Hoklo Hip-Hop: Resignifying Rap as Local Narrative Tradition in Taiwan
- CHINOPERL: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature
- University of Hawai'i Press
- Volume 33, Number 1, July 2014
- pp. 37-59
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HOKLO HIP-HOP: RESIGNIFYING RAP AS LOCAL NARRATIVE TRADITION IN TAIWAN MEREDITH SCHWEIG Massachusetts Institute of Technology1 Since Hoklo-language rap music first emerged in Taiwan just after the end of martial law in the late 1980s, it has drawn comparisons to the musical narrative genre li am-kua 唸歌 (song reading/songs with narration),2 which is widely regarded as one of Taiwan’s most representative shuochang 說唱 (speakingsinging ) arts.3 Although different in their formal and functional particulars, rap and li am-kua share a number of similar features, including a storytelling ethos, a fundamentally improvisatory nature, and the use of speech-song vocal techniques. Moreover, artists working in both genres have typically deployed the narrative form as a vessel for social critique, communicating complex and sometimes controversial messages through allegory and metaphor, as well as through musical sound. In this article, I explore how predominantly Hoklo-language rappers in Taiwan have capitalized on these commonalities, resignifying an ostensibly foreign art form as a logical extension, or perhaps continuation, of local cultural tradition. I argue that, beyond adapting rap to local specificities, they posit li am-kua as a grassroots project in which they are simply the newest in a long line of participants. I work from data collected over eighteen months of fieldwork, during which I was based in Taipei but traveled frequently to other parts of the island to speak with performers and observe performances. The core of the paper focuses on 1 The author gratefully acknowledges the support of fellowships and grants from the US Department of Education (Fulbright-Hays), the Asian Cultural Council, the Harvard Fairbank Center, and the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. 2 The music that I am referring to as ‘‘rap’’ is glossed variously in Taiwan as xiha 嘻哈 (‘‘hiphop ’’), raoshe 饒舌 (‘‘rhapsodizing tongue’’), and, as this article explores, li am-kua 唸歌 (‘‘songs with narration’’). Which term an artist or audience member employs depends to some extent on their perspective on rap’s historical development and aspects of performance practice. Xiha invokes an ethos with roots in Afro-diasporic cultural practice and emphasizes Taiwan’s location in the global circulation of hip-hop culture. Raoshe frames rap as a musical technique demanding verbal agility of its performers and foregrounds the early deployment of rap by artists identified not with hip-hop but with rock and folk genres. 3 A brief note regarding orthography: This text includes terms in both Mandarin and Hoklo languages. Mandarin terms are romanized in pinyin while Hoklo terms are romanized according to the Pèh- oe-j ı system. The latter are easily distinguished from the former by the use of diacritics and hyphens. I romanize personal and band names according to the Pinyin system, except in cases where the person or group in question is known by an alternative spelling (e.g., ‘‘Tyzen Hsiao’’ rather than ‘‘Xiao Tairan’’). For authors with Sinitic names writing in English, I provide only their preferred personal name spelling and no Chinese characters. For authors writing in Chinese who professionally use non-pinyin romanization for their personal names, I include that romanization and Chinese characters. CHINOPERL: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature 33.1 (July 2014): 37–59 # The Permanent Conference on Chinese Oral and Performing Literature, Inc. 2014 DOI: 10.1179/0193777414Z.00000000016 three artists/performance groups who have been broadly influential within and beyond the rap scene over the course of the last two and a half decades: Blacklist Workshop (Heimingdan gongzuoshi 黑名單工作室), Jutoupi (Zhutoupi 豬頭皮), and Kou Chou Ching (Kao qiu qing 拷秋勤). Drawing on interviews with these artists and close readings of selected songs, I reveal li am-kua as a powerful sonic and symbolic presence in their work, as well as a critical cultural touchstone guiding their storytelling practices. In concentrating on the works of predominantly Hoklo-language rappers, which have been embraced more by local than transnational audiences, I attend to the ways the music has emerged from and responded to specifically local needs.4 In particular, I interpret musicians’ efforts to forge a connection between rap and li am-kua in the context of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century attempts to resolve longstanding tensions between proponents of modernist (xiandai pai...