American rapper taps into the flow of China’s economy

A Fulbright scholar studying in China found an unusual calling for his language skills and economics knowledge: writing and performing bilingual raps about Chinese development and inequality in Beijing comedy clubs. With songs like “Mo Money, Mo Fazhan” and “Laowai Style,” Jesse Appell’s “macro-raps” became a standup sensation. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The latest trade reports this week showed once again the extent to which China is a powerhouse in the world of international commerce. Its exports came in above projections, even as the global economy is showing new signs of slowing.

    But while growth brings important benefits, it's also leading to some profound changes in day-to-day life there.

    Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, tells us about an unusual performer who's tapped into a vein, part of his reporting on Making Sense of financial news.

  • JESSE APPELL, LaughBeijing.com (through interpreter):

    Inflation is such a mystery. Everything's too expensive for me.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    A comedy club inflation tear-jerker from a Boston Fulbright Scholar with a unique take on China's economy, Jesse Appell, a stand-up sensation here in, of all places, Beijing. At a Chinese restaurant back in Boston, Appell, though he's no economist, presented his credentials.

  • JESSE APPELL:

    I'm pretty sure that I'm the best macroeconomic Chinese-English bilingual rapper in the world.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And not just rap, but macroeconomic comedy in general, which has earned Appell both a unique view of a China in jarring economic transition, and an upper-middle-class income there, some $30,000 a year.

    Appell's income comes from comedy gigs, prompted by TV appearances. And how did he make it onto Chinese TV? By producing Internet videos, like "Laowai Style," that have attracted millions of Chinese viewers to this young American's sometimes bilingual take on Sino-economic.

  • JESSE APPELL:

    "Mo Money Mo Fazhan" is a parody of "Mo Money Mo Problems." And fazhan means development in China, so this is mo money, more development.

  • JESSE APPELL (through interpreter):

    I don't know how to develop this economy. But it seems, the more money we come across, the more development we see.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The video's punchline, the more money, the more development, the more development, the more ambivalence. That is, the more good things to shop for, the more bad things to endure.

  • JESSE APPELL (through interpreter):

    Before, we were one-story houses. Now we skyscrapers. We got migrant workers selling fake iPhones, rich second-generation kids bragging about their second homes.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And the bads are palpable, says Appell.

  • JESSE APPELL:

    There's so much traffic. It's too congested. There's pollution in the air. Now that everybody has a college degree, you know, your college degree is worth a lot less. And there's really cutthroat competition.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    More cutthroat competition, more fazhan, Appell exclaims, more confusion between old and new, and, unless the new wealth is evenly distributed, more economic inequality, those above ever further away from those below.

  • JESSE APPELL:

    No safety net in China. I mean, people save 40 percent of their income because, if they get sick and go to the doctor's, there's no credit. You have to pay in cash, up front, while you're in the emergency room, or else you don't get medical treatment.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Finally, more money brought more inflation, prices rising faster than most Chinese could afford, especially the price of food, which rose at almost 10 percent a year for a decade, inspiring Appell's newest musical offering.

  • JESSE APPELL:

    "Where Has the One Kuai Chuanr Gone?" is the name of the piece.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The one kuai chuanr is that…

  • JESSE APPELL:

    Chuanr is the one — kuai is like a dollar in China, and chuanr is the meat on a stick.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And the point of that?

  • JESSE APPELL:

    This original song is, "Where Has the Time Gone?" And it's a super sappy song about, you know, my kids have grown up and where has the time gone, and now the kids are gone and I'm old. I changed it to where has the one kuai chuanr gone?

  • JESSE APPELL (through interpreter):

    The great Beijing delicacy, why have you forsaken me? Every night, I search the street looking for skewers of meat. Inflation is such a mystery. Everything's too expensive for me.

    Where has the one kuai chuanr gone?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So, this is the inflation that naturally comes with development, but it has a downside to it.

  • JESSE APPELL:

    Yes, and inflation there is a big deal, because people remember just a couple years ago being able to buy, you know, the one kuai chuanr. And, you know, it's especially for people who make less money. It's a little bit of the loss of this culture and the — this moment in the development of China where we had enough meat to put on the sticks and everybody could afford it.

  • JESSE APPELL (through interpreter):

    I mourn my friend. One kuai chuanr has disappeared.

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    In fact, it's really the inequality that's so confusing to the Chinese, combined with an economic slowdown after years of soaring growth and ever-higher expectations. Inflation has actually been going down of late.

  • JESSE APPELL (through interpreter):

    Nobody knows which direction the economy's going.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But, hey, a rapper can explain just so much. We did have one last question, however. Why has macro-rap struck a chord in today's China?

  • JESSE APPELL:

    The economy and money plays a huge role in everyday people's lives. Everybody's always talking about, how am I going to make money? How much did that subway cost to build? How much do I pay to go on the subway? These issues come up in America, but they're everywhere in China. And everybody is a streetwise economist and everybody is a streetwise finance expert and is trying to figure out how to just get it done.

  • JESSE APPELL:

    We need a better economic policy.

    It's just so in the psyche of everybody that doing rap about the economy doesn't even seem weird.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And after spending enough time with Jesse Appell, it didn't even seem weird to us.

    This is Paul Solman reporting from the new home of macroeconomic Chinese rap comedy, the PBS NewsHour.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And if you were as intrigued as we were by some of those rap parodies Paul just sampled, you're in luck if you go to our home page, where you can watch full videos of his work.

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