This essay sets out to examine the emerging trend of Chinese rap songs that are rendered in nonstandard local languages or dialects in mainland China in the age of the Internet. It first disputes the common criticism, based on limited data, of Chinese rap as lacking social and political commentary. Through a close reading of rich local-language rap song texts combined with fieldwork interviews, this essay argues that unlike the standard Mandarin-dominated, mainstream popular love songs, local-language rap songs are characterized by strong social messages, which thus enable Chinese youth to construct an alternative subcultural space outside that defined by adult culture and hierarchical institutions. These rap songs employ “vulgar” local language, which is identified as a noninstitutional language that has long been excluded from formal education, to assert an oppositional, counter hegemonic voice against the Chinese education system, high official culture, and mainstream discourse.
Furthermore, rendered in regional languages, these rap songs are infused with distinctive local knowledge and the sensibilities of a specific place. The songs articulate a distinct musicalized, collective local identity for urban youth, by mobilizing the generic convention of hip-hop in representing one’s hood. In most studies of globalization and localization, the local appears to be interchangeable with the national. Yet this study presses the issue of localization further, examining local communities that are contained within the nation-state. From this perspective, the function of the nation-state seems more and more identified with globalization and its concomitant homogenization and centralization. In recent years, these rap songs celebrating locality have joined in a larger movement that promotes the use of local languages in local media to assert the identities of local communities, which have been insufficiently represented in a single Standard Mandarin.
Finally, on one hand, this essay recognizes a dialectical relationship between the global and the local, which do not necessarily pose as cultural polarities but are interpenetrating, interacting, and mutually signifying. However, on the other hand, although local-language rap songs assert the value of pluralism and diversity and defy the characterization of China as a unified, homogenous nation-state, this essay problematizes the local identities constructed through copying and imitation. The eager desire to compete with each other in asserting a local identity might belie a rising anxiety of placelessness in this dramatically globalized world. Therefore, these constructed local identities within nation-state may turn out to be what Stuart Hall calls that more “tricky version of ‘the local’ which operates within, and has been thoroughly reshaped by, ‘the global’ and operates largely within its logic.”