A Tibetan friend who studies in a university in my home city, Guangzhou, asked me last summer when we were chatting, “Have you ever listened to Tibetan rap songs?” I had never heard of Tibetan hip-hop before, let alone Tibetan rap. What does it sound like? What are the songs about? Who are the singers or rappers? What inspires them? All these questions bumped in my head, prompting me to find out more.
I developed an interest in Tibet as a high school student in Norway. Last spring semester, I took “Tibetan Religions” with Dr. Rachel Pang, “Memories and Identities in the People’s Republic of China” with Dr. Dáša Mortensen and “Chinese Politics” with Dr. Shelly Rigger. I learned about the centrality of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibetan society, the controversies surrounding the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet in the 1950s, and the challenges at the present for the Chinese government to maintain stable rule in ethnic minority areas.
One question that emerged out of the numerous provocative class discussions is: How are Tibetans in China dealing with their daily lives after all that has happened throughout history and under the current policies? After talking with my faculty adviser Dr. Mortensen, the idea to find the stories of young Tibetan artists took shape.
Music is an inclusive and creative art form that offers people a window for self-expression. Through exploring the contemporary Tibetan music scene among young people, I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the aspirations, self-perceptions and concerns of the young generation of Tibetans.
My journey started in early June. I went from Shanghai, the metropolis in Eastern China, Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai that is a hub for many Amdo artists, Shangri-la, the tourist town in Kham, to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. I visited livehouses, college campuses, cafes, music bars and performance halls. I had the honor to talk with student rappers and professional artists, as well as a professor of music, bar owner, attendee of a nationwide talent show, performer at a touristic performance hall, music preservationist, civil servant and doctor.
Coming from different places and a variety of backgrounds, all of them had amazing life stories and perspectives to share. Some of them aim for a global audience, while others are content with local support. Some play with trilingual (Tibetan, Mandarin and English) flow, while others sing or rap solely in Tibetan. Some sing frequently about their Tibetan identities, while others sing about themes that are universal. Together, they paint a diverse picture of the contemporary Tibetan music scene.
It’s important to remember that these young artists first live as human beings. Ethnicity may not always be at the forefront of their identities. Having a firm national identity may mean different things for different people, and there are different ways to bring about positive change that align with one’s idea of contributing to one’s nation.
The opportunity to get to know these amazing young people was among the most rewarding aspects of the experience. Though I grew up and spent most of my time in China, I haven’t had much experience interacting with peers from parts of China outside my home city or along the coastal areas. I feel grateful that they were willing to share their stories with me. I admire their creativity in song and lyrics writing, their ability to navigate across China’s Internet firewall to get resources for their music, their courage to hold concerts and perform in front of a lot of people, and their perseverance despite challenges and uncertainties.
They made me rethink education. Many of the people I talked with do not have much formal schooling. Even when they did have formal education, the institutions they attend are very different from American institutions like Davidson. Nevertheless, every one of them has a unique and profound outlook, and a sense of courage and grace that informs how they navigate the world.
Interacting with them has reminded me to cherish education, not simply as a source of academic knowledge, but also as an opportunity to develop hands-on skills that may create positive impacts, as well as a sense of understanding that brings people together across differences. Good education doesn’t create hierarchies. It makes people humble. Back on campus at Davidson, this is something I keep reminding myself of.