She's one of China’s up-and-coming female rappers who found a national audience as a runner-up on China’s The Rap of China hip-hop competition, but VaVa is more than just a reality TV star.
It is an odd neighbourhood we’re in. ‘Odd’ as in different: the area is upscale, quiet; so far removed from the populous municipality that is Shanghai. And by that same token, this neighbourhood’s resident—whom we are picking up—isn’t cut from the same cloth as the rest of the inhabitants. For one, she’s dressed in a trench coat, skinny black jeans, red hoodie and silver boots (both Balenciaga) and topped with a red cap that’s lowered like she’s trying to shield her identity but through the extravagance of her attire. And two, she’s an up-and- coming rapper in a country that has thrown a book at the genre of music her and her peers are engaged in.
Perhaps ‘up-and-coming’ isn’t an entirely accurate descript for MC VaVa (real name Mao Yanqi). Three years in the music scene and VaVa was the only female and one of the final four contestants on the popular The Rap of China and released an album called 21 last year. Despite the Ministry of Culture’s crackdown on the supposed ills of rap culture, VaVa’s popularity hasn’t waned. In between the photo shoot, VaVa gamely poses for selfies with fans. Her acclaim can only grow from here. She has what people refer to as tái fēng, stage presence. When the spotlight is on her, she puts on her game face as you can tell in this spread. Off- camera, she’s like you and me, living out her hopes and fears; VaVa, who lives with a stray dog she adopted off the streets; VaVa, who worries about tsunamis while vacationing in Bali.
This is VaVa. This is her rhyme and reason for what she does.
How did the name VaVa come about?
When I was little, I was a bit chubby; I had a baby face (wá wa liăn). So, when I had to choose an English [rap] name, I thought I’d choose a name people would remember, and opted for one that sounds like ‘baby face’.
There’s an article that said you formed a short-lived girl group after listening to SHE’s album, Girl’s Dorm. Have other performers influenced you musically?
The singer who gave me the biggest influence, that made me obsessive for this music, has to be Jay Chou. His song ‘Nunchucks’ was hot back when I was in primary school. That was the first time I heard this rap-style of music. I thought it sounded really cool. Back then I already loved music and wanted to make my own, but I never imagined I’d be a musician one day. Other than Jay, I really like Rihanna. She’s got such a cool style. Oh, and I really like the British rapper Little Simz, who has a great flow.
Why choose this style of music?
Hip-hop feels very free to me. You can say what you like, it doesn’t have to be limited to love or relationships, like most pop songs are. There are other emotions to tap into, more directions you can take with your music.
Like what you did with your song, ‘Life’s a Struggle’. It was emotional hearing it when you rapped about your mom.
Yes, she taught me differently from other parents. She was always more open-minded. I was a strong-willed child with a lot of opinions and she always supported me. I’ll give you an example: parents won’t let their kids do their own thing, but my mother gave me autonomy. When I was 16, I told my mom I didn’t want to go to school anymore and she didn’t force me to continue like other parents might. She just let me drop out of school to follow my own path.
What does she think of your success?
She completely doesn’t understand what I’m doing. She still likes the music from her youth. Every time I play a rap song for her, she tells me she doesn’t understand this. She’s supportive of me of course. She watches me perform, but afterwards she just says, ‘I’m old, I don’t understand you kids’. She’s only in her 40s so she’s not really old, but she just doesn’t like rap music. It’s probably a generational thing. I wrote ‘Life’s a Struggle’ based on my own experiences. She had a strong influence on me and I wanted to write this emotion down as a tribute to her. Even though she never said so, I’m sure she was moved when she heard it.
After dropping out of school, what did you do?
I started singing in bars in Chengdu, where I’m from. I was still learning and didn’t know how to make this my profession, so I sang covers. If I sang my own songs, I would get in trouble because back then they didn’t allow hip-hop songs. When I was singing in the bar, I saw the others were just doing it as a job; they were just drinking and singing, they had no passion for it. But I was making my own music so I left Chengdu and travelled around China. In the end I chose to stay in Shanghai because it’s conducive for making music. Not like Beijing; it’s too noisy and I have a lot of friends there, who are always calling me to hang out. I like to create in complete silence in my own room. I like to be in solitude, in a quiet environment to make music. Swimming is very helpful for me. Especially if I can’t find inspiration or ideas, I go swimming and it helps.
We need to put more Chinese elements into our music. Already some rappers abroad are inserting Chinese elements into their music, like Migos with the inclusion of Mahjong in 'Stirfry'.
Let’s talk about your music… are social issues important to it?
Every rapper’s style is different, some will write about social issues. It depends on your thoughts. I sometimes write about social issues. Some rappers are more critical [about things] and before that I had a more critical voice, but these days I feel that is shifting. I now want to write music that speaks to everyone. Now I’m more attentive to what I write.
Are Chinese hip-hop and American hip-hop connected?
Hip-hop comes from the US, and let’s be honest here, we’re really just copying their style, but, in a sense, we are connected. We’re still finding our way, still creating and finding our own Chinese style of hip-hop. We need to put more Chinese elements into our music. Already some rappers abroad are inserting Chinese elements into their music, like Migos with the inclusion of mahjong in ‘StirFry’.
You spoke in another interview about how Chinese hip-hop is copying American black culture. How is copying a good thing?
I mean [hip-hop] isn’t our thing, it’s someone else’s. [But] you’ll have to copy it first to be able to create something original and make it your own. Just like an American might come to China and learn Peking Opera.
American hip-hop has grown out of the African American struggle. So where does Chinese hip-hop come from?
Chinese hip-hop comes from rebellion in young people’s lives. I realised all my rapper friends went through a period of insurgency and that’s when they started rapping. The generation before us were rockers, but today, we use rap to express ourselves.
PG One, who came under fire from the government for lyrics glorifying drugs, sex and the pursuit of wealth, apologised for his music and said it was due to African American cultural influence. What do you make of that?
That statement wasn’t very logical. I think [the] problems stem from his personal values and how the Chinese government perceives said values.
Rap and hip-hop in China isn’t as free as before, and it’s gotten some negative flak from the government. Some musicians have changed their style or lyrics because of this to avoid the censors.
Well, you know the old Chinese saying: wise men suit their actions to the times they are living in. To make rap and hip-hop [flourish] in China, we have to toe the Chinese party line. This is important because we’re living in a different environment here. Like when KFC first opened in China, they localised and have special dishes, like their Peking Duck roll.
The Chinese government has painted rap as all about glorifying drugs and money, bad things. Is that how you understand hip-hop?
No, I think hip-hop helps us to express our innermost emotions and thoughts about how we understand the world we’re living in. Good and bad people are everywhere, but each person can choose how they express themselves and their values.
It’s a bit strange how the government seems to criticise hip-hop but then at the same time, it uses rap and hip-hop in its propaganda like what CD Rev has done with ‘This is China’.
It does seem a little conflicting. To be honest, these days there are some rappers in China whose lyrics [could create] problems. Before rap wasn’t as popular as it is now, and not as many people were paying attention to us. But now there’s a lot of attention on rap, and we have a lot of young fans who idolise us and put us on a pedestal. Before I wasn’t restrained in my lyrics, but now I’m aware that I have young fans and I know they will be influenced by what I say, so I now think that changing my lyrics a bit is the responsible thing to do.
Some rappers like Xie Di and others are a little over the top in their lyrics, like rapping about being against foreigners.
Personally, I really like Xie Di’s music and how he expresses himself. I think he’s great.
Are you worried about any impact of censorship on your music on the Internet?
I’m not so worried because my lyrics don’t have so many swear words in them. My live shows are okay, just that some of my lyrics may have an issue with the censor, but not so much.
What’s the real issue then?
Maybe they’re making a new standard, it’s a way for them to fix what they see as a problem. And a time for people to correct themselves.
How has this impacted you though?
I’m not as busy as before but that’s okay, I’m doing what I need to do. I may not be going on TV as much as I was before when I was on The Rap of China, but now I’m focused on making music. I think this crackdown on rap is short-term because young people like rap. There’s really no way to control it now.
Have you thought of changing up your style at all?
No, I’m sticking to this. But I’m taking singing lessons now because just like other rappers, they also sing in their songs. There’s no conflict with rap. This year my goal is to win a Golden Melody Award, which is this huge music award in China.
Do you want your music to go global?
Actually, my music is already global. I just returned from a gig in Toronto, Canada. I didn’t realise it before but one day I went on YouTube and found that I had a lot of listeners from all over the world. Lots of people are talking about one of my songs that is popular in France. They don’t know the meaning of the lyrics, but they like the Chinese-style elements in the music. It’s like Chinese fans who like foreign music; we don’t understand the lyrics but we like the style. They think it sounds cool. My English is just so-so but I’m learning the language now because I want to do more shows abroad.
Photography by Ronald Leong
Styling by Eugene Lim