“Is it true that black people don’t eat chocolate because they’re afraid to bite their fingers?” This is the question my friend visiting from Chicago was asked by a naive, young girl she met in Shanghai. The exchange perfectly demonstrates the guileless, yet curious minds of many from the countryside areas of China. How did my friend react when posed such a shocking question? She just shrugged it off and laughed. Damn. And she was just a visitor on her first day!
How about a New Yorker whose sole purpose in Shanghai is to educate locals about hip-hop culture and positive vibes through concerts, festivals, WeChat groups and self-promotion? Skinny OG has the stories of a lifetime to share. We’ll get to some of those but also hear of his life, why he loves the Shanghai lifestyle and also some Black History in China.
Skinny has been delving not only into the China hip-hop scene with his hardcore duo OGXQD but also thru solo sets and his blues-rock band Layla Ali. OG spares a few minutes to lay it all out on the table for us on what it’s like to be a Black musician in the sprawling, financial metropolis of Shanghai, China.
Skinny, can you tell us how and where you started your career as a performer and emcee?
I started out as a breakdancer in New York City. I won my first breakdancing competition when I was around 8 years old.
My best friend and I wanted to be like the older guys at our school, who looked so cool when they were popping and locking and spinning around on the floor. So we entered a student talent show, and wowed the judges with our choreography. We won and we were so excited, so proud of ourselves! Then I never stopped performing after that.
I had already been rapping at that time, in lyrical battles, cyphers with my friends, playing the dozens, trading “yo mama” jokes, and learning the lyrics to my favorite songs, stuff like that. But I mainly did dancing and graffiti, with a little street-savvy entrepreneurship here and there.
But when my family moved to France a few years later, and then to Cameroon in West Africa, I had so many stories to tell my buddies back in New York, so that was when I really started rapping. It was an outlet for everything I was experiencing.
By the time I returned to the US, I came under the tutelage of one of the most legendary figures in the Hip-Hop culture, the MC who goes by the name Supernatural. He became one of my mentors and helped me perfect my skill as a freestyle MC.
It’s been five years since the big move to China. What made you decide to leave it all and move to Shanghai?
Growing up in New-York City, Paris, France, Cameroon, and so many places, I always enjoyed living in new countries, with different cultures, foods, languages, etc.
After a 4 year college degree and a 4 year stint in the US Army, I felt I was overdue to hit the road. So I took out a map of the world and started circling places I wanted to go, and Asia was high on my list because it was a continent I had never been to before.
I had fallen in love with China since I was a kid watching Kung Fu movies on Saturday afternoons, and listening to the Chinese-influenced rap music of Wu Tang Clan. So when some friends of mine showed me videos of Hip-Hop parties here in china, I was attracted to the idea of combining 2 of my favorite things.
I think that if more people could see the world with a fresh and unbiased perspective, they would be more tolerant and understanding, creating more peace and love in society. The world would be more harmonious.
What have been some of the defining and unique moments of your career as a musician in China?
The first week I arrived in China I was immediately absorbed into the Shanghai Hip-Hop scene and I quickly developed a fierce reputation when I won first place in a Freestyle Battle competition, so the word spread after that.
Within a month I was invited to be the lead MC of a well-established Hip-Hop live music band that had been rocking in Shanghai for a few years, called The Foundation.
Naturally, the Foundation already had numerous rappers, but their bandleader was so impressed by me that I was quickly elevated to the job of main freestyle host. My job was to make up songs on the spot, to any rhythm that he and the band played each night, and lead the other rappers in the songs. It was an awesome time, and I named our group of rappers “The Freestyle Kings”.
My ability to come up with a song as soon as I hear a beat, and to invent catchy hooks, choruses and melodies and lyrics, is something that I and my friends in the US always knew I could do. But I had never been able to share that on as large a stage, as in China.
I was soon being invited to headline Chinese shows, and training other MCs and rappers who were not part of the Foundation’s Freestyle Kings.
I will never forget looking at magazine articles written about the Foundation Band before I came to Shanghai, which gave their rappers lackluster reviews. But after I arrived and formed the Freestyle Kings, there were new articles filled with glowing praises.
People from all over the world arriving in Shanghai, were telling us they had been told about our show and the quality of the music we were making.
By the end of the following year I had my own entertainment company, new bands, and I had done over 200 shows all across the country.
Since then, I have expanded my company further, and I have recorded hundreds of songs, regularly collaborating with many talented Chinese Hip-Hoppers.
Magazine articles, photo shoots, radio and television appearances, being recognized by fans when I go out, those are some of the exciting and humbling experiences that China has blessed me with.
With hip-hop being a bit newer to the populace than say, rock or folk music, how do the crowds in general react to your sounds?
I find Chinese audiences to be especially receptive, whether it is an urban crowd of folks who are already familiar with Hip-Hop sounds, or an older set of folks who just want to listen to a good show.
My musical mission has always been to create TRUE Hip-Hop. This is something that people can FEEL, even if they don’t comprehend all the words. So I typically get great feedback, especially if I choose the best songs, and perform them in the best order.
It helps to speak a little Chinese to the crowd in between songs, but I often do shows with zero translation, and I still get people who tell me afterwards that they never heard Hip-Hop before, but they loved my performance.
I think this is partly because my way of connecting with an audience is different from most novice MCs. Since I have a background in dance, and also in theatre, I am comfortable on the stage, plus I can also use my body to speak to the crowd, as well as my lyrics.
But I also think that English is the most popular language in the world, so by choosing easy words, and conveying my emotions through my movements, I can usually ensure that the crowd will understand the meaning I want to send.
My energy, my message, my melodies, something about HOW I did WHAT I did, is able to connect with them deeply and give them a good feeling.
You’re quite vocal through your music, about your race, culture, and positive change. How have you been able to help promote BLM in a unique place like Shanghai?
One of the beautiful things about TRUE Hip-Hop is that it is intrinsically concerned with those very things that you mention. So it is actually very easy for me to educate Chinese Hip-Hop aficionados about the history and evolution of our culture.
The legacy of the Black struggle resonates particularly well in China, and especially for the Chinese Hip-Hop heads who are fluent enough in English to understand the lyrics. They tend to favor more conscious and thought-provoking content.
Furthermore, for those who don’t know, China has had a long association with the Black Freedom struggles. The great laureate Langston Hughes wrote poetry praising China, urging China to ROAR like a lion, at a time when China was under military attack by western nations, including the United States.
The first Black Heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson spent time in China, when he was on the run from the US authorities, in the early 20th Century. In later decades, other Black revolutionaries, like Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party and Robert Williams, did the same.
They were all welcomed with honors by the Chinese government in Beijing, even though they were wanted by US authorities.
One of Black Hollywood’s first superstars, Paul Robeson, raised money for China in the US despite the US being anti-communist. Later Robeson famously traveled to China to sing the Chinese National Anthem, at the Chinese National Congress, in 1949.
The Great Chairman Mao personally welcomed the NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois and his wife to China, after their self self-imposed exile from America.
The list goes on…
Real Hip-Hop is a culture of people who have the least in society. But despite that, Real Hip-Hop finds ways to create art, and make the most possible, out of very little. This is why Hip-Hop always finds a ready audience among young people, those struggling against adversity, and marginalized groups who are adrift in the modern world.
So it has actually been easy for me to promote my social stance through my music here in China. The fans are curious to know what are the deeper aspects of WHY Blacks in America are in turmoil, and WHAT forces have shaped the Hip-Hop culture.
What future plans do you have for your music in China and beyond?
I create art to make people feel better, and I am blessed to have the gift to do it very well. So I want to keep spreading the Hip-Hop gospel around the world. A gospel of truth, love, peace, fairness, righteousness, environmental responsibility, and justice.
If the songs I make can reach a global audience I will be happy, but if they stay in China I will also be happy. I believe that anything a person does, has value, if it can change even one person’s heart, or improve even a single person’s life, and I have already done that.
I am not trying to convert anyone into believing in any deity. I want to share the beauty and magic that exists inside all art, and music most of all. Particularly Hip-Hop. I want to do that until I die, and leave something thrilling, for the world to remember me by.
I want to inspire as many more people as possible, to give them hope that their dreams are achievable, and give them courage that their challenges are surmountable.
Come listen to some songs about Revolution, songs about heartbreak and perseverance, or songs about plain old fun, and the Hip-Hop life. It’s all there, and more.