Humans exist in social and cultural ecosystems; that is to say, at any point in time, there are mainstream and subcultures that individuals associate with that dictate the norms and behaviors in modern society, competing to attract attention. During an era, a given cultural movement will express the aspiration of a specific segment of the population. While the measure of difference between mainstream and counter-cultures is typically blurred, the important part is that it allows people within movements to share values and garner a sense of community. It also has a byproduct of creating a healthy sense of conflict: counter-culture is often taken up by youth in rejection of traditional values, leading to a criticism or repudiation of institutions and norms in the hope for a ‘better’ life or society. And, much like other healthy conflicts, it breeds change: When a counter or sub-culture reaches a critical mass, it can trigger dramatic shifts and become the dominant culture itself, as seen in the era of Romanticism in the early 1800s, Bohemianism in the late 1850s, and the global counterculture becoming trendy in the 1960s-1970s.
If the transition from sub to mainstream-culture is dependent upon adoption by a large enough number that it’s growth become self-sustaining (ie. a critical mass is reached, and further growth stems from the omnipresent influence a cultural touchstone now holds in our lives), it typically requires elements of originality than can be explored by laymans to gauge the attractiveness of joining a social movement. One way counter-cultures can be explored is through art created by it’s members: literature, art and music can explore themes of taboo or expose the world to new ideas or themes that start conversations around current norms, gradually leading to the shift over time that sees a genuine transition. A core example is the evolution of LGBT social movements, viewed as a strictly taboo issue at the outset of the 20th century, which spread influence through seeing gay men represented in literature and film. This fuelled awareness of the fight for equality in the Western world and garnered support for a movement that transitioned from being an underground culture largely shunned to a visible minority acknowledged, and mostly accepted, within modern society. Now, a formal public protest against gay rights is enough to see one labelled a zealot or intolerant radical – a far cry from the the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde for ‘gross indecency’ based strictly on his sexual orientation.
Resistance to cultural evolution, much like evolution itself, is completely natural. Non-conformists often take aim at perceived institutional failures, taking a strong artistic or political stance at the relative foolishness of social norms. Logically, they take aim at those who conform, questioning the very fabric of their values and beliefs. A post-war American society of parents watching the children of the 60s saw a generation of youngsters protesting war and using experimental drugs – it only follows logically that a generation who fought for their very survival in WW2 would find this protest non-patriotic, self-indulgent and naive. But the youth of their day lacked this context, and saw the conformity of the post-war boom as a failure to express oneself. Despite the nuances of the social movement of youth (some were active and confrontational anti-war protesters, others pleaded for peace in a more general sense), the movement as a whole was labelled as “long-haired drugged-up hippies” who were a threat to democracy and therefore should be ignored. But the damage was done; with time, rock n’ roll and self-determinism grew in significance to change the world, and America was politically redefined as a nation of doves and hawks conflicted about conflict.
This struggle is currently playing out in a very tangible way, though at a smaller scale and with a few prominent caveats, in China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has banned 3 elements of modern counter-culture from domestic mainstream media: tattoos, cursing and hip hop. The transition of each element into the Western conscious saw the shaking of long-held taboos surrounding those who partook in consumption of each, and have redefined popular culture: four in ten young people have at least one tattoo, with the largest tattooed demographic being white suburban females. In 2017, rap and hip hop surpassed rock n’ roll as the most consumed genre of music globally, with rap artist Eminem holding the title of the best-selling musical artist of the 2000s. Cursing, as anyone who has ever spoken to another human being before can attest, is rather mainstream as well. China’s banishment of current mainstream culture from media sources is perhaps then more explainable in context: rap music has grown in popularity in Chinese culture since the 1990s, with President Xi Jinping even stating in 2014 that there was “room for imported art forms as long as they contained healthy and upbeat messaging”. Recent CCP propaganda films have even used rap-style delivery in attempts to generate support for the Belt and Road initiative, a infrastructure investment project currently underway across Asia.
Greater contextual examination indicates that some of the opposition likely stems from the lack of use of Mandarin, association of hip hop as “black music”, and a preference for puritanism that protects against Western cultural influence and upholds ‘Chinese’ values. But if China is truly interested in maintaining hip hop’s status as counter-culture, it should exercise caution: to protest change is natural, but so is change itself. A non-evolving culture risks growing stagnant, or worse, irrelevant in the face of an increasingly dynamic and inter-connected world. If China’s push to become a global cultural export is to be taken at all seriously, it must acknowledge and learn to navigate existing global culture, not ignore it in the hopes of redefining it entirely. Counter-culture becomes mainstream when a group in opposition to widespread norms hits a critical mass, and suppression of these voices may result in a greater hold of norms for longer, but never in human history has a society avoided change forever. Changing economic conditions and a growth in the middle class have seen Chinese consumers turn their more consumptive eye to the West to dictate their purchasing trends. If the CCP ever seeks to be seen as ‘cool’, it must allow for it’s own expression of individuality to grow organically and subsequently garner a critical mass. Otherwise, a group of older men will sit in a room and attempt to dictate cultural trends to youth – a cringe-worthy endeavor bound to fail if ever one was conceived of.
A final appeal for the inclusion of hip hop: counter-culture plays an essential role in developing a sense of community and identity for those who feel a lack of acceptance or belonging within the mainstream. Messages of truth and raw emotion resonate, regardless of whether those receiving the message can relate to the messenger. There is tangible value in truth, and hip hop has strong elements of social justice and accessibility other music forms sometimes lack. To participate, you need only to rhyme a few words over a beat a friend can create for you by tapping a desk. Self-expression is an invaluable tool, and often helps those who struggle with the notion of who ‘self’ is – a pivotal part in the lives of young people struggling in their quest for identity. And in darker times, the intensity and emotion that can be delivered through spoken prose can hold a significance for some far deeper than that of a guitar chord. If we exist in cultural ecosystems, allowing for the development of social niches ensures a sense of community and acceptance for all. Change is scary – but not nearly as terrifying as never changing in the first place.