Arts, Culture & Media

Global hit

In its early days, hip hop was confined to New York.

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Today, it's gone global.

An example is rapper Wang Xiaolei.

He's one of the people you'll meet tonight on public TV's "Frontline."

The program is called "Young and Restless in China."

Wang is young and restless...but hip-hop has provided him with an outlet.

Wang: "Hip hop empowered me because I can identify with some of those black people in America. We don't have a good life, but we have to stay optimistic."

Wang has reasons to be optimistic, at least about his career.

He's becoming a player himself in Chinese hip hop.

From Beijing, The World's Mary Kay Magistad has today's Global Hit.


It's not hard to pick out Wang Xiaolei as he strolls up to meet me by a lake in the city. He's got a rangy walk, sagging jeans, a little silver bling on his wrists and fingers and belt buckle, and a baseball cap, turned backwards. On his neck is a big tattoo with the Chinese character "si".

Wang: "It means crazy, restless, not afraid of anything. It means I don't need to think too much, don't need to think about too many regulations. I try to be free."

There's also the fact that the character "si" sounds like the English word "sir." And Wang performs under the name "MC Sir" or, more recently, "China Sir." He likes the idea that his music can bring a taste of China to the hiphop world.

This is Wang's swipe at Chinese materialism. He raps, "I haven't been to America, haven't cruised in a sports car, haven't worn Gucci or loved a beautiful girl. I haven't lived in a mansion, or drunk fine wine. Don't kid yourself. You want this too."

What Wang has now is a cramped room in a ramshackle courtyard house. The room is a bit of a mess - he says it's because he doesn't have a girlfriend. There's a bunkbed - with clothes piled high on the top bunk. There are also a couple of cabinets, bins of CDs, and an impressive computer, microphone and mixing board next to the bed. It seems he could afford a nicer place, but he says, this is a choice he's made.

Wang: "It's cheap to live here, and renting a bigger place would be expensive. For now, I'd rather spend my money on music and other things."

Wang records some of his tracks here in his room. Just a day ago, he says, he met a Taiwanese rapper online. They listened to each other's music, liked it, and promptly did this piece together.

Each recorded his own part, and sent it to the other via the internet to be mixed.

This is a song about longing for a lost love. It's catchy - but I ask Wang what happened to the alienation and sharp social commentary in his earlier work.

Wang: "It is hard to say. Sometimes, when I was younger, I'd feel angry and say so, and afterwards I'd forget about it. If you're standing in the street, you can see many things that could make you angry. But if you don't think about it too much, it's ok. There's a Buddhist poem I like, that goes, "The heart of a human is like a clear mirror. You must always remember to wipe it, and not let dirt curb its bright nature. Actually in this past half year, I''ve realized that much of the anger I felt was just created by myself."

Some of Wang's earlier anger came from his parents' divorce, when he was a kid, from growing up poor with his grandpa in a small town in Hunan province. Wang was looked down on as a teenager by those who were better off. He says hiphop gave him an outlet for his sadness and frustration. He moved to Beijing at age 15 to try to make it as a hiphop artist. He did odd jobs, performed when he could, and worte this song about life in the big city:

Wang raps about cold rooms and cold faces, about lies told and personas transformed. He says, "Serve the People" is now just a slogan, and the pure of heart are hard to find. That was a decade ago. I ask Wang if he's still critical of how China is developing.

Wang: "Actually, honestly, it is not good for me judge anything, because after all, China is so big and there are so many people. It is very difficult to manage and I think it is not easy for China to be the way it is right now. So I still support my government, and I am not very rebellious. I am dissatisfied with some people I meet in society, some people I see, but I am not dissatisfied with our government"

After all, Wang says, there are good things about how China is developing. Some people are making their fortunes almost overnight - just not him, not yet. But he's got plans. His first CD comes out later this year. He started a recording label and has sold it to a Taiwanese company. He wants to start another. He looks to rapper Jay-Z as a model of where he'd like to be in a few years.

Meanwhile, Wang says he's trying to give Chinese hiphop more of a Chinese flavor. In this piece, he sneaks in a sly salute to Daoism.

Wang says, he's not jumping on some nationalistic bandwagon by focusing on things Chinese. It's just that, after years absorbing Western hiphop culture, he has come to embrace who he is, where he is - Chinese in China, at a time of change.

For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.