that they plan to renew Rap of China for a second season; it seems likely they’ll hit their break-even point by its end. The show’s success has also inspired a new program that iQiyi plans to put into production by next year, focusing on hip hop dance.

An Unmissable Cultural Force

Speaking from the ground in Beijing, the force with which Rap of China has swept the culture feels unprecedented. Its reach is literally unmissable, as anyone navigating the veritable ocean of Kris Wu ads currently blanketing China’s first-tier cities can attest. iQiyi — a company of almost 6,000 employees with an average age under 30 — says that it’s the voice of a new generation, a conduit for Chinese in their teens and 20s to express their individuality.

Fan Shuhong, a 29-year-old from Beijing, agrees. She randomly bought a bootlegged Eminem cassette when she was in middle school to help with her English. “The hardcore rap god’s flow was too fast for a 13-year-old Chinese girl to follow,” she says, but she was hooked on the genre from that moment on.

Fan went to university in Chengdu, a hotbed for China’s rising rap phenomenon, and went to many shows put on by the CDC crew — four of whom have now splintered off into the breakout rap group Higher Brothers — between 2006 and 2008. She says that she’s surprised to see hip hop explode 10 years later, and enjoyed watching a genre she’s seen grow up from the underground level reach a mass audience. “I’m aware of its controversy among Chinese rappers,” Fan says, “but I still think it’s a good start to see and hear so many people talking and paying attention to this type of music. I enjoyed watching it, and it was what I looked forward to the most every week this summer — even more than Game of Thrones!”

Higher Brothers

Weibo Beef

The “controversy” that Fan refers to was the inevitable backlash that rose to meet Rap of China on social media platforms like Weibo, mostly from disgruntled rappers who felt they’d been sidestepped by hip hop’s sudden introduction to the mainstream. “There’s always a conflict between arts and commerce,” she says. “So far, I’m optimistic on this issue. Capitalism does good things sometimes.”

New York-based rapper Bohan Phoenix, who raps in Mandarin and English and is currently finishing up an extensive tour of China, has mixed feelings about the show’s success. “To me it’s definitely the media’s way of quickly grabbing some money out of the hype around hip hop in China right now,” Bohan says. “It’s a little weird for me, because this is so different from how I got in first contact with hip hop. In China, hip hop is such a young sport in a way, at least for most people, and then we have this huge show with a huge production budget dictating what is good, what is eliminated, and who are the better rappers. But despite the problems I have with it, I think it’s a great thing ultimately, because it is exposing more people to the music.”

Bohan Phoenix

Alex Taggart, a general manager at Beijing music management company Outdustry overseeing A&R and marketing, echoes Bohan’s sentiments. He first heard about Rap of China after he was approached by its showrunners, who asked him about bringing in foreign producers to make music for it. “To its credit, I think it’s done exactly what it set out to do: make a whole bunch of money by cherry-picking and packaging up certain crowd-pleasing, non-controversial elements of hip hop culture — big personalities, showmanship, ostentatiousness, competitiveness, drama — into a mainstream-friendly format,” says Taggart, who moonlights as a DJ and has been closely following Chinese hip hop since 2008.

“It’s solidified a growing general awareness of the look, sound and vernacular of mainstream hip hop into a format that average people now feel confident enough to talk about with their friends,” he continues. “As for its effect on the underground, it reminds me to a certain extent of the EDM festival boom in the US — a big, flashy, commodified version of a legit underground culture, inevitably causing online conflict between newbies and old heads. But at the end of the day, if even 1 percent of those newbies go looking for something more interesting, and some of that 1 percent start making music, who’s to say they won’t come up with something of genuine cultural value?”

Authenticity vs Appropriation

Even Beijing artist Dawei, whose pointedly critical, often political screeds have made him a self-imposed pariah on the Chinese hip hop scene, has a more nuanced take on Rap of China than the knee-jerk rejections that have dominated social media chatter among underground rappers. “Apparently some people can’t tell the difference between ‘selling your soul’ and ‘commercialization,’ and frequently love to bring up America as an example,” the 27-year-old rapper observes.

Dawei adopts a more intellectual approach when discussing Rap of China’s cultural impact, and the debt that Chinese hip hop supposedly owes to American culture:

America is a country with a sound civil society, a system of checks and balances, and freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution; therefore, in spite of the market effect, capital will not limit your expression unless it’s inciting hatred. We can say that Leonard Cohen and Eminem were beneficiaries of the commercialization of art. But in China, capital inevitably has to show its loyalty to public power and the ideological resources behind it, so when Chinese capital is aimed at culture, political “safety” is always the primary consideration. This leads to castration and distortion. Even if it ends up on the stage and looks gorgeous and energetic, discerning people still can see it’s just a nasty fraud — a presentation to show the results of how they sold their souls.

Dawei

Such philosophical debates are presumably far from the minds of Rap of China‘s core fanbase and target audience — kids born after 1995. Han Xia, a filmmaker who has made short documentaries for youth-oriented media such as VICE, sees a deep divide between Rap of China and the cultural formats that appeal to her generation, born in the ’80s.

“My generation came of age at a specific moment in the intersection between culture and technology. We were a little angry at the world but didn’t know why.” She says that Beijing rap group In3, which formed in 2006, spoke to her generation’s particular growing pains. “They had a fierce and vicious tone, and put into words our dissatisfaction with the times. It was cathartic and cool,” Han says.

After a friend told her Rap of China was worth a look, Han Xia watched the entire series with interest, judging it for its merits as visual media and from the perspective of someone who’d just left her 20s. “I got the same feeling watching Rap of China as I did the first time I watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” she says. “You can’t say it’s really bad, and it’s definitely not ‘good’ — but there are certain qualities of drama, a documentary sensibility, different kinds of people’s contradictions mixing together on screen. These qualities haven’t really appeared in any other Chinese talent shows. Rap of China maximizes these elements, giving young people something to rally around, a new way to express who they are. Chinese culture emphasizes ‘depersonalization’ and ‘tolerance as a virtue,’ and these are two mentalities you don’t see on the show.”

In3

Han notes that at the cultural level, several “fault lines” are currently appearing in Chinese society. On one side, she says, are middle-aged intellectuals, who appreciate ’90s Chinese rock bands and Sixth Generation film directors like Jia Zhangke. “These are the My computer has terabytes of music on it, I would never deign to watch a reality show types,” she explains.

On the other side is Rap of China‘s core audience, the “95后.” They don’t yet have social pressure to get married and have kids, they have time and money to spend, and smartphones and social media on which to spend them. “Their main desire is to broadcast their every change in mood,” Han observes. “With regard to the development of society, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A revolutionary change never comes quietly, secretly or politely — it charges through violently, breaks through the old system and puts its own in place.”

While acknowledging Rap of China‘s faults — “It’s full of cliches, an extreme pursuit of the superficial that neglects the culture of true creativity” — she also feels a personal responsibility to step aside and let the post-’95 generation build its own culture. “Two days ago I got a phone call from my dad, he told me he saw Rap of China. He couldn’t believe what they were saying on it — he told me if people on TV were saying things like that in the ’60s or ’70s, their house would have been confiscated. Now this Rap of China generation is becoming more distinct and ubiquitous — the old generation fears it and has nowhere to hide.”

“It’s hip hop’s turn,” agrees Fan Shuhong, who approves of how Rap of China has midwifed the form into mainstream acceptability. She adds that though it’s a genre adapted from the West, and with its roots in underground culture, it shows promising potential to blossom into a uniquely Chinese form of expression as more people become familiar with it.

“Chinese folk music has become popular in the past several years in different singing shows, and it worries some people that this trend will fade away before long — but in my opinion, it’s definitely better to be seen and known than to stay underground,” Fan says. “Shows that are related to the Chinese language are what audiences love to watch, maybe because many people realize that Chinese can and should be expressed in a more beautiful and sophisticated way, using the language at a higher level.”

Cover image: HK01

* An earlier version of this article stated that The Get Down was an Amazon original series; in fact it was produced by Sony Pictures Television and aired on Netflix. Incidentally, iQiyi signed a licensing agreement with Netflix this past April.