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Punching a hole in the wall

With acts like Public Enemy, a rock fest in China is poised to break down cultural barriers.

August 31, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- As a group that entered the music world urging a generation of alienated youths to "fight the powers that be," Public Enemy would seem to be the last band a government still shadowed by the student crackdown in Tiananmen Square would want performing in the heart of Beijing.

But next week, the hip-hop group will headline an open-air concert in the Chinese capital's sprawling Chaoyang Park along with another band equally well known for its antiestablishment rage, Nine Inch Nails.

That both will appear with the full sanction of the country's Ministry of Culture as headliners for the Beijing Pop Festival on Sept. 8 and 9 -- along with China's most famous rock star, Cui Jian, whose songs became anthems to the 1989 student movement -- has amazed even some veterans of the capital's music scene.

"I was totally surprised," said Jon Campbell, a Toronto-born musician and local concert organizer who has lived in Beijing for six years. "I just know [Public Enemy's] Flavor Flav was denied entry into Canada. . . . Who knows what they'll do when they get on stage?"

But to festival organizers, it is just the latest in a series of social and economic juxtapositions that have become commonplace as China opens itself up to the world with increasing rapidity. They see government approval as official acknowledgment that Beijing, as it prepares to host the world at the Olympics next year, must expand its artistic offerings if it is to emerge as an Asian cultural capital.

"If you look at the lineup this year, it's a pretty substantive lineup -- it's putting China on the map," said 28-year-old Jason Magnus, a fast-talking Londoner who founded the festival in 2005. "I only have good things to say about the government. They let this lineup into China."

Big-name Western rock stars have hardly been strangers to Chinese stages in recent years. But most have been tame pop groups -- the Backstreet Boys have performed twice since 2004 -- or acts aimed at expatriates here. Ticket prices were so high for last year's Rolling Stones concert in Shanghai, for example, that Mick Jagger joked that all in attendance were either foreign bankers or their girlfriends.

The third installment of the Beijing Pop Festival is neither tame nor intended for expats. At the equivalent of $25 per day, ticket prices are high by local standards, but low enough that many in the capital's growing middle class can afford them. Concert organizers proudly tout that last year about 60% of the estimated 22,000 attendees were locals; this year they have planned for an audience of 30,000 over the two days.

Magnus acknowledged he has had to make concessions to appease government authorities. Most notably, he must refer to Public Enemy as "P.E." in all local media interviews and promotional materials. "Public-plus-Enemy is not a good combination to have," he shrugged.

Even naming the festival was done with government regulators in mind. The concerts have mostly featured punk, hip-hop and indie-rock acts. But Magnus chose to dub his creation a gentler-sounding "pop" festival in the hope that "popular" music would be more agreeable than still-suspect "rock" in the People's Republic.

Still, the process of getting foreign bands cleared to play remains an arduous one. Magnus was required to submit detailed biographies of each group as well as all lyrics to the Ministry of Culture. Approval can take months.

The concert series has been helped, much like other Western businesses here, by partnering with local operators. In Magnus' case, he linked with the more-established Beijing Music Festival, which has been bringing foreign orchestras to the capital since 1998.

Nine Inch Nails is not the Orchestre de Paris, however, and part of the reason for his success in winning permits and visas for controversial bands, Magnus said, is his willingness to steer away from politics -- or at least Chinese politics.

To persuade officials that Public Enemy was not a political threat, for example, he pitched the rap group as a band with a "social conscience" and champions of America's black underclass.

"We don't want to talk about Taiwan or Tibet; this is about the music," he said, seated at a Starbucks near his office in Beijing's diplomatic quarter. He said some acts chafe at such restrictions but added: "All we can say is, 'As an artist, do you want your music to be heard?' "

Others in the rock music scene here have a much simpler explanation for Magnus' ability to get seemingly controversial bands into the country: Most Chinese bureaucrats have never heard of Nine Inch Nails.

"Although the government has always been controlling of rock music, they've never understood what rock is," said Shan Qi, a prominent television director and music producer who was a senior executive at MTV China for six years. "They never understand what the foreign bands are saying."

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