The waters of Victoria Harbour are in Hong Kong the border of much more than the one between two lands. They mark the limit of different lifestyles, populations, incomes, architectures, histories, cuisines… Hip-hop does not escape from that split, and when one starts looking into it, it is to realize that there is not one rap scene in Hong Kong but indeed two. Between the Chinese rappers from Kowloon or the New Territories with their rhymes in Cantonese, and the non-Chinese first, or second, or sometimes even third-generation immigrants with theirs rhymes in English or other languages, the gap is real and the connexions – in the manner of the tunnels underneath Victoria Harbour – underground.
It is indeed geographically that the gap can be first seen. ‘Foreign rappers’ tend to hang out on the island, to network, to party, and to perform around Lan Kwai Fong; on the other hand, ‘local rappers’ tend to live in Kowloon or the NT, and to have most of their activity going-on there. The networks also are different from one scene to another. As the overall rap scene is not big, rappers tend to know each other quite well, including the low-key artists who might have released none or few tracks. But if both the foreigners and the locals know their own scene well, rare are the ones who stay very updated about the other scene. It reflects in the line-up of the events. This is not to say that the gap is absolute, there are people who bridge it, but they are few.
Before we go any further, it is important to note that the labels ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ rappers don’t do justice to the diversity of the situation, its people, and of Hong Kong in general. Some of the people labelled as part of the ‘foreign scene’ are born and raised in Hong Kong, speak Cantonese fluently, maybe even as one of their mother tongues, and might be partly, perhaps fully, Chinese… hence are locals in any aspects! These – imperfect – labels really aim at representing an almost exclusively Chinese and Cantonese-rapping scene on one hand, and a multi-cultural and English-rapping scene on the other. Thereby a local of mixed heritage like Danny K will be of the ‘foreign scene’ whereas a Chinese who grew between Canada and Singapore, Dough-Boy, will be of the ‘local one’.
If everyone can see the gap, no one has given me a fully satisfying explanation for it. Wesley Jamison from Xabitat assumes that because of the language barrier, foreigners would tend to listen to rap in English, and Chinese-Hong Kongers to rap in Cantonese. ‘And finding local events when you don’t speak Cantonese can be tough. I also feel that some locals feel that they would not be welcome to an event where there is mostly expats, which to me is untrue’, he added. For Dough-Boy, it is ‘Hong Kong lifestyle, everyone minds their own business. As for collaboration, people are too cool for that’. But does it apply specifically towards foreigners? ‘I’ve spoken to a lot of them before, and they always feel discriminated; which they are not. It is just that their music doesn’t connect with a lot of people here. English doesn’t connect with so many Hong Kongers’, he answered.
Matt Force from WildStyle has the same answer than Dough-Boy: ‘it is Hong Kong’s culture. People are trying really hard to be cool, and we all do so in a very individualistic way’. For his WildStyle acolyte, Grymeman, if competition can be a positive force to boost a scene it is not what Hong Kong needs the most at the moment: ‘When the pond is too small, everyone is trying to be the biggest fish and it is not healthy. It is easier to push someone down than to push the culture further. Right now, it would be more beneficial for us all to be more collaborative’.
Indeed, both scenes seem to have the potential to feed each other. ‘Even though many foreigners in Hong Kong love hip-hop, it is an issue for us to receive support from them only’, says Kemikal Kris from Xabitat. ‘Foreigners in Hong Kong all end up leaving. They come, have a great time, and they go; you lost your crowd. Because we are too disconnected from the local crowd, we have to perpetually re-build an audience’. As for the rappers of the local scene, the benefit lays in the opportunity to showcase themselves. Because of the scattered scene, few companies see a market in the organization of massive rap events. The result is that hip-hop events usually are DJ sets, and rarely 100% rap. Kemikal Kris has a clear opinion on the subject: ‘Put this in your magazine: I don’t know what the fuck are the hip-hop DJs up to in here. They need to work. They play songs that are like… too young to be classics and too old to be recent! People go out to listen to nice hip-hop and have fun and they always come back disappointed’. ‘We have to organize our own events if we really want to perform’, adds Wesley Jamison, ‘and because we are well connected with the other rappers of the foreign scene we invite them to our shows, they invite us to theirs… but we need to reach out to more locals! We only know a few… And if the foreigners go to the local crowds it can bring something as well. I don’t want to judge the way they enjoy the music, but if you go to a rap concert and you don’t jump the fuck up, you’re missing something. People here are on their phone. It might be why local artists are so depressed. I don’t know’.
But so what are the obstacles for these collaborations to take place? Firstly, the scene is very young and many artists already have their hands full with their own projects and crew. As Grymeman puts it: ‘Out of principle, we are not opposed to collaborate with the rappers of the foreign scene, or anyone really, but we are still building our foundations, at WildStyle. It makes little sense for us to reach out if we are not solidly established ourselves’. But it does not seem to be the only thing. There also seems to be culturally different approaches to rapping between the rappers of the local and the ones of the foreign scene. As an example, unlike most foreign rappers, all local rappers I met declined my proposition to drop a few rhymes after the interview (with the notable exception of Matt Force and Grymeman, shout out to them). When asked, one artist laughed and said: ‘Hong Kongers are shy, man! If you ask them to rap or to perform, they will run away. The recording booth over there is not for soundproof, it is for the other members not to see our face when we rap! (Laugh)’. For Dor Yuk from 24Herbs, this cultural modesty has a lot to do with the lack of international collaborations involving Chinese-Hong Kongers. ‘I think that many local artists are insecure in starting these collaborations, because they have never done it before. They might doubt about the outcomes, wonder if the foreign artist will sound better than them… In hip-hop, people want to show off, so you don’t want to be on a track with a guy who you feel to rap better than you’. Indeed, many rappers of the local scene have expressed some insecurity about international collaborations, and as many have expressed doubts about the value of Cantonese in rap. ‘Maybe I think that American rap just sounds better than Canto rap’ said Dough-Boy. ‘In a way yes, I think it sounds better’ said Matt Force, ‘but it is also a matter of trends, we are more used to American rap than to Canto rap’. Tommy Grooves from Bakerie wraps it up: ‘When you listen to one type of music too much, it gets printed in your brain. Our music is largely inspired by American rap, so we naturally feel more at ease with American flows, words… etc.’ That American print will hopefully be replaced by, or accompanied with the print of Cantonese rap sound as the genre grows bigger.
Finally, there also still is gap between the two scenes simply because bridging it it is a long process. ‘An active English-rap scene is new in Hong Kong’ said Wesley Jamison, ‘when we started, 4 years ago, the scene was… pretty small. But it grew so much! Now with guys like us (Mama Told Me), 7on7, TXMIYAMA, J.Dln, SAINT, etc. there is a real dynamic which began. Reaching out to the local artists and crowd will take time, but I am confident it will happen’. A distance then, but no conflicts, according to Canadian-born rapper TXMIYAMA, of Japanese origins. ‘There might be a bit of conflict between the crowds, some foreign rappers have been told on the internet that they had no legitimacy to represent HK, but between the artists themselves there definitely is no beef, just not much contact.’