Hip-Hop & Hegemony

Written by: Sam Buisman

How does the Trans-Pacific Partnership relate to rapper Rich Brian’s debut album “Amen” topping the iTunes charts? How can the Paris Climate Summit explain Keith Ape scoring 52 million views on his music video for “It G Ma”? And what does Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa have to do with Joji’s single “Will He” taking the #1 spot on Spotify’s Global Daily Chart?

Quite a lot, actually. 

Over the past two years, East Asian hip-hop music has exploded onto the music scene. Some of the biggest names in rap and many of its hottest up-and-comers hail from Asiatic states, including China’s Kris Wu and Higher Brothers rap collective, Indonesia’s Rich Brian, Korea’s Keith Ape, Japan’s Joji, along with an ever-growing roster of other Asian artists. These artists are immensely popular within their home countries but have also garnered a significant following in the West; Ape, Joji, Higher Brothers, and Rich Brian have played sold out shows in Jakarta, Seoul, Beijing, Bangkok, and Shanghai, as well as in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. 

While these artists’ music often replicates the tropes of Western hip-hop, Asian cultural elements are omnipresent. Themes unique to the experiences of these artists and unfamiliar to Westerners often feature in their songs, from the epidemic, like political censorship, to the novel, like the popular messaging app WeChat. Additionally, many of the artists rap in their native Sino-Tibetan language, shirking the norm of English lyricism. This is hip-hop that is undeniably and unapologetically Asian. 

Meanwhile, rap music from other regions of the globe has floundered in the United States. While there are vibrant hip-hop communities in the U.K, South and Central America, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Africa, and other regions around the globe, none of these regions have found much success in the United States aside from one-hit-wonders and novelty songs

So, why now? And why East Asia? What is it about the time we live in that has allowed Asian hip-hop to take a cultural foothold? The answer: declining American hegemony to China. 

The trend of declining American hegemony is not new by any means; there is a relative consensus within political science literature that American hegemony has been waning for years. American economic and military might, two of the pillars upon which hegemony rests, have both been thrown into question in the early 21st century as the 2008 recession shook global confidence in the neoliberal economic system and the Iraq war highlighted the overreach and exhaustion of American hard power.

Recent events have expedited this decline. The series of isolationist “America First” policies coming from the Trump administration has been chipping away at America’s status as a global leader. Rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership and enacting trade tariffs indicates that the United States is looking to take a lesser role in global trade in favor of protectionist policies. Ridiculing hallmark international organizations like NATO, the World Bank, and the U.N. signals a skepticism and indifference towards the global system that delegitimizes the international system as a whole and encumbers the disproportionate power the United States wields through these institutions. Pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords and fantasizing over cuts to foreign aid diminishes U.S. soft power and influence. Spitting caustic rhetoric halts American-led diplomacy and disparages the office of the Presidency in the eyes of other foreign leaders. While its overall impact may be hotly debated, Trump’s “America First” playbook mitigates the international role of the United States by design, forcing the corresponding consequence of a decline in U.S hegemony. 

But where the U.S. is stepping down, China is stepping up. At the same time the United States is rejecting free trade deals and enacting tariffs, China is crafting its own multinational trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership including states that were former partners in the TPP and excludes the U.S., and is speaking out against trade tariffs. While the United States slanders international institutions, China has been busy cultivating its own challenger institutions, including the BRICS organization and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, designed to rival IMF and World Bank capital power and tilt global influence towards China. The United States’ recent nonchalance towards climate change and development efforts has been countered by China doubling down on its environmental efforts, embarking on the “One Belt One Road” initiative, a $5 trillion dollar infrastructure project connecting over sixty countries from Asia to Europe to Africa, and pumping an unprecedented amount of capital into Africa. All the while, Chinese President Xi Jinping has kept a cool head and a refined image of leadership in contrast to the President’s occasional Twitter or Fox News meltdown.

On balance, China is filling the gulfs in global leadership carved out by the United States, growing in its hegemonic power as a result. As the Eastern powerhouse consolidates its influence by picking up the pieces left behind by its Western rival, it will only grow in terms of international clout until either this trend or the hegemonic dominance of the United States ends. This carries some serious implications, as hegemony comes with real power. The global hegemon can use its positioning to amplify its military might, craft the international economic system, ensure access to state markets, enjoy special currency privileges, and more, but being the global hegemon also carries ramifications for world culture.

Enabled by the era of globalization, the hegemon defines the norms of global culture. As the world has become more interconnected and interdependent through the rise of mass media, advancements in transportation and telecommunication technology, and other means; the hegemon has gained the ability to shape the rest of world in its cultural image. The hegemon can impose its values and lifestyles upon subordinate states, along with one other notable cultural facet: its pop culture. 

Thus, the struggle between the United States and China over their positioning in the global order can explain the ascension of East-Asian hip-hop: as the United States declines in hegemony to China, the pop-culture node of the globe shifts from where it is currently positioned in the West to the East. The last two years of accelerated American abatement empowered and encouraged the diffusion of East-Asian hip-hop across the planet and even into the United States’ own borders.

Additionally, just as China is not yet the hegemon, neither is Chinese pop-culture the norm. The United States still bolsters the biggest economy in the world, holds military advantages compared to China, and gives the most aid in net funds. Furthermore, China’s challenger institutions are still just that: challenger institutions. Accordingly, Western pop-culture remains globally dominant and the music chart coup d’états that these Asian artists have staged have been like most coups: brief. Even the fact that this is still rap music to begin with, a genre that originated in New York, is telling of the limited ability of China to influence global culture.

Yet, it is irrefutable that unabashed East-Asian music has taken hold in the United States. Regardless of language barriers and cultural differences, crowds are showing up en masse for the likes of Keith Ape and Kris Wu, implying a trend in global leadership that might be concerning to some. If China is gaining the cultural privileges of a hegemon, it is gaining the military and economic privileges of one as well. An exchange of positioning on this scale would bring monumental changes to the international political and financial system, all designed to maximize Chinese power while devastating that of the United States. 

One thing that no one needs to be concerned about, though, is the music itself. It totally slaps.