Blog by Ke Nie, Department of Sociology, UC San Diego; Visualization by Young Yang ; Edited by Harris Doshay .

Most people following Chinese pop culture would remember the day Hip-Hop was banned from Television . It was significant — not only because of Hip-Hop’s global status, but also because it fit the narrative of an authoritarian regime fearful of new forms of expression.

Pessimism permeated the public sphere after the announcement of the ban by officials on Jan 19, 2018. People fretted over the future of the once-rising Chinese Hip-Hop community. The effect of the ban was seen immediately. Prominent Hip-Hop artists saw their television gigs cancelled. Many others had to relinquish their contracts with commercial sponsors and cancel their shows. Hip-Hop seemed to be headed back to its old, underground days.

The story would not be so simple. Hip-Hop would, in fact, continue to thrive — and arguably with broader influence.

Looking at the number of songs tagged "Hip-Hop" released for streaming in mainland China in 2018, post censorship, you might be surprised that there was a year-over-year increase of greater than 50%. Even more perplexing was that the second season of The Rap of China successfully aired in July 2018 and continues to today. Did censorship even work at all?

Figure 1: Despite Censorship, Hip-Hip continues to thrive on Chinese streaming platforms

One answer might be that Hip-Hop changed itself in order to survive. But how? Did the contagion of censorship spread to other genres?

To answer these questions, I collected over 53,000 songs in four genres released between 2015 and 2018 on a popular music streaming platform. I then took a novel approach: I employed algorithms widely used in the music industry to compare the sound of the songs and used topic modeling to compare Hip-Hop lyrics before and after the ban, supplemented with dictionary analysis. I used both methods to examine how Hip-Hop and other genres changed in response to the ban.

The first finding from this analysis is that the Hip-Hop songs released after censorship do indeed sound significantly different. This shift was most pronounced among high-profile Hip-Hop songs, while it was insignificant in low-profile Hip-Hop songs. It shows that censorship changed the way artists behaved, down to the choice of beat and instrumentation. This is especially the case for songs with promise for great commercial success.

My second finding is that the Hip-Hop censorship impacted other genres too, but in unexpected ways. Rock seems to have taken advantage of the censorship by becoming more “Hip-Hoppy,” filling a gap where listeners still hunger for a specific sound. Pop, on the other hand, mirrored the impact on Hip-Hop and became less “Hip-Hoppy.” This perhaps reflects the need for commercial music to hew closely to state dictates. As is the case with Hip-Hop songs, the effect on Rock and Pop is most salient among their more low-profile songs. This indicates that censorship in one genre does not change the stylistic conventions of other genres so easily.

Importantly, censorship changed what Hip-Hop musicians wrote in their lyrics, my third finding in this study. Following censorship, Hip-Hop lyrics engage less, proportionally speaking, with topics related to violence and deviant behavior like drug use. Puzzlingly, Hip-Hop songs engaged more with sexual themes post-censorship.

Figure 2. Proportion of Different Types of Terms Subject to Censorship

A closer look at sexual lyrics reveals that use of sexual language in Chinese Hip-Hop conforms to several interesting patterns. On the one hand, the proportion of terms that explicitly refer to sex acts remained small, leading us to believe that the sexual terms is not necessarily about sex acts. For example, 做爱[make love] refers to sexual conduct explicitly whereas other words, like 肏[fuck], are often used for emotional emphasis. On the other hand, Hip-Hop artists now often rewrite sexual terms in a covert form to evade censorship after the ban (e.g., writing pussy as p****). Although changes on both counts are small and subtle, we can still say that Hip-Hop artists did respond to censorship by rewriting their song lyrics in order to make the genre acceptable to censors.

Figure 3. Changes in Word Choices Before and After Censorship

Examples of sex term in overt form, click on the word to see its covert form.

Despite the unchanged labeling, Hip- Hop songs after censorship sound different from those before, and Hip-Hop artists changed problematic words in lyrics to a less explicit form. I call this phenomenon dispersion: high-profile artists may drop the stylistic conventions of the censored genre in order to evade censors. However, works by low-profile artists sustain those conventions. In fact, such conventions may even be adopted by other genres seeking to fill the musical void left by the limited change occurring in the censored genre.

Use the dropdown list to compare terms usage change between the most popular songs and less popular songs.

Political interventions can indeed change genre boundaries. But attempting to stamp out allegedly subversive art is difficult, even for a powerful and interventionist state like China.


Ke Nie is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to study cultural markets and cultural policies across nations. Specifically, he is interested in how artistic creativity is shaped by social and political institutions. Before joining the doctoral program, he was a journalist and an amateur musician in China.

This blog is based on Ke's recent publication: Disperse and preserve the perverse: computing how hip-hop censorship changed popular music genres in China." Poetics (2021): 101590.