It was a steamy July night in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin when the crowd erupted inside the 66 Live House concert venue.
The rapper Jony J had just finished his set when he suddenly got down on one knee and turned to his girlfriend Baima.
“Will you marry me?” he asked.
Speechless, Baima reached out her left hand. It was a yes.
The venue’s 3,000 fans started screaming, cheering, and frantically typing on their phones. Within minutes, Jony J’s proposal became the top trending topic on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.
The 29-year-old rapper, whose real name is Jia Xiao, is one of the country’s biggest hip-hop stars. An erudite rapper with an independent streak, his socially conscious lyrics earned him the nickname “Hip-Hop Poet” and made him the first mainland Chinese rapper to hold stadium-size solo concerts.
When I catch up with him the next day at a sneaker shop in Tianjin, he’s wearing an oversized mint-colored Essential T-shirt, a pair of Air Jordans, and a purple cap with “424” on it. Most Chinese rappers wear dreadlocks. Jony J has a crew cut.
I ask him why he chose the Tianjin concert in particular to propose.
“No reason,” he says, blushing. “It was very impromptu. I originally wanted to do it at today’s performance, but I just couldn’t wait.”
Started from the bottom
Jony J now commands a social media following of over three million fans in China, but like many artists, he struggled in the beginning to make his mark.
Born in Fuzhou on China’s southeastern coast, he studied music at the Nanjing Institute of Visual Arts.
He knew he wanted to be a rapper, but there wasn’t a market for hip-hop yet.
After graduating, he stayed in Nanjing to work at bars and nightclubs as a singer. He recalls, at the time, living in a tiny room with cockroaches and only being able to afford instant noodles. He knew he wanted to be a rapper, but there wasn’t a market for hip-hop yet.
In the early 2010s, Chinese hip-hop was still in a nascent stage. Most rappers were writing about sex, money, and profligate lifestyles.
Jony J, on the other hand, was writing about issues such as famine and personal identity, inspired by the socially conscious lyrics of TriPoet, a hip-hop crew in Taiwan.
But hip-hop as a whole was still underground, and his music failed to make it beyond that small world. While working on his first mixtape, he had moments of doubt and wondered about his place in a scene that was still largely materialistic.
“I started asking, ‘Am I not underground enough? Am I not hip-hop enough?.’”
“I started asking, ‘Am I not underground enough? Am I not hip-hop enough?,’” he says.
Salvation came in the form of a J. Cole music video. In the opening credits of the “Lost Ones” MV, a line says the video was shot with “a dollar and a dream” long before the rapper signed his first record deal. It served as inspiration for Jony J.
“I thought to myself, ‘So content really is important, far more important than scene settings.’”
Jony J continued to write. When he finally released his first mixtape, J HOOD, in 2013, it was regarded as unconventional for its lyrical complexity and jazz samples.
Its popularity allowed him to go on tour in 11 cities.
A year later, the rapper released his first music video, “My City Nanjing,” an homage to his adoptive home.
It went viral. A local newspaper dedicated half a page to writing about this new up-and-coming artist named Jony J. Television stations in Nanjing and surrounding Jiangsu Province broadcasted his music.
In 2016, Jony J was able to start his own studio, SHOOC, and by the end of the year, he released his first EP, WU NVJIN. His social media following multiplied, and he could no longer appear in public without being recognized.
The summer of 2017 was a big one for Chinese rappers.
The Rap of China, a hip-hop competition show produced by iQiyi, one of China’s largest video-streaming websites, brought the genre from underground to mainstream.
Jony J entered the competition with high expectations owing to his popularity and name recognition online.
At the time, he was busy writing new songs and preparing for his first stadium-size solo tour, “Okay.” Tickets had already sold out before the episode went on air.
Then during the elimination round, he forgot a whole verse and was forced to leave the competition. But online fans brought him with popular vote through rescuing round, and he eventually came in fourth place.
In one of his songs, “Take It Slow,” Jony J extols the virtues of perseverance and staying true to oneself.
“Ay, I take it slow / One step, one footprint, I take it slow / A good gain takes long pain, I take it slow / More reliable than before, I take it slow.”
Jony J did take it slow. He took six years.
To this day, the artist maintains an independent streak. He says he’s rejected 90% of the sponsorship offers he’s received to focus on writing more thought-provoking music.
Despite the fame that Rap of China brought him, he still believes in having an intimate connection with his fans and calls his music “a bridge where our souls communicate.”
Back at the sneaker store in Tianjin, I ask Jony J how he wants people to remember him in 20 years’ time.
He takes off his cap, puts it back on, and cocks his head sideways. He stares at the ground for a bit before giving an answer.
“Only if they still recognize me,” he says, laughing. “They better not ask me who I am. If they do, I’ll say I’m a rapper.”