“Rap music? China? What are they even saying?”
So opens the valley-girl drawl at the start of “Made in China,” in which the Higher Brothers, a defiant foursome from Chengdu, go on to prove that, yes, rap music does exist in China.
Rap and hip-hop have been on the underground music scene for years in China, but Higher Brothers — a largely separate phenomenon from last year’s hit reality television show Rap of China (中国爱嘻哈 Zhōngguó ài xīhā) — have burst onto the international stage with a greater impact than any predecessor. This is thanks in part to the establishment of 88 Rising, a U.S.-based label that represents Asian hip-hop artists in the West.
“Made in China” is all about cultural synthesis. Decked in full red tracksuits, the Higher Brothers play mahjong and rap about how all their possessions are made in China, whilst channeling a distinctly Western flow and switching between English and drawling Sichuanese. For a foreign-language song, it’s done impressively well in the West, clocking nearly 14 million views on YouTube. It helps that the Higher Brothers were the focus of a New Yorker profile about Asian hip-hop earlier this year.
With their dreads and chains, Higher Brothers have been the subject of questions about cultural appropriation. With “Made in China,” however, they confirm that they’re not seeking simply to emulate a Western sound — rather, they are making something distinctly proud and Chinese (the band’s name comes from the Shandong electronics company Haier, which the foursome seek to be as ubiquitous as). They also riff on China’s global prominence: “亚利桑那也有中文课” (Yǎlìsāngnà yěyǒu zhòng wén kè), goes one line — “Even Arizona [university] has Chinese lessons.”
Higher Brothers sold out a North America tour this year, and “Made in China” has a global audience. We at SupChina know it well: it’s the opening track of the Sinica Podcast Network’s China EconTalk show.