I have to begin this post with an admission: I'm not the world's biggest fan of rap music. And my knowledge of Chinese rap music is non-existent. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the artistry and courage that went into putting together Ai Weiwei's new music video, Dumbass .
In 2011, Ai Weiwei, an artist deeply engaged in advocating for personal and artistic freedom in China, was imprisoned by his government for 81 days. In the video for Dumbass, Weiwei tells the story of what that experience was like. In an interview with Reuters, Weiwei said, ""There was one thing I thought was interesting. When I was detained, there was a paramilitary officer standing there very seriously watching me, and he asked me quietly if I could sing a song. At the time I felt extremely frustrated, because I felt terrible, and I realised that in a situation like that, these guards felt just like me, they wanted to hear songs."
Both Weiwei and his captors were powerless in that situation, subject to the dictates of a larger authority. They were trapped in different ways, even though one group - the guards - were in alignment with the system and Weiwei stands in opposition to it.
Connecting Art & Politics
Ai Weiwei is one of my personal heroes because he has the courage to consistently defy the authorities and fight for freedom. He uses his creativity to do this. Much of his work is visually oriented; installation pieces and paintings. Now there is a new music video and an album coming.
It's important to understand that rap music began as the songs of the disempowered and disenfranchised: it was the sound of the young, black, and poor in the 1970's. Over the years, rap music may have become more mainstream, but it's always remained intensely political.
It is interesting to see Weiwei adopt this expressly political form of music to express himself. There's certainly the cinematic/visual story telling aspects of the video to consider, and I think for most Western audiences who do not speak Chinese, it is the experience of watching what this great man experienced while he was imprisoned mixed up with some surreal moments - make sure to look for the goldfish in the toilet! - that will have the most impact.
Art can change the world. This is how that happens.
A song can not be unheard. Anyone can sing a song. I'm not sure how easily the Chinese people will be able to access this video - internet access in China is heavily controlled - but it only needs to get out there to one or two people who will share it with their friends. If the message is embraced, if it resonates, the song will spread. Participation in a communal cultural event creates bonds between people; a song can articulate a shared vision or in this case, a shared imperative. Weiwei explicitly calls out his countrymen - and by extension, all of us who are engaged in the fight for freedom on whatever level - to move past the expected cultural norms and do what must be done.
Fuck forgiveness, tolerance be damned, to hell with manners, the low-life's invincible. If you hear that message long enough, frequently enough, what are you going to internalize? How will your willingness to effect change be impacted? It may be that Weiwei's song is nothing more than a rock thrown in a puddle. But it may be that these are the words the people will be singing as they stand up for themselves. We may be bearing witness to the birth of an anthem that will change the world. I certainly hope so, anyway.