On top of an ongoing trade war and pandemic, a new point of tension between the U.S. and China involves the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody. The narrative put forth by Chinese state media platforms like CCTV has been one-sided and colored by antipathy towards the U.S. government, which is portrayed as a hypocritical and flailing global power. Online comments about the protests on Chinese social media have been split, with shows of support sharing space with nationalistic and even anti-Black rhetoric.
One might expect Chinese rappers, whose music is rooted in an art form born of the Black American struggle, to engage more deeply with these events, but reactions to Black Lives Matter within the Chinese hip-hop scene are not far from the Party line. A handful of underground figures have taken to Twitter-like social media site Weibo to explain why their fans should care about what seem like distant, distinctly Western problems. Yet while a small number have posted donation receipts and personal calls to action, the Chinese artists who have profited the most from rap culture have had far less to say about the current moment.
In particular, the U.S. and China-based company 88rising, which manages prominent Chinese rap group Higher Brothers, has come under fire from critics who say it hasn’t done enough to acknowledge its artists’ debt to Black culture.
One of the most prominent critics has been New York-based Chinese rapper Bohan Phoenix (pictured), who facilitated Higher Brothers’ signing with 88rising. He specifically tagged the company and its star group on Instagram last week in an open call to “Asian friends who make money by means of black culture,” urging them to donate to groups fighting systemic racism.
“You have the resources and responsibility to start this education,” he wrote. “Lead by example and stop spreading ‘hip-hop culture’ without showing the proper respect and acknowledgement for the communities that suffered to create it.”
Higher Brothers are arguably the Chinese rappers best known in the U.S. due to prominent co-signs from Migos and Snoop Dogg and are also getting the most heat for what are perceived as minimal efforts. Last week, the group’s longtime affiliate Lana Larkin called out group member KnowKnow for merely reposting a message of support from 88rising without doing more. “Too little too late bro,” she wrote in a widely seen Instagram comment that the artist appears to have subsequently deleted, while also criticizing him for “literally [using] the n word countless times despite knowing its wrong.”
88rising has been credited for increasing Asian representation in the American music industry with its act Rich Brian becoming the first Asian artist with an album to reach No. 1 on the global iTunes hip-hop chart. Its multi-channel online platform is partly to thank. In addition to its 5.3 million monthly Spotify listeners and 4.46 million YouTube subscribers, 88rising also has a large following on Chinese social media and streaming platforms, including over 2 million Weibo followers.
The label’s only international office is in China, where it maintains a strong presence, occupying a unique market position in capitalizing on the growing popularity of rap in China in recent years, while drawing credibility from its base in hip-hop’s birthplace.
Allyson Toy, who was an artist manager at 88rising when the label signed Higher Brothers, tells Variety the label’s early marketing strategy relied on attaining credibility for the group among Black American rappers by engaging Migos and Lil Yachty in a reaction video that’s been viewed 3.8 million times on YouTube.
“In an effort to legitimize what we and our artists were doing in a predominantly Black atmosphere, we looked for the same things that any rappers do, which is a co-sign,” says Toy. “What you’re actively trying to do is buy your way into somebody else’s culture. How can you not respect that culture in return?”
The firm put out a statement Monday that both the label and its artists have collectively donated $60,000 to funds fighting racial inequality, and are “committing to ongoing education and discussion on the movement.”
But Bohan Phoenix points out that this is less than the fee for a single Higher Brothers performance in China. The group commands fees of $50,000 to $120,000 for individual performances, according to several music industry sources familiar with the matter. Pre-sale tickets for a Higher Brothers show in Shanghai over the weekend priced between $50 and $80 sold out in seconds, while individual tables went for a reported $14,000 each.
By comparison, Korean supergroup BTS donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter last week, with enthusiastic fans quickly matching the amount within 24 hours on its way to exceeding $2 million.
Jamel Mims, a bilingual Black American rapper who completed a Fulbright research project on Chinese hip-hop and frequently returns to China to perform, says mere donations and statements are insufficient. The label “has a vast audience that could be mobilized to support this fight in a real way,” he says. Engagement now is “not only a fiscal and cultural question, it’s a moral question: how can we work together to end police brutality and state-sanctioned oppression of black and brown people? Now that black people are rising up, will you stand with us and mobilize your artists, platform and audiences to take up the fight as their own?”
The Black Lives Matter movement is less resonant in China, where people consider racial strife a problem specific to multicultural societies with a history of slavery and race-based persecution — and some perceive the claim of cultural appropriation by Black artists as an example of American self-absorption. Screenshots from a private, 200-person Chinese hip-hop group chat seen by Variety reflect a mix of sympathy and apathy, and a baseline feeling that China benefits when America fails.
A popular reality show may be partly to blame for China’s blindspot when it comes to giving credit where credit is due. “The Rap of China,” which garnered 2.68 billion views and popularized the genre on a mass scale after it debuted on iQiyi in 2017, did little to explain rap’s origin story. Says Fan Shuhong, an educator and writer who extensively covers Chinese hip-hop: “How can we expect rap stars to educate their fans about the history of what’s going on on the other side of the Pacific?”
Others within China’s rap scene have no expectations of 88rising because they view it as a consumer rather than cultural enterprise. Dawei, a rapper and author from Beijing who’s had lucrative festival appearances canceled due to the political content of his lyrics, said 88rising’s product is “completely anti-thinking, anti-social-involvement, anti-any kind of historical reflection,” selling listeners a “total consumerist” experience, he says. “When you listen to their music, you don’t think about any issues related to the socio-economic environment or anyone else’s life, the only takeaway is you feel ‘cooler’ — it’s like putting on gold teeth or jewelry.”
88rising executives in the U.S. and China, including CEO Sean Miyashiro, did not respond to numerous requests for comment and as of this writing, there is no mention of the Black Lives Matter protests on the Weibo accounts of 88rising or the individual members of Higher Brothers, which collectively have over 4.5 million followers.
Offers rapper Bohan Phoenix: “It’s an ideology thing,” he says. “We can’t understand why they don’t understand, and they don’t understand why we’re so passionate about it.”
Emma Xiaoming Sun contributed to this report.