China – The Hip-Hop Culture

In this special episode, a Black entrepreneur shares the backstory of his successful pilgrimage from North Carolina to Shanghai and his unique perspective on Chinese culture and the role “race” plays in this once isolated country.

In '01, Andrew Ballen quit Duke Law School, to the dismay of his physician father, and moved to China. He didn't know a soul there or speak a word of Chinese. While teaching English in Shanghai, he felt homesick for hip-hop, a genre of music that was mesmerizing to local youth, and subsequently started a night club. A decade later, the NY native has hosted a number of radio and TV programs seen all across China and runs a burgeoning media empire—all in pursuit of a dream of communicating with people he’s never met and seeing if they shared something essential about humanity.


Tavis: This is my second trip to China and I’ve come back with some of my staff and my good friend and colleague Dr. Cornel West. We’re something of an anomaly in China. Even in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing you don’t see many African Americans. So 30 of us moving in a group resulted in some friendly curiosity.

That same curiosity greeted Andrew Ballen when he arrived in Beijing a decade ago. Ballen, who dropped out of law school after two years at Duke came to China to escape some of the racial pressures he felt at home. Today he’s carving out a unique niche for himself, bringing an American sensibility to Asia through music and television.

Andrew Ballen: Well, it’s 8:30 in the morning, and time for me to see what people in (unintelligible) City eat for breakfast. The 28-year struggle to tame the Mingjiang River and create food and prosperity for Chengdu resulted in this. The goal of the Chengdu panda breeding research center is simple – increase the giant panda’s numbers.

Tavis: I first met Andrew Ballen a year ago and I knew reconnecting with him was a priority for this second trip. I wanted to understand why this young African American man who was seemingly on the fast track to the American dream back home would choose such a different road, and I wanted his perspective on the rapid changes taking place in China in terms of personal expression, including the exploding hip-hop scene in Asia.

Our conversation took place at his Shanghai recording studio and we began by talking about why he quit as prestigious a law school as Duke in his second year.

Ballen: I felt as though being considered the best Black, being looked at as though I’d been sort of the beneficiary of somebody’s patronage, it wasn’t something I wanted. We were just talking about Cornel and what he said about this being a constant, every day of my life seemed to be a meeting with the absurd.

I just decided I had to go in search of my humanity, and I wanted to go somewhere that was so far off the beaten track.

Tavis: What was it that you were experiencing that made you feel so out of sorts that you wanted to get away from it all?

Ballen: It was, I think, a conflation of a million different just small indignities, and it wasn’t necessarily anything systemic. It was me facing my day, going, you know what? I realize when I’m in the grocery story, when somebody is holding her purse – you know, and I’m a dark-skinned Black man – walking the street at night.

Tavis: And you’re in North Carolina.

Ballen: In North Carolina.

Tavis: Yeah.

Ballen: I’m thinking to myself, there must be a place on this planet where I can simplify be fully human and be judged truly based on the content of my character and the heights to which I’d like to go and I’m able to go intellectually, spiritually. I need to find that place.

I cannot be stuck in the context where every single day is, oh, great, so you’re at Duke, or oh, you received this scholarship, or oh yeah, no, you’re probably able to get that job with this firm or that.

And I’m thinking to myself, how about I just rewrite the book? I’m just going to go somewhere where I have to restart, where there’s nobody that’s offering me anything other than a tabula rasa.

Tavis: Why this place? Why China?

Ballen: It does seem like a paradox.

Tavis: Yeah, it does.

Ballen: But in my mind, when I looked at China and I found that bold sense, the sense the Chinese in every way were saying, look, we are who we are, and we are not going to take this Euro-centric view of the world, this Euro-centric paradigm, and make it our canon, we just won’t do it, and that intrigued me. That, on top of the fact that it was just so far away and it seemed to be, at that point, 2001, 2002, sort of moving towards this watershed moment, which I think it’s now reached.

Tavis: How did your dad feel about you dropping out of law school?

Ballen: I think that my father comes from 1950s, ’60s New York. He’s an immigrant himself. He came to the states in 1957 from Jamaica. He understands success is bootstrap work ethic. You’ve got this opportunity.

I had an opportunity. He was on Welfare, I think, during medical school, went to Cornell medical school, finished, and what he was saying is, “Son, I have given you the best of everything. What I expect of you now is to ensure that you’ve learned a trade, that you are self-sufficient, and that you can make sure that that continues for posterity.

But he’s my hero and he was livid. I think he was also disappointed, I think deeply hurt, because I think on some level he was saying, “What did I do wrong?” and the fact of the matter is he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Tavis: How did you choose China?

Ballen: It was literally me saying, “Where is it that looks like it has been relatively, in its modern iteration, untouched by Western paradigms and Western expectations about me, people of my hue, and what we can and cannot do. That, and the fact that at that point I think hip-hop to me was – it is my release, and I was thinking to myself, I know it’s in Japan, I know it’s in Korea, but our music probably hasn’t really touched China yet.

And I used to just dream to myself before I was going, I wonder if they feel the same way when they hear Biggie? I wonder if they feel the same way when they hear Common or when they hear Jill Scott? I wanted to share that. I didn’t realize what medium I would use, but that was it.

Tavis: So when you got here, when you arrived in China, how were you treated initially?

Ballen: I should first say that I think that everything that I experienced in America prepared me for this. Growing up sort of middle class in the States, I felt like that fish out of water from the very beginning. I was raised in a neighborhood that was primarily Jewish, white, very middle class, and I always had that internal chip – you know, I’m different.

So when I came to China what turned itself a bit was, it was you’re different, but you’re different in an exciting way. When I was shooting a TV show, people would come up and say, “Can I rub it off? Can I rub it off?” and I’m like, “No, you can’t,” but it excited me and it gave me an opportunity to at every moment let another human being, a Chinese human being, know that our humanity is fully intact.

Never mind what you see piped in here via Hollywood. Who we are, once you get right down to it, is somebody that you can relate to and share with on a very full and deep level. So it excited me, honestly.

Tavis: I’ve traveled to a number of places around the world and I have been amazed at the expectations, the impressions, the view that people in these various places had of me the moment I arrived, in large part to your earlier point because of Hollywood.

Ballen: Yes.

Tavis: So there are certain images, and you know where I’m going with this, not so nice, not so kind, not so charitable or generous ideas and impressions that they had about a guy who looks like me because of Hollywood. You didn’t experience any of that when you first got here?

Ballen: I experience that all the time, and I was just ready for it. To me, the expectation was this is what they’ve gotten. What I found is that that minor sense of revulsion in China, which has been given to them, foisted upon them by the images they’re receiving from Hollywood, is very, very, very thin.

Once you crack that initial surface there is a depth of welcome and humanity that you’ll receive in China, and what I always found is that it was almost Pavlovian. What I was saying to myself is every time you meet someone, try to get through that little tiny surface (gasps) and then below that, it was just a treasure chest of love and appreciation.

So I was motivated every time, and to do it on a larger and larger scale – i.e., television and radio. So it was my motivator, more than anything.

Tavis: You come here with your $1,000 that your father gives to you and decide there’s a way to use some of that money to have a club night –

Ballen: That’s exactly what it was.

Tavis: – start playing some hip-hop. I’ll let you tell the story.

Ballen: Hip-hop was the beginning of our economic success in China, and only fitting. I came here and I was thinking to myself – honestly, it had nothing to do with business at that point. I came here, I was teaching English, Tavis, honestly. I don’t know if you realize that, but I was teaching English at that point and I thought to myself, I love China, but if I don’t find some hip-hop here soon I’m going to have to go home. I will have to leave this place, and I don’t want to leave.

Being proactive, I said, “Okay, there’s probably also a market for it.” So I went to this woman, very kind, and I said, “Look, your business is not so good on a Thursday. How about I take my net worth, give it to you, rent your club out, and we’ll split the proceeds?”

She said, “It’s going to be Black music?” and I said, “Well, yes, it is,” and she said, “Okay, let’s give it a try.” It was a club called Pegasus, and in two years it became a Shanghai institution, and that really put me on the road to the TV and the radio shows.

Tavis: The voiceovers.

Ballen: The voiceovers with Motorola. They heard my voice and said, “We can’t get a hold of James Earl Jones or Tavis,” (laughter) but they decided that my voice was a good stand-in.

Tavis: I look at Chinese, look at it and listen to it and think to myself, as much as I love China myself, I could never learn the language. I could never learn it. I could certainly never write it and moreover could never read it.

So you come here fresh from Duke’s campus in North Carolina, never took a class, but I’ve been around you long enough to now know, because I’ve seen you interact, that you speak rather fluently. How’d you learn that?

Ballen: Intuitively. The grammar is amazingly simple. It’s a sublime language, and I think that the gift of our culture is a sense of tone and that musicality, and humility. If you speak Chinese or if you approach Chinese language with an arrogance sense, I hear it and I can repeat it, you will speak horrible Chinese, and you’ll see Chinese people cringe.

If, on the other hand, you truly listen – listen the way a mimic might, at first – ultimately, the tones become something that’s living, and then you can begin to really follow it and the language becomes more standard.

So I’m told now when I get on the phone or when I talk to people or when I’m on TV I speak a pretty standard form of Chinese that sounds something approaching the Beijing dialect.

Tavis: Tell me about how the television show got started, how you got the idea to do that, but answer the question for me in Mandarin and then tell me what you’ve just said. (Laughter) So how did the TV show get started?

Ballen: (Speaks in Chinese) So what I basically just said in (laughter) Mandarin was that I already had a radio show called “Live It Up, Shanghai” and it was pretty popular and kids seemed to like it, so Shanghai Media Group approached me and they said, “You’ve got a popular radio show; how would you like to do this TV show,” and I said, “That would be fun.” It became extremely popular, and it was just a blessing.

Tavis: What do they call you here in China?

Ballen: They call me (speaks in Chinese) which literally means “big dragon.” It sounds very silly in English, but in Chinese it’s sort of – I hear that and respond to it the way I’d respond to my name. It’s become my name.

Tavis: Where is home for Andrew Ballen?

Ballen: Home is China. Home is my full humanity, and certainly I think the flower of what I hope and believe is my intellectual potential came to fruition here. This is where it developed. The welcome that I received here, what I’ve seen and learned about family and faith and the ability of those things to make a society flourish are things that I’ve learned in China, and I think that it’s fair to say that this feels like home to me.

Tavis: Faith – China, China – faith. Is that oxymoronic? Are there people of faith – to people in China have a faith, or is it just about hard work and family?

Ballen: Yeah, that’s a good question. One, faith of every different sector, creed, they all exist here, and I think that you’d be surprised. You walk into a church in China, they are jam-packed, and I mean worship. It shocked me. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

So don’t necessarily believe the hype you hear in some media outlets in the States. But I also think that in China, writ large, there’s a more pragmatic faith and it’s a more tangible faith that doesn’t really fit nicely into any Western paradigm, but the faith is in family.

I know that – I’m not trying to say that in the West we don’t have that same faith, but there’s something incredibly powerful and visceral about the Chinese sense that their children and what their children are able to do and accomplish in the future is almost like – I don’t want to say a god, but it’s what is bigger than they themselves.

But if you ensure, or if they feel as though whether it’s government or social leaders are allowing them to educate their children and give them an opportunity and to make sure they’re safe, that really is the basis of, I think, China’s faith and its social contract.

Tavis: How do you process this U.S. push on China around human rights and freedom.

Ballen: (Laughs) Talk about – that is indeed a Pandora’s Box. I think the simplest way for me to answer it is to say first that I honestly believe that China has redefined what social justice means in a context and a way that suits them and works for them, and I think the results speak for themselves.

We talk about the ability to rank or the ability to say, “I think this and you think this and you think this.”

Some of that’s freedom, and I think arguably, it is, but from a different perspective, and I think a uniquely Chinese perspective, 1.3 billion voices all screaming and people remaining in poverty and people remaining uneducated, that does not equal freedom for them.

I think over the last 30 years what they have said, and I think more than said, which I think is key for us, they’ve practiced, is a sense that self-sacrifice, the contract that says you as my government, so long as you continue to make the promise of my children’s life better and more fruitful, I will for the most part, with diligence and effort and a communal sense, because they are a communal society, say, “I adhere to that. That, indeed, is what I want.”

So for us to say to them, “You should want this,” what they’re saying is, no, what we want, by and large, is the ability for us to walk forward as a people and to achieve the – I think there’s no other word other than miraculous – we are well-pleased. We are not sycophants. We realize that there are problems here. But we are well pleased with the way this is progressing and playing itself out, and we believe that we are, in fact, living in a society that suits our needs and makes us feel rewarded, free.

You asked me several months ago, “Have you drank the Kool-Aid?”

Tavis: Yeah.

Ballen: On some level I have, in the sense that I believe that I owe audiences here something healthy, something inspirational, and that’s what our – my motto, and the message behind what our company does with Chinese youth is focus.

We seek nothing less than the redefinition of the 21st century new media space by taking the best artists in the West – the Jay-Zs, the Rhiannas, the Sean Kingstons, and bringing them here and saying, okay, China, you interpret their music any way you want.

You create vocality, Chinese instrumentation, whatever you want to do, even changing the Chinese language. Make it your own.

Tavis: What does that say, then, about the power of music around the world?

Ballen: Well, I think it says something pretty profound about the globalization of African American youth culture and music, because fundamentally what I’m saying is the Japanese, the Koreans and the Chinese, certainly, have taken cues and in some cases, just in the Japanese case, often just taken wholesale our music and said, we love this so much.

So yeah, I think that it’s moved from mimicry to creative indigenization, which is not my term, it’s Dr. West’s, but that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, and it’s been a beautiful thing to watch our culture sort of span the globe. I think it may be the latest and greatest, and if we’re not careful it may be the last, I think, globally important American export.

It’s not just ours anymore. We have given it to them and they take it, and it feels right to them, too. They don’t want those tight pants anymore. They want to let it flow. They want to feel it. Chinese youth is really where I think my heart and my finger is on the pulse right now, and so I think we’re staying there and going to try to stay current and try to continue to form a bridge between what I know and love about my true home, which is, of course, America, and my adopted home, here.

Tavis: How often do you get back to the States, number one, and most importantly, what’s your daddy saying now?

Ballen: Mm, mm. Actually, Mom and Dad are going to kill me. I probably get home for business once every six, seven weeks. Home, home, Cackalack, North Carolina home –

Tavis: North Cackalackie.

Ballen: – not as often as I’d like, and my dad has said to me, “What I want from you right now, Son, is time.” Ten years ago my father was a 50-something-year-old surgeon, and great, he’s young, vibrant, and now he’s a 60-something-year-old surgeon about to retire, and I realize that the man’s my hero. I owe him some time. So as the company continues to grow gangbusters, I’m going to probably take some time to go back home and just really recommune with Pops.

Tavis: How does Pop feel, though, about the journey? We know how he felt 10 years ago. He wants to see you more, and I understand that – any father would. But how does he feel about your decision, made 10 years ago, to come to China?

Ballen: I think my father is proud. He’s a quiet man and does not express that pride in a very fluent way, but I know he’s proud of me, and I think he was quoted at one point in the “Jamaica News and Observer” as saying, “I think my son made the very, very best of a bad decision.” He said that half in jest, (laughter) but I think that that sort of sums up my father’s personality.

Tavis: Staying true to those Jamaican roots.

Ballen: Indeed, indeed. (Laughter)

Tavis: Andrew would later join us for a celebration of Dr. West’s 58th birthday. In fact, we’ve been celebrating Doc’s birthday from one end of Shanghai to the other, it seemed. From a school in the Minhong suburb, an oasis for the children of migrant workers, to the elite Mid-City Children’s Palace. His message of love and respect was always the same.

It was really fascinating for me to be with Dr. West on his 58th birthday. It really is, that the epicenter of who he is, trying to love and serve people, and that he would spend his birthday with these migrant workers all day.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) on your birthday, brother.

West: No, this is – this couldn’t be a better birthday, brother.

Tavis: Everywhere we went they’ve been singing “Happy Birthday” to him in English and in Mandarin, so I think it’s been a good day for him, but it was just fascinating to watch him on his birthday do what he does best, which is hang out with everyday people. So it was a beautiful day in that regard.

We closed the day – there’s a lot more in-between – but the other highlight of the day for me was being exposed to the arts and culture in China. I didn’t want to come here and not spend some time talking about the arts, talking about culture with people like Andrew Ballen and what he’s been able to do vis-à-vis the culture here, and bringing the hip-hop culture into China.

But also these young people in song and in dance, to see what they’re doing to move the culture along, to celebrate it in this country. Coming to China’s been a great trip. So thanks for hanging out with us.

“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

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Last modified: August 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm