Black-clad protesters blast it from portable Bluetooth speakers to fire up their spirits as they await the next police offensive. Teenagers in school uniforms and backpacks nod their heads in unison as they chant “fuck the popo!” over and over in shopping malls, words also spray-painted on surfaces across the city, inescapable reminders that this is a city in the throes of social upheaval.
The sound of the summer in Hong Kong this year is without a doubt fuck-the-police rap anthems, in particular “FUCKTHEPOPO,” a two-minute expletive-laden Cantonese rap excoriating the local police force for its brutality over the course of the protests of the last six months. The Cantonese portion of the song’s title, “Diu Gau” (屌狗) refers to the police as “dogs,” the term commonly used by protesters for cops.
Released in June shortly after the start of the protests, rapper JB, a 27-year-old Hong Kong-born rapper (link in Chinese) of Filipino descent, makes multiple references in the song to the events and memes of the protest movement, such as the lasers that police have deemed a dangerous weapon and “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” a hymn which had been deployed by Christians to de-escalate tensions early on in the movement.
In a city where people are normally more attuned to the saccharine notes and romantic platitudes of Cantopop ballads, and where independent artists struggle to survive because of high rents and a lack of space, Hong Kong has exploded with angry creativity since the outbreak of protests in mid-June against a now-shelved extradition bill. As the unrest has dragged on, public fury has snowballed in response to what many see as unbridled police brutality, with no government figure willing to rein in police actions such as the excessive use of tear gas and indiscriminate arrests that number close to 6,000. Because of that, police brutality, a mainstay of rap music in the US, is now finding a welcome and growing audience in Hong Kong.
“It’s not a response we want, we want you to promise. The demands are clear, but you have yet to examine your conscience. Fighting violence with violence, gun barrel to the skull. The only choice is to fight back like a warrior,” raps MC Yan, the 47-year-old frontman of veteran rap group LMF, in another recent hit called “2019” whose lyrics cut with a severity reminiscent of classics of the genre such as NWA’s 1980s anthem “Fuck The Police.”
LMF, short for LazyMothaFucka—seen as the godfathers of the Chinese hip-hop scene—has a long history of producing political music in Hong Kong. The current political climate, however, with many young Hong Kongers seeing the current protests as a life-or-death battle to protect their values from the iron grip of the Chinese Communist Party, is creating an unprecedented level of civic engagement in the local indie music scene.
“We’ve been pushed into a corner now,” said MC Yan. “Now is the time to use your voice to speak out against oppression. You’re not truly an artist unless you fight for your creative space.”
MC Yan’s sentiments reflect the reality that the space for dissent is rapidly shrinking in Hong Kong, where almost all mainstream artists, whether singers or actors, either stay silent on politics or proactively burnish their patriotic credentials in order to maintain access to the lucrative mainland Chinese market. After Hong Kong protesters threw a Chinese flag into the harbor in August, a host of local celebrities took to social media to declare themselves as national “flag bearers.” Others pledge their support to the Hong Kong police.
In mainland China, not only has dissent in the music scene been virtually snuffed out due to severe censorship, but many rappers in fact loudly embrace establishment values. That comes amid intensifying efforts in recent years by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to co-opt different aspects of youth culture to project its propaganda, including rap music, which has been used this year by the party specifically to fuel opposition against the Hong Kong protests.
Rapper VaVa, the star of hit TV show Rap of China, joined hundreds of other celebrities by posting to her Instagram in August, “I support Hong Kong police. They can beat me too. What a shame for Hong Kong.” Rap group Higher Brothers—signed to the Brooklyn-based record label 88rising, known for promoting Asian representation in hip hop—also parroted another common nationalistic refrain on Instagram in August that wrongly frames the protests as an independence struggle: “Hong Kong has been part of China’s territory since ancient times, you dumbasses should recognize your ancestors and origins.”
“Today’s youth culture is held captive by the CCP,” said MC Yan. “The CCP is enslaving minds, distorting reality and telling its young people that they have it all when they don’t. You cannot be a minority in China, you cannot have a minority opinion… That is why we have to fight to preserve Hong Kong’s identity.”
It’s a future that Hong Kong’s artists and other protesters are fighting hard to resist—already, sticking it to the establishment comes with an increasingly dear price in Hong Kong. The composers of “Glory to Hong Kong,” for example—a song that has been adopted by protesters as “Hong Kong’s national anthem“—have remained anonymous to protect their safety, as many participants in the protest movement have come under physical attack.
Similarly, the creators of the English-language rap song “Bauhinia Rhapsody”—which describes chief executive Carrie Lam as a “soulless body” that feeds on the bloody sacrifices of Hong Kong’s people—are known only as “The Hong Kong People.” The creators of the music video, which references Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, have also remained anonymous.
The song, whose title derives from Hong Kong’s official flower, has in a few weeks racked up over 250,000 views on YouTube where it is hashtagged #HongKongPoliceBrutality. The artists said that they have received messages of support from people from mainland China, who admitted that listening to “Bauhinia Rhapsody” changed their minds about the protests. “If that isn’t the spirit of hip hop, I don’t know what the fuck is,” said The Hong Kong People.