Four young lads huddle round a mixing deck in Chengdu. Flat caps, groomed eyebrows and baby’s bottom chins. They could be TF Boys in their twenties, but then again that would make it 2027. They are in fact a gangster rap band from Sichuan with a sizeable domestic following, international fame, and a very unusual twist.
In their 2016 hit record “This is China” , Chengdu Revolution (or CD Rev for short) avoided the usual gangster rap themes such as sex, drugs and fancy cars, opting instead to intone the glories of present-day China; of paying with phone apps, of the Shenzhou astronautical program and of Tou Youyou, China’s Nobel prize winning chemist. But they also mention the serious stuff too; the 2008 melamine milk crisis, China’s choking pollution and scandals involving the use of expired vaccinations.
“Regardless of all the prejudice in the past / Today I wanna restore the impression you have on my country, China / Which have been exactly fabricated by media for a long time.” The lyrics open.
The four-minute video went viral clocking up over ten million views. Add to that another ten million mental repeats of that painfully cringe worthy and unavoidably catchy chorus and you can certainly call it something of a success.
“This is China, we love the country / We the Chi-phenomena / The red dragon ain’t no evil but a peaceful place / The beautiful land with rich culture remain.” It’s that good that they even sing it twice.
Dubbed in the US as “China’s nationalist gangster rappers”, CD Rev rap for the Communist Youth League while three out of four band members have parents who were in the People’s Liberation Army. But good old fashioned red and white slogans just don’t make the cut anymore and CD Rev’s lyricist and singer, Li Yijie, sees their music as a solution.
The party loving group is not alone in its venture, however, as state media companies and organisations seek to carve out a new identity for China in foreign media and to attract young Chinese who are increasingly uninterested in politics. What better way to do that than with catchy animated pop songs?
The 2015 release of “Shisanwu” (十三五) , proved to have unfathomable success, despite being a cartoon jingle about one of the driest topics one can think of; China’s 13th Five Year Plan. Sung in English, the video follows an animated 2D band as they travel through a montage of iconography singing merrily, but with terrible pronunciation, about the “shisanwu”.
There is all sorts of imagery targeted at young audiences such disco balls, rubber ducks, electric guitars and a retro dog with pilot goggles riding a motorbike. A hefty helping of abominable humour goes down a treat for all the wrong reasons, in particular the square green lollipop holding robot representing an engineer who “deals with poo”.
But success is erratic, and if determined by viewer numbers, then there is still much room for improvement. Just last month ahead of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Forum (otherwise known as BARF), CCTV’s international channel released a video in which young children dressed in white sing and strum, “The future’s coming now, the belt and road is how”. As a multicultural gaggle of children summarise the key points of Xi’s $900 billion initiative, pink camels and yellow forklifts come and go like a popup book for the not yet literate. It’s unforgivingly patronising.
Scraping less than two thousand views on Youtube, this one was a flop and proof that while China’s new hip-hopaganda trend may be picking up some speed, it still faces a long and complicated road, and belt, to success.