Mar 1, 2018

Hip hop is banned in China, kind of

Be careful where you get your news, also the Internet used to be better

Fat Shady performs at New Little Bar in Chengdu in 2014
Fat Shady (black T and cap) and friends performed at New Little Bar in Chengdu in 2014.

Our latest video (you can find it below) was inspired by the news in late January that a Chinese government body issued a ban on hip hop culture and tattoos on state TV. For a really good summary and analysis of just-the-facts before you dive into what I think, Feichang Fresh has a great video.

Current events aren’t usually our deal, but Peter and I have been seeking out new music – hip hop and otherwise – in China since we landed. We were proud to discover that Chengdu has been an incubator of China’s rap scene for many years. I even interviewed the scene’s breakout stars, Higher Brothers, for a magazine article this summer. So the Time.com headline “‘Tasteless, Vulgar and Obscene.’ China Just Banned Hip-Hop Culture and Tattoos From Television” definitely caught our eye.

But our video was also inspired by our own experiences of keeping in touch with America through the distorted lens that is the Web 2.0: a meme-ified news stream that features kids eating soap just alongside your cousin graduating college and the U.S. president giving all schoolteachers guns, whether they want them or not.

(“What is eating a Tide pod supposed to do?” Peter asked me, baffled that this generation’s experiments with household cleaners has nothing to do with trying to get high.)

China bans hip hop. China bans Winnie the Pooh. China bans time travel. You can state these facts – they’re all essentially true. But what does any of that really mean?

(Tide pods look like cake, right? That’s why kids are eating them?)

Peter and I, with our video, hope that we can share some context about the Chinese ban-hammer and what that means for free expression in China.

In the video, I end on a somewhat 没办法 (Eh, what can you do?) note. It’s a struggle in this global existence. What can one person do against the entrenched systems of the world?

However, because I do read more than my Facebook feed, I know that that’s not reality. Incredible activists all over the world are stepping up and making change. Black Lives Matter, the Parkland students. But it’s a frustratingly slow process. And one that’s prone to misinterpretation and oversimplification in the retelling.

In a story on “#metoo in China,” published just after news of the “hip hop ban” broke, The Elephant Room blog looked at some of the people fighting for women’s equality over here. It does not look the same as it does in western countries, but nevertheless, they persist. But, as ER notes, most coverage in the U.S. focused more on the “censorship in Big, Bad China” angle than the activism against sexual harassment. “‘Censorships[sic]? Of course,’ Qiqi [one of the movement’s activists] laughs, ‘but so? By now we all know that’s inevitable for any social movement in China. For us, censorship is part of progress, not the end of the story.’”

That’s the story I want to read. How do you keep at it and effect change – and people do – when mainstream avenues of communication are closed to you? What a powerful idea! But it’s not easily meme-able (and it’s logistically challenging for western reporters to access), so it doesn’t get as much press.

So let’s fix the media.

Back when I worked at a newspaper, in the mid-2000s, we published a columnist whom the media insiders looked down upon as a graspy, fame-seeking hack. It was a dating column, post-“Sex and the City,” so … . There were daily updates about her behavior on Gawker (this was way back, when Gawker was still somewhat devoted to actual intra-media coverage). And within our newsroom, there was constant discussion of how terrible she was. There was even, for a time, a lay person’s website devoted to anonymously hating on her every public move.

The column was not great, but it was super popular. In fact, rather than letting her go because she wasn’t up to our standards, she left us for bigger and better pastures. She’s now … not so famous that you’ve heard of her, but she’s been on cable TV. A lot.

Honestly, I think this woman worked hard to get where she is. If our paper had passed on her, she would have found opportunity somewhere else. But we disrespected her writing and we published her anyway. Because the readers ate it up.

Stupid readers. Let’s fix you.

You’re a citizen of the Internet, the training is out there: Read more than the headline. Check your sources. Open your mind to narratives that challenge your worldview. Consider that the push structure of social media is manipulated and not reflective of the world as it actually is.

To put it another way: if we only click and share the Times’ shock-jock op-ed denying climate change – in outrage or in support – that’s all anyone is going to publish. And we’ve done the Russians’ job for them.

(So, let’s fix the Russians?)

We’re all weary of the hegemony of outrage, but someone keeps clicking on it. Stop it. And maybe make something yourself. After all, it’s easier to replace a bad habit than to quit cold turkey!

I really think this might be something: Make stuff. Make anything you truly care about. Write it, paint it, dance it – whatever gets what’s in your heart out in to the world. The stuff that is meaningful to you is going to be compelling, even if it’s not objectively good. This will have three effects.

As creators, people will engage on their own terms with media literacy. You can scroll past countless NPR articles on how to tell the difference between real and fake news, but if you’re telling stories yourself, you’ll have a real stake in how narratives are created. You’ll be able to tell an out-of-context quote from a mile away.

Additionally, maybe we can drown out the fakers and liars and fear-mongers and put something good out in the world. I’m not going to lie; it takes a lot of effort to fight the incredible pessimism I feel every day. There’s a lot happening in the world right now that I feel powerless to affect. But what got me here was getting out of bed anyway and writing something that made me laugh. Filming something that felt true to me. And maybe some bored millennial will choose my silly video instead of one with the “hot take” that maybe racism is natural after all.

Thirdly, if we’re all creating our weird little projects and putting them online, maybe we can make the Internet interesting again. Maybe the real inspiration for all these one thousand words is that in the past few years, all of my favorite sites have shut down. The Toast doesn’t even have archives up anymore. [EDIT 11/17/18 They’re up again!]There have been a lot of factors making me really feel my age these days (seeing your face blown up in HD will do that), so I’m just going to say it: When I was a kid, the Internet was way cooler. ’Cause it was just a bunch of random crap that people were passionate about.

So make something, darn it. And I will, too. If the rappers in Chengdu can do it …