Hoklo Rap and Taiwanese Resistance Vernaculars – Taiwan Insight – Taiwan Insight

Written by Meredith Schweig 

Image credit: 大支202302 by TOMO0208 / Wikimedia Commons, license CC-BY-SA-4.0

Since the end of the 1980s, when rap music first took root in urban Taiwan, artists have explored the creative possibilities inherent to rhyming in the multiple languages spoken on the island. Early commercial pop-oriented performers like Yu Chengqing tended to rap in Mandarin; acts primarily associated with the underground folk and rock scenes, like Blacklist Workshop and Jutoupi, performed almost exclusively in Hoklo; and American-born Taiwanese teen sensations the LA Boyz peppered their Mandarin and Hoklo verses with English.  

As I explore in my book Renegade Rhymes: Rap Music, Narrative, and Knowledge in Taiwan (University of Chicago Press, 2022), politics has played a pivotal role in determining the languages in which artists have gone about their art. Mandarin, promoted by the KMT as Taiwan’s “national language,” retains critical communicative currency as the island’s most widely spoken and understood language. Previously suppressed non-Mandarin languages, on the other hand, have often been invoked in the Taiwan rap context as what global hip-hop scholar Tony Mitchell (building on the work of Russell A. Potter) terms “resistance vernaculars,” which “re-territorialise not only major Anglophone rules of intelligibility but also those of other ‘standard’ languages” (Mitchell 2000, 41).  

Indeed, even as Taiwanisation/localisation catalysed far-reaching cultural and educational amelioration projects in the post-martial law period, Hoklo, Hakka, and Indigenous-language artists worked against perceptions of those languages as less prestigious than “standard” Mandarin. As hip-hop scholar Adam Bradley wrote, “Rap’s reliance on spare, beat-driven accompaniment foregrounds the poetic identity of the language” in which a particular song is written (2012, 38). To rap in non-Mandarin languages has been to challenge the primacy of Mandarin and categorically refute its claims of superiority as a language for both communication and art. In this regard, Taiwanese rappers who work in Hoklo, Hakka, and Indigenous languages have much in common with rappers in other global contexts, such as Basque artist Negu Gorriak and Black South African artists Prophets of da City, who rejected the use of Castilian Spanish and Standard Afrikaans, respectively, in Spain and South Africa. 

Dwagie and the Resonances of Taiwan Rap 

There has been perhaps no greater champion of the resistance vernacular in Taiwan rap than Dwagie, who was born and raised in Hoklo-stronghold Tainan. An architect of the island’s hip-hop scene, he released the predominantly Hoklo Lotus from the Tongue in 2002. The album features his now-signature track “Taiwan Song,” in which he advocates forcefully for a consensus on the ontological reality of Taiwanese identity and a hip-hop with corresponding local specificities: 

你甘有聽到這條歌 恭喜啦  
這就是正港的台灣 hip-hop 
這是啥米歌 台灣爽  
是叨位最爽 台灣爽 
吃是台灣米 (誰) 喝是台灣水 (你)  
生是台灣人 (我) 死是台灣鬼 (他) 
這是啥米歌 台灣爽  
是叨位最爽 台灣爽 
台灣人的愛 (這) 台灣人的愛 (那)  
台灣人的愛 都在台灣之聲 

if you haven’t heard this song, congratulations! 
this is real Taiwan hip-hop 
what song is this, Taiwan song 
where do you belong, Taiwan song 
what you eat is Taiwanese rice (who?) what you drink is Taiwanese water (you!) 
live as a Taiwanese person (me!) die as a Taiwanese spirit (he!) 
what song is this, Taiwan song 
where do you belong, Taiwan song 
the love of Taiwanese people (here!) the love of Taiwanese people (there!) 
the love of Taiwanese people is in the voices of Taiwan 

The title and chorus of “Taiwan Song” exemplify the clever cross-linguistic wordplay that energises much Taiwan rap: The English “song” puns the Mandarin song 頌 (“ode”) and the Hoklo sóng 爽 (“cool” or “awesome”), such that the phrase “Taiwan song” can be heard as meaning “song of Taiwan,” “ode to Taiwan,” and “Taiwan’s where it’s at.” 

Dwagie intended these rousing lyrics to inspire listeners to “stop being ashamed of being Taiwanese” (Perrin 2004). He wrote against both the residual effects of martial law-era Sinicisation policies and growing anxieties about the island’s ability to maintain its sovereignty against a rising tide of PRC political and economic influence. His elemental references to rice, water, life, and death invoked a nativist literary sensibility, and he adopted a strident, pro-Taiwan tenor in dialogue with a consolidated Taiwanese cultural nationalism emergent in the 1990s. 

Sculpting Tones and Tongues: The Aesthetic Dimensions of Hoklo Rap in Taiwan 

In tandem with politics, aesthetic considerations have historically influenced rappers’ language choices. In my long-term work with Taiwan’s rap community members, my research associates have frequently spoken of their perception of certain languages as better for rap, more congenial to the tongue and pleasing to the ear. Among artists and audiences, a key metric of MC artistry is the ability to make “musical” the undulating contours of the strongly tonal Sinitic languages spoken on the island.  

Like English-language performers, Taiwanese rappers manipulate vocal pitch to vary the prosody of their phrases. At the same time, they must articulate the tones of individual words to render complex lyrics in Mandarin, Hoklo, and Hakka aurally comprehensible to listeners. (Artists working in the non-tonal Indigenous languages, like ABao and Yoku Walis, negotiate a different set of challenges.) Invoking visual metaphors, they assess rap as having a sense of musicality when it evokes rounded shapes, meaning that tonemic inflexion provides semantic comprehensibility but not at the expense of an overall sense of fluid rhythmic delivery, known in hip-hop parlance as “flow.”  

Several of the scene’s most prominent early figures have played on the porous borders between speech and song, challenging listeners to discern where linguistic signification ends and “music” begins. MC Fish Lin of Taipei-based quintet Kou Chou Ching, for example, told me in a 2010 interview: “When you use Hoklo, even if you just speak it, it has melody. In fact, you’ll find that many Hoklo songs, you might say that they’re sung, but the way Hoklo sounds when sung is not that different from the way it sounds when spoken…Hoklo inherently sounds smooth” (Schweig 2022, 150-151). 

In Lin’s opinion, the latent musicality of Hoklo makes it especially well suited to the chanted or intoned speech quality of rap vocalisation. Many others I have spoken with over the years echo Lin’s assessment of the language as having a fundamentally “smooth” and “musical” sound. To this point, Manchuker, another Taipei-based MC, made recourse to shape metaphors in another 2010 interview in his efforts to describe the sounds of Hoklo, Mandarin, and English: “I think it’s beautiful…[Hoklo] has more tones than Mandarin, so that makes it sound full and good. But I think Mandarin can do it, too, it just takes time to master it. I think for English, English is a round circle shape of language…and for [Mandarin], it’s like a square…so you maybe have to make it so that it becomes a circle…And [Hoklo] is somewhat like English, a more round-shape type of language” (Schweig 2022, 151). 

We might interpret Manchuker’s description of English as having “a round circle shape” as a response to the fact that tone, while an important feature of prosody, is not phonemic in English. Rather, shifts in intonation can be used to convey grammatical, lexical, and paralinguistic information. A performer of English-language rap is relatively free to vary the pitch and tonal contour of individual words as well as whole phrases for expressive effect without concern that meaning will be lost on the listener. An artist working in Sinitic languages can manipulate pitch to vary the prosody of an expression, but he must, at the same time, strongly articulate the tones of individual words if his lyrics are to be understood. Manchuker hears in Mandarin a “square” quality, perhaps attributable to its four tones. An MC using Hoklo must also, of course, articulate the tones of individual words, but three additional tones provide additional sources of sonic variation. 

Redefining Taiwanese Resistance Vernaculars and Identity 

In the years since Lotus from the Tongue, numerous others have further advanced the cause of local language rap on the island. In the twenty-first century’s first decade, underground artists like Dai Shiyao and Playa Club and T-ho Brothers released music in Hakka and Indigenous languages. Kou Chou Ching and solo artist Chang Jui-chuan authored works that explicitly reflected the vicissitudes of Taiwan’s language politics. And in more recent years, successor acts like 911, DJ Didilong, and ABao—among dozens of other amateur artists waiting in the wings—have broken through to the mainstream and made names for themselves as performers with equal facility in multiple tongues. Within this lineage, rappers continue to expand conceptions not only of what Taiwanese resistance vernaculars sound like, but also of how such vernaculars articulate their diverse experiences of Taiwaneseness.  

This article was published as part of a special issue on Pop Music, Languages, and Cultural Identities in Taiwan.

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