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A Multimedia Exhibit about Hip Hop in Beijing

The Misadventures of Emcee Tingbudong is a multimedia ethnography; a collection of photography, film, and sociological anecdotes, and the result of a 2008 Fulbright Scholarship to study Beijing’s hip hop community. Drawing methodological influences ranging from KRS-One to sociologist Elijah Anderson, the project is built on living and participating with practitioners of hip hop culture in Beijing who demonstrate its four pillars of cultural expression: emceeing, break dancing, DJing, and graffiti.  

What follows below is a section of this body of work, including a selection of films and photographs, and an essay, Intersection Not Imitation,  which serves as its introduction and orientation. 

Gathered from a collection of concerts, dinners, and homestays, the exhibition takes the form of a “multimedia ethnography” in order to adequately display a subculture which, although relatively small, is both dynamic and multidimensional. Through multiple mediums, the research conveys hip hop’s critique on public space, ethnic identity, capitalism, and gentrification—and its transformation by the particular conditions in modern day Beijing.


Since its house-party origins in the Bronx in early 1970’s, Hiphop has, at its core, been about an international dialogue.  Its first practitioners were a conglomeration of diasporic peoples: African Americans, West Indian, African and Latin American immigrants who shared a social and racial identity, and whose cultural experience is shaped by transatlantic migration.   Just as the sound system was first brought to the Bronx from Jamaica by DJ Kool Herc, forming the distinctive sound of Hiphop the cultures of these people, too, migrated and mixed.    

Many view capitalism and the marketing of Hiphop culture as an intrusion into a once pure art form, which continues to deteriorate because of its presence.  Marketable artists are seen as going ‘mainstream’ or selling out and making hip hop that is degenerative compared to its original form.  Modern day practitioners are considered fallen children of a long imagined Hiphop Garden of Eden, but only instead of fig leaves, we’re sporting’ crotch level dookie chains.  These characterizations, however, are glazed with such nostalgia that they disguise an underlying power relationship, rooted in a politics of migration.


It is not difficult to imagine the global origins of hip hop culture, considering the narratives of Hip-hop’s first practitioners-- pushed or pulled by the engine of capitalism, who themselves either migrated into urban hubs, or were the products of Caribbean, Latin American and African American migratory movements.  Hiphop culture directly addressed these economic conditions with a critical eye: while Grandmaster Flash described "broken glass everywhere" in The Message, and electricity was emancipated from lamp posts to power parties in parks; Taki 183 went all city, by scrawling his name around New York City, turning civic disobedience into art.  Breakdancers combined movements from african dance, street jazz, salsa, mambo, chinese gongfu and a host of other dance traditions in expressive and emotive ways that sharply broke with the standard form.  As hip hop culture emerged, it was not only informed by the multiethnic nature of its early practitioners, but was simultaneously a critique and cultural response of a generation of cast out youth, facing deplorable conditions, and treated as human chattel to be pushed or pulled by the according to the drives of of migration and capitalism. 




While it may be difficult to defend the integrity of present day commercial appropriations of Hiphop, the framework, the marketplace, the fetishizing normative gaze, is the unspoken superstructure in which the style of Hiphop has emerged, and continues to operate.

“The challenge to hegemony which subcultures represent is not issued directly by them.  Rather, it is expressed obliquely, in style.  The objections are lodged, the contradictions displayed at the profoundly superficial level of appearances: that is, at the level of signs.”

Subculture, The Elements of Style - Dick Hedbie

Almost in spite of exclusion from opportunities for economic independence most of its practitioners faced, Hiphop culture emphasized gaining legitimacy, respect, or street cred through a gain in capital.   Language and symbol did not match their own, whose rules and regulations were not part of their experienced reality; African American language has had a history defined by subversion to standard English variations, Chicano and Nuyorican, Patois, and Creole dialects were all de-legitimized in the eyes of the public, seen as foreign, unintelligible, or as bastardizations of standard English.

Hiphop, and its cultural expressions through breakdancing, emceeing, DJing, and graffiti are an attack on the senses; focus on the point of the re-interpretation of regional symbols.  The recent decade has seen not only codification of these new cultural interpretations, but also a global explosion of in their expression.  It shouldn’t be surprising to see the proliferation of Hiphop culture across the world: Korean and Japanese breakdancers have dominated the global scene, graffiti can be found in any metropolitan area in the world, while the music and style of can be seen in any number of international competitions, shows, or advertisements.

Hiphop culture, in its permutations around the world, is at its essence a cultural dialogue; a call-and-response defined by spaces of intersection and appropriation, rather than mere imitation.  My good friend, Chen Haoran, of the Chinese rap group, Yinsanr, cites his preference for baggy clothes, not as a deliberate choice to appear more “Hiphop”, but rather that the clothing worn by his father and grandfather during China’s cultural revolution were loose fitting, so he naturally opts for a similar cut.
When examined globally, Hiphop’s propagation across the world-- with its roots in migration and stylistic malleability—offers an oblique critique of modern society, capitalism, and the concept of status quo through symbol invention and reinterpretation

"The Misadventures..." on display at Azucarera Gallery and Panda Gallery, NYC

For inquiries about bringing the multimedia installation, The Misadventures of MC Tingbudong,

to a gallery or university in your area, please visit my contact page

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