Chinese rappers—fearful of authorities—are cleaning up their lyrics

Gai in the spotlight. (Courtesy of iQiyi)

Date: January 19, 2018
BY: Zheping Huang

Last summer, hip-hop finally went mainstream in China thanks to a singing competition, The Rap of China, becoming an unexpected sensation. Problem: The government, not just fans, began paying more attention to the lyrics of Chinese rappers.

The show, a 12-episode series on the online platform iQiyi, garnered some 2.7 billion views (paywall) and turned dozens of young contestants into stars.

Among the celebrities it created is 30-year-old Zhou Yan, better known by his stage name Gai. His soaring popularity led to a recent appearance on The Singer—a music-contest show on one of China’s most popular TV channels—where Gai came in a solid third place competing against British pop star Jessie J and a lineup of veteran Chinese singers. His remake of the theme song to The Swordsman, a 1990 kung-fu flick, became an instant hit on China’s internet after he sang it on the show. “When his voice came out, I felt numbness in my head,” one viewer marveled on Weibo, a Twitter-like social network.

But reports emerged last night that Gai will no longer participate in the show, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) believed to have escalated its crackdown on vulgar rap lyrics. Gai’s staffers confirmed his departure to the news portal Netease (link in Chinese) without providing an explanation. Hunan TV, which airs The Singer, has yet to comment on the matter. Meanwhile the show has pulled Gai’s clips from various platforms, including YouTube.