China Remix: African Hip-Hop Artists in Guangzhou as Cultural Ambassadors

China Remix–Promotional Still-1

The number of Africans living in Guangzhou is said to be anywhere between 20,000 and 200,000. Over the course nearly two decades, many from various countries have come seeking opportunity, often in commerce.  Roberto Castillo, a researcher who focuses on Guangzhou’s African community, broadly categorizes the diaspora in three groups: the “more established” (those who have been in Guangzhou for over a decade), the “itinerants and semi-settled” (those who frequently move between Africa and China and make up most of the population), and the “newly-arrived”.

Despite varying degrees of association with and permanence in the city, the Africans have established a visible presence and a sustained, vibrant community, whose neighborhoods have been nicknamed the “Chocolate City”.

However, due to a lack of knowledge about Africa, stereotypes of being “profit-seeking exporters”, and sensationalized as a threat by the media (the frequently repeated 200,000 figure above was first reported in connection with an article about the number of undocumented Africans in Guangzhou illegally), is misunderstood by the Chinese population.

China Remix, a documentary by Melissa Lefkowitz and Dorian Carli-Jones, looks to provide a better understanding of Guangzhou’s African community through the experiences of three African hip-hop artists, Nigerians Flame Ramadan and Dibaocha and Ugandan Ivan Manivoo, and an introduction to its music scene, which state-run newspaper China Daily has said is “creating new types of harmony between the two lands”.

The film will be screened in New York on Thursday, April 30 at 7 PM at the NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis, 20 Cooper Square, 4th Floor.

We interviewed Melissa and Dorian by email to learn more about the film, its subject, and their experiences making it.

Melissa, you’ve studied the Chinese-African relationship before.  How did you become interested in this field?

Melissa: I became interested in the field after studying Chinese at Beijing Jiaotong University, a transportation university that had a legacy of training Africans as railway engineers, beginning in the 1960s as part of Mao’s Third World Revolution campaign. I was studying there on a China Scholarship Council (CSC) scholarship that I had received after graduating from college, where I had focused on postcolonial literature. Up until that point, I had understood Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries through the lens of the West’s imperial projects. When I arrived at this university and saw many African students, I was surprised by how little I knew about Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world. That’s when I began studying China’s historical relationship with the continent.

Dorian, this is your first documentary, what was it like working in China on such a specific subculture?  

Dorian: When Melissa first told me that there are Africans living in China, I was immediately fascinated– This was something about which I previously had no knowledge whatsoever. I quickly realized I was not alone in my ignorance, and that most people to whom I’d mention the subject were just as clueless as I had been, so the topic greatly excited me as a documentary prospect. We were in Guangzhou for ten days during the height of the south China summer, shooting non-stop in sweltering humidity, often day and night, with only one day of rest towards the end. The shoot was stressful, to say the least, but it was also quite a rush– Coming from a background in scripted filmmaking, I was working in an environment that was foreign to me in every way, from the location, to the people, to the complete lack of control over any production obstacles with which we were faced. Upon returning back to the States, Melissa and I would meet every other week to review all thirty odd hours of footage we had shot, paring it down to only the best material. From there, we structured our narrative, and I spent the rest of the autumn and winter editing the film until we eventually got to a finished, final cut in March.

How long was the research, filming, and editing process?

Melissa: The research, filming, and editing process began in 2012, when Dorian and I started talking about Guangzhou and what we could contribute through the medium of documentary. We filmed in June, 2014 and spent the months July 2014-March 2015 structuring and editing the film.

From their introductions on the China Remix website, the film’s three artists are intriguing.  The three seem to have different backgrounds and are active people.  How did you meet the artists?  Are they close friends?  What led them to China and what led them to being cultural ambassadors?

Melissa: We met the artists through Roberto Castillo, a PhD student at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Roberto’s research focuses on the Guangzhou community and he also runs a popular website Dibaocha, a big promoter in Guangzhou, often hires Ivan Manivoo and Flame Ramadan for gigs. I wouldn’t call them friends; they’re more like colleagues. The three artists went to China for different reasons: Dibaocha went for business and music; Flame Ramadan went to pursue a music career; and Ivan Manivoo went to be a computer science student in Guangzhou.

What types of interactions do Chinese and Africans typically have in Guangzhou?  Are they segregated?  

Dorian: Africans and Chinese mostly interact on a business level– Guangzhou is a global center for wholesale trade, which is what attracted the African expats in the first place. While there is a “Little Africa” in the Xiaobei neighborhood, most of the Africans there are transient traders– The city’s permanent African residents are scattered throughout the city, mixed in with the Chinese populace. Some of them even have Chinese spouses and have started families, as you may see in our film.

Being neither Chinese or African, it seems the two of you are twice removed from the local Chinese culture and the African community in Guangzhou.   Was it difficult to reach out and engage the artists, the African community, and the Chinese?  

Melissa: I was in touch with Ivan and Flame Ramadan via WeChat prior to our arrival. So, by the time we arrived, we had already established a relationship with each other. It was slightly harder to get Dibaocha involved. He expressed to us that many people had come through Guangzhou in the past and had gotten his story but had not helped him in the process. We made an agreement with the three subjects to share our footage of them with them before we left. This made it more of a mutually beneficial experience for both parties.

Dorian: Being twice removed from the subject matter is one of things that attracted me to this project! But of course it posed some challenges, especially shooting B-roll in Xiaobei. In certain circumstances, we definitely stuck out like a sore thumb, and it was very obvious our presence was unwanted, and we knew better than to start recording. However, other times, engaging in conversation with strangers, asking about their lives, they would give us permission to film them and their stall or storefront, so it was a bit of a mixed bag.

Tell us about the music scene.

Melissa: We cover two scenes in China Remix: the underground African “Afro hip-hop” scene, which takes place at Chinese clubs that turn into African clubs at around 2 am, and the Chinese commercial entertainment industry, which hires Africans to perform mainly American hip-hop for a Chinese audience.

Dorian: On the Afro hip-hop side of it, there are a mix of local artists, such as Flame Ramadan and Dibaocha, as well as African artists who are flown in by promoters to perform for African expats; while there, we caught a performance by the Ugandan singer Grace, who’s big in all of east Africa. On the “for hire” side of things, we followed Ivan Manivoo as he performed American-style rap in a “Victoria’s Secret” show at a condo complex– If that sounds bizarre, I can confirm it was quite bizarre and surreal!

Is there an orchestrated or targeted effort by the three artists in the film or any other people or groups to try to bring the two communities together?

Melissa: The promoters in Guangzhou and in other cities in China (we interview a promoter from Beijing) are extremely interested in bringing Chinese audiences to their shows. While there is an economic incentive for this, of course, the two promoters we interview are very much entrenched in their respective Chinese communities and feel a sense of belonging to the country. Dibaocha, the Guangzhou promoter, has actually produced an eponymous “China remix” for one of his songs, which he and his Chinese wife, Cherrish, wrote.

What changes in the relationship between the Chinese and Africans in China do you see in the future?

Melissa: It’s hard to tell. The media and the law enforcers in China have a great impact on people’s perceptions of Africans in the community. If Africans are treated as unwanted illegal dwellers, then the relationship between Chinese and Africans in Guangzhou may not improve. The hope is that through person-to-person exchanges, the two groups can learn more about each other’s backgrounds and hopefully develop meaningful relationships. This is already happening with Chinese-African marriages and families. We’ll see what’s to come!

The interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Image courtesy of the filmmakers.