It was an ordinary weeknight in Central, Hong Kong’s business and entertainment district. Outside Sound Department, a queue of youthful faces vying to enter the club snaked around the block and out of sight. Based on the sheer number of people, it would have been easy to assume that it was a Saturday. The event was Trap Juice, a hip-hop show "dedicated to all Hongkongers."
Among the artists performing on the bill was Canadian-Japanese artist Txmiyama. Txmiyama’s music is inspired by Hong Kong’s host of socioeconomic issues, such as the lack of affordable housing and the hidden alcohol and drug abuse amongst the city’s depressed but high-functioning workforce.
“I don’t rap about anything I haven’t done or can’t relate to,” he said.
They’re topics that are very relatable for many in Hong Kong.
In his song “5am Minibus,” Txmiyama muses: “7k for a house like a cell/and you really think we out here scared of jail.”
With the Hong Kong minibus as a symbol of working class transport, the song is about making the best out of whatever conditions you find yourself in.
In a tweet criticising the government for not giving hope to the next generation, political activist Joshua Wong, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for his pro-democracy efforts, posted a photo of the lyric spray-painted onto a traffic barrier during the protests that have taken over the city since June 2019.
“We are all from the same city so it is inevitable that our mindsets, lifestyles, and struggles will overlap at some point,” Txmiyama said.
This seems to be particularly true for Hong Kong’s younger generation, for which shared experiences of increasing social and economic marginalisation and outrage at perceived government inaction over the protests become points of convergence.
Since June, anti-government protests stemming from the now withdrawn extradition bill — which would have allowed Hong Kong suspects to be extradited to mainland China — have been a common sight across the city. But after months of demonstrations, Hong Kong’s young protesters still feel like they are not being heard.
Rapping in Cantonese, JB criticises, among other things, the Hong Kong police’s liberal use of tear gas and rubber bullets as well as officers concealing their identification numbers whilst on duty. The song is a public censure of the police for their abuse of power during the protests and their use of excessive force against protesters.
Despite numerous allegations of police using excessive force against protesters, the Hong Kong government has remained firm in its stance against setting up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the allegations.
While Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung has stated that he does not have an opinion poll to explain why there is lingering public anger after the bill’s withdrawal, the responses elicited by the song might be pointing to one of the triggers that he is looking for.
“The whole backbone of [our] songs was just motivational music for outcasts,” he said.
Hip-Hop has always provided a platform for community-building, which is especially important at a time when seemingly the whole city is divided. Most young Hong Kongers are fighting for sovereignty, while older generations are more passive about mainland China’s increasing control.
Those seeking refuge from the months of conflict that have divided the city beyond recognition are able to find community through tracks which articulate shared troubles and frustrations.
“It’s beautiful that music — in any language — can bring so many like-minded people together and bring about a sense of unity and pride,” Txmiyama said.
But there was a time when Hong Kong’s political situation actually threatened its music scene.
At the height of the protests last year, several events like the Rolling Loud and Clockenflap festivals were cancelled due to safety concerns. Music venues all over town were closed too. But instead of further limiting artistic expression, the conflict has actually amplified it, said Kristine Sage, the co-founder of KNOWSTATE, the creators behind an upcoming documentary about Hong Kong’s hip-hop scene.
“I think for most of the youth in Hong Kong, it was the first time our freedom of speech and expression were really threatened. And here’s Hong Kong’s hip-hop scene, a small but inclusive circle of artists and creatives who encompass everything about the culture — speaking up against authority on behalf of the people, articulating the hardships of the youth with a positive call-to-action — it’s what the city needed,” she said.
“Hip-hop created that safe space for the people, by the people, in unsafe circumstances, and that is something no other genre of music could have pulled off at this time.”
Although Sage feels like the city’s scene is still in its infancy, she said that the political climate “shook the youth of Hong Kong,” and made individuality fundamental.
“It has definitely triggered a movement,” she said.
Doughboy sees the rise in hip-hop’s popularity in more socio-economic terms.
“I feel like hip-hop became the most popular genre of music in the world right now because it’s very easy to make.”
He recalled how bands were popular in the past but forming one and finding a place to rehearse is too expensive for the youth today, especially in Hong Kong, where space is limited and rent is notoriously high.
“How the fuck are we going to rent a band room with like five of my other friends and own all these different instruments? That shit is hella expensive.” he said.
“Hip-hop music is mad easy, all you need is a computer and a mic at home in the bedroom.”
Hip-hop has become a widely accessible and popular form of artistic expression under Hong Kong’s prevailing socio-economic conditions and societal atmosphere. For the city’s young people who feel increasingly marginalised, hip-hop is emerging as their collective voice.
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