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Xinjiang R&B Artist Akin on Bilingual Songwriting and Breaking Out of His Cultural Box

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Last weekend, The Rap of China season 2 finale was dominated by two Uyghur rappers from Xinjiang. It got plenty of attention, given the worrying headlines emanating from that area recently. But the western, majority Muslim region’s music scene goes much deeper than just the performers who made it onto iQIYI’s hit mainstream reality show.

Akin, who hails from a small city in the Kazakh prefecture of Ili, is one artist who proves that. He’s constantly shirking China’s newfound obsession with trap and modern production in favor of a more timeless R&B approach. Akin was raised on a broad musical diet (D’Angelo and Maxwell are two favorites, he says), and it shows in his nuanced, soulful crooning. While other Chinese R&B acts are likely more influenced by Jay Chou than Janet Jackson, Akin and his producer Visudy keep it old school, leaving some room for modern flavor. Despite not really speaking English, Akin’s English-language songwriting would impress even the most discerning fans.

We sat down with Akin at Shanghai’s recent PlugFest to talk about his influences, process, and musical journey.

Let’s start from the beginning. What was it like for you growing up, and when did you start getting into music?

Akin: I come from Xinjiang, the western part of China; a small town called Kuytun. My grandpa was a singer and poet, and early on, he taught me how to write melodies and lyrics. Bit by bit, I started to like it. Not at first, but later my interest there grew. I started recording music, and I left Kuytun for Shanghai about five years ago.

You have a really unique style — one that I’d say is quite rare in China. Who are some of your musical influences, and which artists do you listen to?

My favorite is D’Angelo. Actually, when I was really young, my dad used to play a lot of Michael Jackson. Later on, I really started to like D’Angelo and Maxwell — a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s artists, and boom bap hip hop. So I put all that together and begun to get a sense of what sound I liked.

That’s really interesting. You don’t come across too many people here with the taste for that particular slice of Western music. Still, I know Xinjiang does produce a pretty serious amount of musicians. How do fans react to you being from Xinjiang?

A lot of people — since I’m from a Chinese ethnic minority group — they think that I’m supposed to sing in some way that relates to my hometown. Sure, I could sing these minority folk songs, but I can also do the music that speaks to me. People often think that I’m going to add some Xinjiang style to my songs. But with music, I just do what I want, and I do it well.

That’s an interesting point. Could you elaborate on that? When someone tells you, oh, you should have more Xinjiang instruments or something, what do you tell them?

I think this question has a very simple answer: I just do what I want to do. They probably have good intentions. They think that I have something others don’t have, so I could be that platform. But it comes down to free will. If you want to succeed, you need to have free will. Don’t ever close yourself off from other paths. A lot of people will say to us “oh, you guys do future bass, or this, or that.” But we don’t — we can make anything we want.

You write a lot of music in English. Can you tell me what that process is like? How do you think of English language lyrics? Does it come naturally after growing up on so many American artists?

It’s like this: most of the time, the lyrics are in English, because it’s easy to rhyme in English. In Chinese, everything’s structured, and there’s less fluidity. Also, when I was young, I always listened to English songs. So when I listen to the beat, I’m familiar enough there that I would sing something like what I’ve heard, and let the words come as I go.

There are definitely a lot of artists in China with very unique styles, but it seems that you’re succeeding a lot more than others. You’re doing collaborations with people from ChaCha to Bohan Phoenix, and getting more recognition from audiences overseas. What about your approach is different?

This question is pretty difficult. First off, it has a lot to do with the environment I grew up in. Second, it has to do with my taste in music. I was born in the ‘80s, so I have that native awareness of older music. A lot of kids doing music today were born in the ‘90s, and listen to pretty much all trap and new school. There’s no “good or bad” there, but I got to grow up in that transitional period between old and new, and absorbed both styles because of it.

There’s another important reason, which is my partner here, Visudy. He’s a very talented producer and musician. Whenever I have a good idea, he gives me good advice. It’s like we both push each other to success. A lot of our successes today are really based off our creative chemistry. So it’s basically two points I guess: first, the time period in which I was born allowed me to experience and enjoy two different music styles, and second, my partner and I push each other and work well together in building out our own sound.

Last question, what are your plans for the future, and what can fans expect from you?

Before the end of the year, Visudy and I will be releasing an album. It’s going to have some ‘80s vibes, ‘90s vibes, old and new school vibes. I think it’s going to be really exciting and eye-opening. We worked really hard on this album, and prepared a long time for it — it’s going to be a serious piece of work. Other than that, we want to shoot some music videos. So stay tuned for an album with old and new styles, and music videos along with it.

Also check out:

Xinjiang Rappers are the Break Out Stars of ”The Rap of China” Season 2

Beijing Rapper Saber on the Hip Hop Wave, and “Rap of China” from the Inside

“I don’t think about creativity, I just copy”: Howie Lee on Passive Creation and the Chinese Dream

Watch: Akin & ChaCha – “Summer Love Aria”

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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