When 16-year-old Ahjie first encountered Laohan, the charismatic leader of Yunnan-based reggae band Kawa, in elementary school, he thought he was meeting Bob Marley.
Ahjie is part of the Wa people, an ethnic minority in southwestern China. His idol, Laohan, is also Wa.
On a rainy Saturday night in Kunming, Yunnan, last December, Ahjie and over 500 other fans, all of whom looked no more than 18 years old, packed into a windowless concert venue tucked inside a mall to watch Kawa perform.
The band’s music is a blend of Jamaican island rhythms and influences from their own indigenous group. The name, Kawa, reflects their identity, the Wa, who are dispersed throughout Myanmar, Thailand, and Yunnan, China’s most southwestern province—and its most ethnically diverse.
By demographic, China is over 90 percent Han Chinese, but there are 55 other recognized ethnic groups, and Yunnan is home to 25 of them. The Wa people are one of the groups in Yunnan, though the majority of Wa actually live in neighboring Myanmar.
The entire region, including Yunnan, used to make up a loosely defined territory known as the Wa States. In 1960, when the border between Myanmar (then known as Burma) and China became defined, the Wa people were divided between the newly declared nations.
It’s unusual to find reggae in China, especially among a local, non-Western crowd that’s so young and amped that they’re moshing and swaying to the beat of every song.
But when you consider reggae’s Rastafarian roots in Jamaica—and its origins in the 1930s call for Afrocentrism in response to British colonial rule and growing resentment among lower socioeconomic classes—you start to understand how that philosophy of ethnic unity speaks to these young Wa fans and musicians.
“My dream is to play a show in Myanmar, united with all of the Wa people from every land,” says Laohan.
Kawa is composed of five men: Laohan, the lead singer; Laohei on guitar; Xiaoxiong on drums; Delong on bass; and Tu on piano and trumpet. Half the band identifies as Wa. All of them are natives of Yunnan.
The rhythms have the familiar bass and beats of Jamaica’s island reggae. The lyrics are a blend of Mandarin, China’s official language, and the Wa people’s native dialect.
But the songs are also distinctly Wa because they include indigenous chants, references to native plants, and remixes of childhood lullabies. Their music incorporates traditional percussion instruments and flutes that are unique to their people.
‘When kids see me, they know that I’m one of them’
Before nation lines were drawn, Northern Burma, the home of the Wa as it was then known, had been British-occupied land, just like Jamaica. Today, Wa people in China are working to validate their own existence in the country.
“My skin is dark, my lips are dark. When kids see me, they know that I’m one of them, an ethnic minority,” Laohan says.
When Kawa tours around the country, Laohan often quizzes locals on whether they have heard of some of China’s ethnic minorities. The answer is often no.
“We know so much about Han culture,” says Laohan. “We know about every chapter of history, every dynasty. But what do others know about us ethnic minorities?”
In “Barbarian Borderland and the Chinese Imagination,” Magnus Fiskesjö, an associate professor of anthropology at Cornell University, noted that within China, Wa people have been historically perceived as “some of the most violent and dangerous of the ‘barbarians’ of periphery civilization.”
The home of the former Wa States is one of the world’s biggest producers of opium, and much of this drug kingpin stereotype remains with the Wa people today, especially since their history and heartland remain some of the least documented parts of China.
“You end up losing faith in your own people,” says Laohan. “You don’t want to learn about your own history.”
“You end up losing faith in your own people. You don’t want to learn about your own history.”
The Chinese government in recent years has publicly disseminated their own propaganda and slogans to ethnic minorities, especially in minority-heavy regions like Yunnan, urging the groups to seek peace, harmony, and unity with the rest of the nation.
The members of Kawa nervously laugh at the government signs in their villages that encourage them to assimilate and be good citizens. They lament how much Wa culture has already been lost to modernization and cultural reduction.
“When you go to our native villages, you’ll see that Wa culture has become mostly performative,” says Laohan. “We dress up in our native garb and perform our dances for elected officials and tourists. It’s not like what it used to be.”
Kawa sees reggae music and Rastafarianism as a way for younger ethnic minority teens to feel connected to their culture.
And fans like Ahjie, who have been following Laohan and Kawa’s music since they were children, aspire to be just like them: Wa musicians who celebrate their quickly fading identity through art and community engagement.
When asked whether he identifies more with being Chinese or being Wa, Laohan borrows from the words of Bob Marley.
“I’m neither black nor white,” he says. “I’m just human.”
But it’s clear that for his fans, he represents so much more.
“They’re not just a band,” says Ahjie. “They’re Yunnan’s reggae revolutionaries.”
Photos by Beimeng Fu and Venus Wu. Additional research by Kari Lindberg.