Hip Hop Heartbeat
While Follow Your Heart: China's New Youth Movement showcases premier artists and provides useful statistics, the documentary barely scratches the surface when it comes to what makes hip hop in China an interesting movement to study.
Published: Friday, May 22, 2009
Depending on the audience, producer/director Duncan Jepson and co-director Ed Bean's Follow Your Heart: China's New Youth Movement can be revelatory, repetitive, or somewhat saccharine. To most viewers, it's more likely to be the first. China's social dynamic still remains a mystery despite more overall coverage of its political and economic development by major media outlets. There are gaps in the average foreign viewer's understanding of today's Chinese society. Contemporary Chinese development couched in a modern cultural framework like Hip Hop, with occasional mention of modern Chinese history, can be palatably educational.
In defense of Jepson and Bean, they took on a difficult task of not only trying to capture a part of the Chinese population that already receives scant mainstream coverage, but also providing a window on Hip Hop in China. It may be the awareness of these knowledge gaps that compelled the filmmakers to set up the documentary like a sophisticated marketing research report, at times with a Hallmark slant. Statistics on consumptive habits of Chinese youth flashed intermittently while marketing experts from such brands as Motorola, Pepsi, Dior, and Universal share their assessment of Chinese youth as being bolder and more individualistic than previous generations. The stats and marketing experts' opinions placed alongside the interviews of the main subjects lead viewers to believe that Hip Hop is the major lifestyle choice for most Chinese youth. The underlying message is that the battle to capture the youth market has only just begun, and though no one has perfected the formula quite yet, Hip Hop is the answer. The irony is that showing data on the consumption of Hip Hop as images and products undermine the message of it as an organic youth movement.
Follow Your Heart is saved by the main interviewees, shrewdly chosen to extol their passion for Hip Hop. The main narrative threads embody what Afrika Bambaataa first deemed as the tenets of Hip Hop culture: DJing, MCing, B-boying, and Graffiti Writing. They're composed of Guangdong graffiti artist Sic, Beijing's MC Webber, DJ LJ hailing from Guiyang, and Shanghainese DJ V-Nutz née Gary Wang as well as Dragon Dance Studio owner Stanly Wang.
DJ V-Nutz is in many ways a guardian of Old School Hip Hop, preferring it over what's currently popular in the mainstream. He practices the principle of Hip Hop as a community to the fullest tilt, setting up a turntable-oriented studio called The Lab that he keeps open to public practice. MC Webber on the other hand slips into the role of social commentator, questioning at one point why China is frequently accused of being imitators. Sic poses meaningful inquiries as to why art made by Chinese artists needed to be distinguished with overtly "Chinese" characteristics, as if Chineseness can be delineated into a few superficial traits. Echoing testimonials oft heard, Stanly Wang recalls that dance saved his life as a troubled youth. As passionate as they are about their chosen art form, they're neither dimensionalized by it, nor bogged by any seemingly incongruence of having a Chinese upbringing and Hip Hop pursuits. They are simply exercising their birthright as the Post-Reform generation -– one that is born in both a forward-looking China and a truly interconnected world.
Interestingly, they each also personify a particular parallel between Hip Hop's relatively more recent development in China vs. its evolution in the US. Questions of authenticity, access, ownership, and social perceptions are all raised at one point or another by the subjects, only to be quite unfortunately glossed over. Issues that deserved further exploration include the marketization and its concomitant visualization of Hip Hop, how Hip Hop is practiced as a culture versus as a lifestyle fad, or even generational differences beyond the cursory. Instead, the documentary stayed firmly in its titular promise of showing kids following their hearts.
The main subjects unquestionably live out the maxim in the documentary's title. Feeling a sense of personal freedom is one of the most salient and magnetic characteristics of Hip Hop. To suggest that following one's heart is synonymous to Hip Hop and vice versa for most Chinese youth, however, is problematic for several reasons. As some of the interviewees suggested, Hip Hop is not understood in the same context by the majority of Chinese youth. It is considered a healthy lifestyle, as one explained. That is not as thorny until viewed in light of how Hip Hop in China, as portrayed by Jepson and Bean, is largely consumptive and not participatory. The unsaid fact is that their version remains out of reach for many youth from lower economic backgrounds who can't afford to buy the latest fashions or regularly attend Hip Hop events and performances.
Monetary resources, or the lack thereof, highlight the greater issue of access that includes other facets, such as regionality and personal connections. In a few ways similar to the United States, location influences Hip Hop in China. Though indirectly touched upon, it wasn't clear that major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou typically present more opportunities for youth to get in touch with the art, style, and communities. Likewise, the more connected someone is to a community of serious, likeminded individuals, the greater his awareness of Hip Hop grows beyond past gimmicks and novelty. It is in how kids use their creativity to overcome hurdles, like scarcity, that reveal signs of a youth movement in China.
Moreover, the main subjects interviewed by Jepson and Bean are considered some of the premier artists in China. Their dedication and unmistakable love of the culture doesn't reflect the majority, merely the exception. As DJ V-Nutz repeatedly indicated during a group trip to Guizhou, he doubted many audience members at a local club would truly understand what they've been presented with. Indeed, most club-goers gushed about their appreciation of the energy or high Hip Hop gives them, with one guy declaring his love for "blackness." In fact, little time is even spent on establishing the average youth's notion of Hip Hop, their access to it, or their dynamic with the older generation like parents and relatives in the first place. Much emphasis is placed on the accounts of the main subjects and inferences drawn from marketing data. It appears then that many Chinese youth tend to treat Hip Hop like a trend, i.e. sporting its clothes and bopping to its rhythms, but lacking in-depth understanding of Hip Hop as art and culture.
And herein lies the quandary Follow Your Heart fails to consider and consequently neglects to parse through. Now a middle-aged grown-up, Hip Hop in the US is complex and fraught with issues. Notwithstanding problems like fetishization of women to commercial exploitation, or dilution of rap as art, Hip Hop in the States has had time to evolve from its early heyday as a youth movement. As a result, there are historical imprints that serve as both a standard and a reference. In China, however, Hip Hop had little time to develop and then spread at a street level, before corporations started to appropriate it for their own purposes. It is not that commercial involvement is always one-sidedly negative. Without corporate sponsorships and marketing campaigns, the growth of Hip Hop may not have been as extensive in a rather short period of time given the lack of established outlets. It's that Jepson and Bean does not treat corporate presence like the paradox it has become in the development of Hip Hop in China. They leave the final impression that for many Chinese youth their consciousness of Hip Hop is mainly predicated upon name brands and popular music. Whether Jepson and Bean presented enough for this to be considered a youth movement or remain as a marketing trend ultimately depends on the viewer's perception of Hip Hop.
Follow Your Heart: China's New Youth Movement played at this year's Newport Beach Film Festival.