Pig, Monkey and Monk stand at the edge of a great river. 300 miles wide and stirred with treacherous waves, it would take many years to traverse. Two could hop across with great ease, but they are aware that without those they leave behind, they would be lost once they reach the other side. And then there’s the water demon, elusively leaping from the depths and threatening to cut them up ‘for salted mince.’
They discuss and delegate roles. The pig dives down into the river, clutching his deadly rake. The monkey sits on the bank, guarding the monk and spinning his cudgel impatiently. Still conscious that this is only the beginning, another long and frustrating battle commences to continue their voyage westwards.
The novel Journey to the West seems to be a seminal children’s book in China. The story is about four companions who are bound together in a voyage to recover sacred scrolls from Buddha. There is a lot of bickering and emotional navigation between the characters of Journey to the West, and yet they do indeed make it West. It’s comprises of a series of beautiful parables about the niggling stresses of working together and what pushing through these dysfunctional pairings can accomplish.
This is why the members of Chinese rap-crew Higher Brothers attached their own mythology to this work. Their recent American tour and EP was named after the novel. In an interview, Psy.P explains how each member of the group has been allocated a character from the tale. MaSiWei is the monk, the leader who guides the group to their destination. DZknow is the pig, licentious and the largest member of the group, something that he enthusiastically rolls with. Melo is the monkey, irreverent and animal-loving (he worked in a zoo). And finally, there is Psy.P, who describes himself as Sand, the stern ‘organiser.’
Last year, Higher Brothers released the album ‘Five Stars’ as one of the select acts on the boutique label 88-rising. It’s jumping-around music, centred around the singular theme of turning the space between your earphones into a pogoing mosh-rave. They named their world tour after Journey to the West. They are clearly straining at the bit to break it big in the US. In many ways they already have.
The ‘group journey’ story conjures a romantic and invigorating mythology. But journeys are rarely so linear.
The hip-hop act is based out of Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province. This too is mythological rich: Sichuan means ‘four rivers’ in Chinese. Hemmed off geographically by its mountain ranges and the Yangzi River, it has a rich history of independent rule and rebellion during state intrusion. It is also a history of extreme highs and lows. From the strategic position it is said to have held during the Qing dynasty to receiving the highest death-count of the Chinese famines of Mao’s leadership, Sichuan has experienced both a central position in Chinese policy and crushing poverty.
Sichuan province has had a seedling rap scene since the 90s, which Higher Brothers have helped cultivate into something international. Five Years extends a hand to this longer tradition of rap in the Sichuan region. It features tracks that embrace the boom-bap that veteran artist Kafe Hu was rapping over. Kafe Hu is a rapper with underground sensibilities:
‘If you go to a museum and look at a painting and say, “what is this trying to represent?”, then you won’t get the meaning, no matter how hard you try. Why not look at rap like we do paintings? To me, rap is a form of art. And if that’s the case, sometimes you don’t need to understand the lyrics.’
I find this fascinating because it’s the non-English speaker’s love affair with rap. You pick up scraps of words and the rest melds together into interlocking patterns. I understand scraps of Higher Brothers lyrics. They are rapping for the most part in Sichuan dialect. Official dialect in Sichuan differs from Mandarin in varying ways, most predominantly in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.
What does a journey to the west involve? It is in part leaving something behind, in part bringing something with you. In the case of modern international politics, these do not necessarily fit neatly together.
Towards the end of last year, Chinese rappers started posting on social media in support of the Hong Kong police. DZ Know and Melo joined the sudden clamour of government support, with Melo stating “Hong Kong has been part of China’s territory since ancient times, you dumbasses should recognize your ancestors and origins”. All the posts have eerily similar pictures attached.
Leaving to one side this dubious political stance, this acts to highlight how rap fits into the promoted values of the CCP. Chinese rapper PG One came under attack last year for his chosen means of expression, described by the official Xinhua news agency as “using gutter oil to cook food.” For any follower of rap, this criticism is familiar fodder. What followed was also familiar, although far more severe than instances in other countries — a series of pop-culture restrictions coming straight from the state. This ban included broadcasting tattoo-artists, hip-hop culture and “funeral culture,” translated by ‘papermag’ as “decadent culture.” All of these seem to place Higher Brothers in a trepidatious position.
Nevertheless, the Chinese rap group have snuck underneath a large portion of these censorship regulations. This could have something to do with China’s tangled approach to censorship, and its conflicting nature in general. Studies of censorship divide it into three sections: social, technological and political. Social relates to pressures to conform to censorship. Technological is the barriers up to prevent you finding information online. Political is the Looking at each individually reveals why banning rap isn’t necessarily the best idea for the CCP.
Socially, the backlash to restrictions on rap were large. Forums were rapidly flooded with angry young Chinese rap fans, clamouring that this ban on rap was, amongst other things, ‘childish’.
On the technological level, studies of internet censorship by Harvard University in 2012 emphasise that online censorship in China happens in ‘bursts,’ dictated by those actively censoring content in breach of state restrictions. Those employed to censor dictate its frequency and direction. In other words, those employed to censor dictate its frequency and direction. And research demonstrates that most of the material restricted by censors is material relating to the censors themselves. Equally, knowledge of how censors operate have allowed online communities to circumnavigate the gaze of censors by using homophones and homographs of flag-words. Even with China cutting off the broadcast of rap, online communities in which modern rap thrives can still function.
Finally, rap music could be politically good for the CCP. There’s a hometown pride baked into hip-hop. Unfortunately, this also plays neatly into nationalist spiel. Or as Kool AD raps ‘“All I care about is money and the city that I’m from,” that’s dumb/Isn’t that exactly like the Tea Party platform?’ So when Higher Brothers rapped about ‘WeChat,’ the protectionist Chinese social media app, it also resembles a puffed-out chest of national pride. And as China expands into Europe through it’s One Belt One Road project, it is becoming harder to separate these declarations of nationalism from a push from the CCP to spread Chinese cultural capital.
And yet, it feels disingenuous and crass to characterise Higher Brothers as tools of Chinese expansion. They are also artists, artists that are completely enamoured with all the accoutrements of trap music. In an otherwise great profile in Vice, Lauren Teixeira worries about how they are going to communicate opening a mosh-pit up to US fans. Their song ‘Open it up’ feels like a definitive response written before the fact. The English that all the group, apart from MaSiWei, seem most familiar with are the affectations of a certain kind of trap-rap culture: the bass-line-bludgeoning, lazy triplets, and the often restricted topics.
Their sophomore record came out this year, and it’s more fun than a lot of American trap albums. They pick the genre up and sprint with it, spending most of the project lobbing splat-heavy linguistic meringue-pies around. It’s a tactile use of language, putting together little snippets of English and Sichuanese based simply on what sounds good. “My life is so beautiful/But she say I don’t know what I’m talking about” could mean anything. It sounds amongst the linguistic fray like an emo-trap reference/comedic throwaway about suddenly transitioning to rapping in English. It’s messy but so clear that they love what they’re doing, and they love themselves doing it.
Their use of English is all the more impressive considering the studies written on the difficulty that Sichuan speakers possess when learning to speak the foreign language. Due to divergent rules of pronunciation regarding voiced consonants (there are only six in Sichuan), the dialect’s litany of diphthongs, long and short vowel sounds and a further colourful cast of linguistic pitfalls, speaking English can be a struggle.
Higher Brothers also seem to be the voice for some cultural rebellion rising up within China. Teixeira writes about how their music resembles a rebellion against the stringent social expectations placed upon Chinese citizens from a young age. There’s a question here about the cultural influence of America as well as China: is there an infiltration of soft power sneaking under China’s rigid state structure? Trap music’s face tattoos, drug chat and louche sexual braggadocio seems very much at odds with the Chinese state’s ideals. 88-rising is very visibly an American entity, and the artists perpetuate this. MaSeWei has a McDonalds tattoo on his neck.
There are many ways to present the story of the Higher Brothers’. American vs Chinese soft power, the voice of a neglected province, the connective power of music. The greatest through-line revolves around conflicts of mythology. They want to tie themselves to a larger story in the world, whether that is the ancient myth of a Journey to the West, a seemingly compassionate state or modern American rap’s gooey rave culture. Let’s hope they can continue their own journey and are embroiled by someone else’s.
 The Tea Party seems almost cosy now in hindsight… Also a big fuck you to Drake, Canada’s greatest bulk exporter of sponge, who originally rapped the first line.
NON-ENGLISH RAP SHOUT_OUT:
Apparently the title of this song means ‘anger/lust/rage.’ You can feel it. The chorus hits that infamous pitch of auto-tune that turns the inside of your brain kaleidoscopic.