Song King

New Publication
Song King: Connecting People, Places, and Past in Contemporary China
Author: Gibbs, Levi S.
University of Hawai’i Press, 2018

When itinerant singers from China’s countryside become iconic artists, worlds collide. The lives and performances of these representative singers become sites for conversations between the rural and urban, local and national, folk and elite, and traditional and modern. In Song King: Connecting People, Places, and Past in Contemporary China, Levi S. Gibbs examines the life and performances of “Folksong King of Western China” Wang Xiangrong (b. 1952) and explores how itinerant performers come to serve as representative symbols straddling different groups, connecting diverse audiences, and shifting between amorphous, place-based local, regional, and national identities. Moving from place to place, these border walkers embody connections between a range of localities, presenting audiences with traditional, modern, rural, and urban identities among which to continually reposition themselves in an evolving world. Continue reading

Underground club music thriving against the odds

Source: Fact Magazine (3/4/18)
How underground club music in China is thriving against the odds

Image via: Arkham Shanghai

Underground club music in China is faced with a number of unique challenges, from internet censorship to police crackdowns and rising rents. But thanks to a dedicated and diverse range of artists, promoters, broadcasters and DJs, alternative culture is thriving in 2018. April Clare Welshspeaks to some of the hard-working movers and shakers keeping the scene alive against the odds. Scroll down to the end for a SoundCloud playlist.

It’s not easy being an underground club music fan in communist China. Internet censorship blocks access to major western music sites including SoundCloud, YouTube and Spotify and the live scene is up against escalating rents, strict building regulations and police raids. But since its beginnings in the late ‘90s, clubbing in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan has provided plenty of alternative spaces for electronic music adventurers, with a constant stream of artists, producers, broadcasters and label heads pushing things forward. Continue reading

Seeking sources for Sound Ethnographies class

Hello Colleagues,

A artist/filmmaker friend and I are creating a new class, “Sound Ethnographies of China” here at NYU Shanghai, and we’d love your suggestions for reading and listening assignments for our students as they collect sounds and interviews and edit them into audio ethnographies. Possible themes include salvage ethnography, form/content, structures of feeling experienced through sound, and STS. Are you familiar with (accessible) sound archives, good folklore studies, or writings on sound culture on China? Please get in touch. We are particularly interested in sound art: early recordings of music or theater, or writings on any period focusing on sound art (music, theater, film/TV, sound-based installation and performance art).

Thanks for thinking with us!

Leksa Lee
Assistant Professor Faculty Fellow, NYU Shanghai

Tan Dun’s Passacaglia

Source: CBC Radio (2/8/18)
Why this Toronto conductor wants you to keep your cellphone on during the show

Toronto Esprit Orchestra music director Alex Pauk will conduct both the musicians and the audience during an interactive performance called Plug In.

Toronto Esprit Orchestra music director Alex Pauk will conduct both the musicians and the audience during an interactive performance called Plug In. ( Bo Huang/Toronto Esprit Orchestra)

When Alex Pauk appears on stage to conduct an orchestra on Sunday evening, he’ll turn to face the audience instead of the musicians.

Then he’ll do something even stranger — ask the spectators to take out their phones and turn them on.

Continue reading

Hip hop ban not about hip hop

Like so many things in China, the trouble with hip hop is its popularity–its ability to draw a crowd.–Anne Henochowicz  <>

Source: Magpie Digest (1/25/18)
China’s Hip Hop Ban is Not Really About Hip Hop
This is issue #9 of the Magpie Digest newsletter, originally sent on 1/25/2018

Co-champions of Rap of China, GAI and PG One

On January 18th, Rap of China co-champion GAI was abruptly pulled from the celebrity-studded entertainment reality TV show 歌手 (“The Singer”) right before the second episode aired, despite a wildly successful performance the week before. The next day, Sina Entertainment reported that his hasty removal from the show was likely due to a broader governmental crackdown on “countercultural content” on television. Continue reading

Hip-hop culture faces crackdown

Source: BBC News (1/24/18)
China’s fledgling hip-hop culture faces official crackdown
By Beijing bureau, BBC News

Rap of China poster

Image copyrightIQIYI. PG One was the first of China’s A-list rappers to fall from grace

Last summer, a reality show called The Rap of China took the country by storm.

The show brought hip-hop music from the underground into the limelight and made it a multi-million dollar business. Several of the top contestants shot to stardom.

In the past few weeks, however, things took a surprising turn and the buzzing hip-hop scene was quickly muzzled.

It all started with PG One, one of the two rappers who won The Rap of China. He was accused of having an affair with a married celebrity. Continue reading

Chinese composers with an ear to the world

Source: NYT (1/12/18)
Chinese Composers With an Ear to the World

Joel Sachs conducting the New Juilliard Ensemble. Mr. Sachs is the founder and organizer of Juilliard’s annual Focus! festival, concentrating this year on contemporary Chinese music. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

What makes Chinese music Chinese? After a century of revolution and change, how do contemporary Chinese composers understand and reflect their heritage, even as they try to connect with global audiences?

These are questions that get to the heart of a musical culture that remains largely veiled to American listeners. The Juilliard School’s annual Focus! festival of new composition is trying to pull aside that veil, to make the world of music a bit smaller. With “China Today,” a series of six free concerts from Jan. 19 to 26, the school is avoiding traditional Chinese instruments and foreign-based composers, choosing instead to concentrate on Chinese artists living and working in their own country, and using the same instrumental forces as those in the United States and Europe. Continue reading

PG One under fire

Source: Sup China (1/4/18)
PG One Under Fire For Lyrics Glorifying Drugs, Sex, And The Pursuit Of Wealth
Rapper’s song “Christmas Eve” is denounced by the Communist Youth League for promoting drug use and insulting women.
By Jiayun Feng

Wang Hao 王昊, aka PG One, one of China’s best-known rappers, who rose to fame this year on the hit show The Rap of China, issued an apology on January 4 after one of his old songs, “Christmas Eve,” was criticized for its dark lyrics.

The backlash started when some internet users complained on Weibo that the song contains “degrading and out of line” lyrics. The Communist Youth League made a post (in Chinese) on its official Weibo account to criticize the song for “encouraging teenagers to use drugs” and “insulting women.”

Read the rest of the essay, with its many images and video clips, here.

Spending on music in China

Source: Sup China (9/14/17)
China’s per capita spending on music is $0.15, only 0.7 percent that of Japan’s
By Jiayun Feng

“We didn’t pay for music, but we watched ads. I think it’s quite fair.”

“I am appalled by those comments questioning why we should pay for the music we listen to. I know most Chinese have a low level of intellectual property consciousness, but it’s still sad to see that many people have zero respect for musicians and their works. They are not obliged to provide free music for you. Today, you enjoy pirated music and generations after us will have no good Chinese songs to listen to as a result.”

Music tastes of Chinese individuals are very alike — primarily cheesy and insubstantial love songs with hook-laden melodies. Yet as the two comments above indicate, opinions are significantly divided (in Chinese) as to whether music listeners should pay for the products they consume, a poignant question raised by a recent report (in Chinese) from the Communication University of China in Beijing, which reveals the alarming status of China’s digital music industry. Continue reading

Higher Brothers rap their way to the top

Source: Nylon (8/29/17)
Higher Brothers Are Rapping Their Way To The Top Of The Chinese Music Scene
Get to know the group

Higher Brothers Are Rapping Their Way To The Top Of The Chinese Music Scene


The following feature appears in the September 2017 issue of NYLON Guys.

On the surface, the origin story of rap foursome Higher Brothers sounds rather typical: friends cut a mix tape, start touring, find success. But remove that narrative from the context of Atlanta, Los Angeles, or New York and transplant it into central China, and suddenly it doesn’t feel so familiar. Needless to say, China is not necessarily known as a bastion of free expression, let alone as a hotbed of hip-hop, but Higher Brothers have not let that discourage them. In the past year and a half, the group—made up of Masiwei, DZKnow, Psy.P, and Melo—has released two mixtapes and gone on three countrywide tours. Now they have their sights set globally.

“We wanna go to America, let the world know us,” says Masiwei, in English, via WeChat, China’s all-encompassing social medium. He’s flanked by his bandmates and Lana Larkin, a master’s candidate from U.C. Berkeley who is their translator and longtime friend, as well as an anthropologist. Does your crew roll with an anthropologist? Didn’t think so. Continue reading

Helen Feng on the future of music

Source: Sixth Tone (9/1/17)
Helen Feng on the Future of Music and Everything Else
Nova Heart frontwoman talks commercialization, community, and China’s music culture.
By Kenrick Davis

Nova Heart performs in Beijing, Nov. 8, 2013. Courtesy of FakeMusicMedia

Singer, VJ, promoter, music critic, event and tour manager — Helen Feng has worn many hats in China’s music industry since she first came to Beijing from the U.S. in 2002. Described by media as the “Blondie of China” and the “Queen of Beijing Rock,” the Beijing-born artist is perhaps best known as the lead vocalist for rock group Nova Heart, which was the first Chinese band to perform at U.K. music festival Glastonbury and is now working on a second album. Continue reading

Chinese rocker’s thermos

Source: Sixth Tone (8/24/17)
Chinese Rocker’s Thermos Becomes Viral Symbol of Aging
Commentary in Party paper People’s Daily reminds readers to always look on the bright side of life.
By Kendrick Davis

Left: Zhao Mingyi plays the drums during a concert in 2003. Cheng Gong/IC; right: The viral photo of Zhao holding his thermos at a recording studio in 2017. From his Weibo account

Left: Zhao Mingyi plays the drums during a concert in 2003. Cheng Gong/IC; right: The viral photo of Zhao holding his thermos at a recording studio in 2017. From his Weibo account

The humble thermos — a must-have item for tea-sipping middle-aged Chinese — may seem an unlikely viral sensation, but a photo of an aging rock star holding such a bottle recently sparked wide discussion on social media about aging, midlife crises, and fear of the future.

In the widely circulated photo sits Zhao Mingyi, the 50-year-old drummer for the iconic ’90s rock band Black Panther. Once a muscular man, Zhao’s hair is now graying, he has a slight paunch, and — to complete the picture of middle age in its most distilled form — he holds a silver thermos. In his heyday during the early 1990s, however, Zhao was part of the generation of rockers who gave an energetic voice to China’s economic revival. Continue reading

The stifled desires behind Acrush

Source: The New Yorker (7/1/17)
The Stifled Desires Behind Acrush, the Chinese Boy Band Made Up of Five Girls
By Jiayang Fan

The forces underlying Acrush’s gender fluidity are more complicated than they might appear from outside China. Courtesy YouTube

Just when you thought the boy-band phenomenon had finally run its course (in how many more directions can One Direction go?), a Chinese iteration goes and renovates the form. At first blush, the five members of Acrush (the “A” stands for Adonis, the Greek god of male beauty) resemble the prototypical Simon Cowell-culled group: boyishly handsome, impeccably groomed, freakishly flawless in a way that mortal teen-agers typically aren’t. There is, however, one difference. Underneath the leather jackets, Timberland boots, and conspicuously masculine posturing, the group is comprised of five cisgender girls. Continue reading

Godfather of Beijing’s indie music scene

Source: Caixin (6/10/17)
Godfather of Beijing’s Indie Music Scene Dissects China’s Experimental Soundscape
By Malcolm Surer

Michael Pettis is owner and founder of one of China’s biggest indie-rock record companies, Maybe Mars, and a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. Photo: Ma Minhui/Caixin

Michael Pettis is owner and founder of one of China’s biggest indie-rock record companies, Maybe Mars, and a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. Photo: Ma Minhui/Caixin

China’s alternative-punk music scene has evolved from a genre that represented the rebelliousness of a niche group of well-off educated urbanites to one that’s international, hip, and popular. Chinese bands now play to sold-out gigs not only in old “hutong” bars in Beijing, but also at some of the most popular clubs in New York.

The Chinese capital was a rock-free zone until the mid-1980s. But it’s underground music scene today runs the gamut from hip-hop to grunge to noise. Continue reading

China’s hottest ‘boy’ band (1)

Here’s another piece on Acrush.–Kirk

Source: NYT (5/20/17)
The 5 ‘Handsome Girls’ Trying to Be China’s Biggest Boy Band

The women of Acrush at a dance studio in Beijing in April. There are slick boy bands and foxy girl groups, but Acrush seeks to appeal to those who reject gender norms. CreditGilles Sabrié for The New York Times

BEIJING — In a small dance studio in Beijing, the members of China’s newest entry in the national pop-music pageant ran through a sequence of pulsing pelvic thrusts and choreographed crotch grabs.

After a three-minute workout, the group’s leader, Lu Keran, breathlessly asked the band’s manager: “Now can I go to the bathroom?” Continue reading