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Why Female Rappers Have Become the Most Exciting Voices in Chinese Music

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Chinese Rap Wrap is a RADII column that focuses on the Chinese hip hop scene, underground or in the mainstream.

Hip hop culture, and rap music in particular, is dominated by men. From the US to the UK, from trap to grime, most of the time there are only a handful of spots for female rappers among the A-list artists.

In the Chinese hip hop scene, the gender imbalance is sadly similar. As rap in China has grown from an underground activity to a major commercial force, it’s remained a male-heavy domain. Yet along the way, there have been some crucial contributions from women and today, some of the most exciting rising rappers are female. Similarly, a new hip hop variety show based specifically around female rappers is set to drop later this year. The show, called HIP HOP GIRL, comes from Tencent and has already accepting applications from prospective contestants.

Here are the names worth knowing.

From Zeeros to Heroes: China’s Female Rap Pioneers

At the beginning of the millennium, China’s hip hop scene was mostly limited to a handful of dedicated groups in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. US rap albums would pass through customs as “plastic trash” for recycling, get picked off by those in the know, and passed around to be heard by its listeners on the other side of the world.

Amid these groups there were only a handful of female rappers, wearing beanie hats or oversized sports jerseys, aligning with male hip hop fashion looks back then.

Among the few, Zeero (aka Zhang Zhuyin) from formative Shanghai crew Bamboo, was viewed as “the first female rapper in town.” In the crew’s first and last official album Cheer Up!, which dropped in 2006, Zeero was featured on tracks “Shang-Town,” “Ima G” and “2 Queens,” in which she proclaimed she was a “rap queen” who didn’t need “king’s decoration.”

When Bamboo disbanded soon after that release, Zeero retreated from the music scene. But she still predicted the future of hip hop music in the mainstream in a 2010 post on social media:

“Underground culture is a small culture where many people struggle between their life and their dream. The innovation and impact underground culture brought to the mainstream culture doesn’t receive the understanding or support that it deserves, and the unfairness of the cost and gain is so sorrowful for underground culture.”

Another prominent female rapper during Chinese hip hop’s nascent early years was Fuzhou rapper Double J, who started her career with Dongguan-based trio Uranu$ in 2004. Her flow and lyricism immediately gained recognition on the underground scene. After the crew disbanded and she married Taiwanese rapper Kenzy (aka Xiao Chun) of famous crew MJ116, she moved to Taiwan and signed to True Color Music, but her focus was mostly on her family and son. She also went on to appear on The Rap of China in 2018.

In 2020, Double J released her first solo album Ting Hao De (All Good) as a full-time musician in her real name — Jiang Jing. The album featured collabs with veteran producer and musician Zhang Zhenyue (one of the judges in the first three seasons of Rap of China) and her label mate and old friend MC Hotdog (watch below).

Around the mid-2000s, Chongqing’s Lacedoll was another noticeable name. Born Angel Mo, she featured in a string of rap tracks as a teenager and became known for her singing skills. After years of studying in Canada, she returned to China and went on to appear on variety shows such as Super Girl in 2016, joined Jay Chou’s team in Sing! China in 2017, and made a brief appearance in the 2018 series of Rap of China.

Mo has since gained a GMBA degree from Tsinghua University and started working for tech giant Alibaba last year, but Lacedoll will always be a key part of the early development of hip hop music in China.

Related:

The History of Rap in China, Part 1: Early Roots and Iron Mics (1993-2009)

YEHAIYAHAN, formerly known as ChaCha, is a figure whose talent and sonic experimentations are way beyond being categorized in any specific music genre, but her role in the development of Chinese rap music cannot be overlooked.

Her list of collabs features a who’s who of important Chinese hip hop artists including MC Webber, J-Fever, JahJahWay, and CEE, while she’s also previously worked with Guangzhou crew CHEE. While she’s never really considered herself a rap MC, she’ll always be seen as an influential figure in the scene and has continued to explore new ways for female musicians to forge a career on their own terms.

When talking about the first generation of female rappers, another name that is usually mentioned is CK (aka Chen Ke). The Hunan-born pharmacist grew up in a “broken family,” and is sometimes viewed as “the first internet celebrity” in China after building an online following, with fans drawn to her gothic makeup and photo posts combined with dark words.

Musically, she had a series of early collabs with rappers who would go on to become huge names on the scene. In particular, her track with Nanjing OG MC Guang “飞向别人的床 Fly To Others’ Bed” from 2007 remains a revered song today.

The bold, sexy track caused a stir online but the confidence of CK’s lyrics masked her personal problems. In 2008 she attempted suicide following persistent bouts of depression. After receiving treatment overseas, she got married and had a daughter before returning to the public eye in 2015. Her marriage ended in divorce and shortly afterwards CK announced that she was gay.

Although she no longer makes music, CK has been exploring other art forms to express her thoughts and emotions, and today continues to inspire and support people struggling with emotional issues.

A Lost Icon: The Tragic Story of K-Bo

Another pioneering, yet sadly troubled female MC from this era was K-Bo (Cui Feifei).

K-Bo returned to her hometown of Chengdu from Canada in 1998, and started teaching vocals and Hip Hop culture in college after graduating from Sichuan Conservatory of Music. She was a producer, a DJ, an R&B musician, and a rapper, working on everything from underground hip hop parties to mainstream singing competitions.

She was frequently featured in tracks from artists who are now major names on the Chinese hip hop scene, including MC Guang, Uranu$, Kindergarten Killer (watch above) and Kafe.Hu. And she helped redefine style for female rappers in China as one of the few musicians at the time to dress with a focus on sex appeal.

Yet in September 2010, Cui was cruelly tortured and murdered her music partner Hei She, aka ”Big Snake” or Zhou Wenfeng. After her death, MC Guang and Kindergarten Killer both dropped tracks in memory of K-Bo and she is still remembered today for her creative talent and passion for promoting hip hop music and culture in China.

VaVa, Vinida, and The Rap of China Era

Of all the rappers named here, VaVa is perhaps least in need of an introduction.

The Sichuanese rapper stood out in the final stages of 2017’s Rap of China and has gone on to feature on the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack and work with Alexander Wang.

Before such high-profile moves, VaVa gained a reputation in the underground after winning the national championships of rap competition Listen Up in 2016. She wasn’t the only one to take this path, with increasing numbers of female rappers participating in freestyle battles, such as Iron Mic, Underground 8 Mile, and Listen Up throughout the mid- to late-’10s.

For example, Rocket won an Iron Mic contest in Shenzhen when she was just 16 years old, while MC OK7 (aka Chen Jinnan) from the northern province of Jilin took third place in the national final of Gan Yi Piao, another national freestyle stage for battle MCs, in 2018. Chen would go on to national acclaim after appearing — and getting censored — in the final of Bilibili TV show Rap for Youth, while Rocket would appear in The Rap of China.

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It wasn’t easy for female MCs to be on a freestyle stage where they encountered body shaming or other forms of harassment, but the battles also honed their rapping skills and comebacks.

As hip hop grew into a mainstream form of entertainment in China, MCs began appearing on general entertainment shows too. Fujian rapper Vinida started dropping music in 2015, entered pop contest Sing! China in 2016, and signed to major music label ModernSky’s hip hop spin-off MDSK that same year. That TV appearance ensured that even before she joined Jane Zhang’s team in last year’s Rap of China, she had already become one of the most popular female rappers in the country.

Her 2017 track “Queendom” and the accompanying music video were particularly well-received, feeling like a manifesto from a beautiful and tough woman.

Another female rapper who has a non-rap TV show to thank for her now millions of followers is NINE ONE. She actually went viral on Douyin (China’s TikTok) back in 2017 with the track “Puma” and performed at SXSW in 2019, but it wasn’t until she appeared on the 2020 edition of iQIYI’s idol-making show Youth with You — finishing in 10th place — that she was catapulted to proper stardom.

While she’s been growing her influence in the mainstream, NINE ONE has also remained active on music festival stages and keeps close connections with her old friends from the underground.

TikTok Rappers and Outspoken Stars

Just as TikTok has helped shoot artists such as Lil Nas X to stardom, so to has the platform’s China equivalent, Douyin, brought millions of followers to certain MCs.

Sena began by covering established rappers’ songs, including those of MC Hotdog, who gave her career a huge leg-up when he reposted one of her videos on his Weibo page. She went on to appear in 2017’s Rap of China, and her funny videos and chill tracks continue to be followed by millions of fans, while she dropped her first original EP last year.

Even without recommendations from established OGs, video-sharing platforms are helping to grow a huge rap audience. Xue Bi (the name for Sprite in Chinese) and KAKA (aka Li Yijie) both have over 1 million followers on these platforms, who tune in for livestream rapping and pre-recorded videos. Both used this presence to make it onto Mango TV’s mainstream talent show Rap Star last year.

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Does this “Rap of China” Challenger Represent a New Era for Chinese Hip Hop on Mainstream TV?

Jinx Zhou is another rapper using all the social media tools at her disposal.

Having studied advertising and coding at the University of Washington and eventually moving to LA, she toyed with variety show appearances upon her return to China, but has since forged a path as an independent artist — documenting her journey on Weibo and Instagram.

In a similar way to Lexie Liu, who also studied in the US, Zhou is becoming more influential thanks to her views on life in China following her overseas education, as well as thanks to the imaginary world that she has been constructing in her musical works.

Zhou’s independence also allows her a certain degree of outspokenness, something echoed by MCs such as 19-year-old ZesT (Zhe Xiaotian), whose track “Playground” is a forceful condemnation of sexual assault against minors. Ingrita (Yu Zhen) — who like ZesT appeared on Rap for Youth in 2020 — is another conscious female rapper; her track “Fang Si Ai” (watch below) encourages young women to be brave and independent in relationships.

For gender inequality to really be eliminated within the hip hop industry, it’s imperative that more female MCs speak up for themselves. The future is bright, however, with more and more women grabbing the microphone and standing in front of larger audiences to have their voices heard.

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