Review: Higher Brothers raise questions of cultural appropriation at Rebel

The Chinese rap group brought unwavering energy and undeniable bangers, but their immersion into western hip-hop culture opens up a larger conversation


HIGHER BROTHERS with RUSSELL at Rebel, Thursday, May 30. Rating: NNN


Though their headlining set lasted nearly 90 minutes, it didn’t take long for Chengdu trap quartet Higher Brothers to establish themselves as bona fide superstars. After their opener, Brampton emcee Russell (formerly known as D-Pryde) warmed up the nearly sold-out crowd at Rebel, Higher Brothers arrived onstage to pure pandemonium.

They were immediately met with unrelenting roars from the audience, only wavering to recite lyrics and giggle along with between-song banter, which seamlessly alternated between English slang and their native Chinese dialects of Mandarin and Sichuanese.

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Samuel Engelking

The foursome have all of the makings of a young, successful rap group. DZKnow (the one with colourful hair), PsyP (the one with dreadlocks), MaSiWei (who sports a Travis Scott-esque braided ‘do) and Melo (the one with a textured fro) have the look, bass-heavy trap sound and on-stage mannerisms that have grown to be common form with all the popular rising hip-hop acts in America. The detail that sets them apart is their ethnicity. Artists from Asia are starting to break out in a big way in North America (see: K-pop group BTS) and Higher Brothers, along with their crew and record label 88rising, have set their sights on filling the void in the hip-hop market. 

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Samuel Engelking

Their efforts haven’t been immune to controversy. Critics have questioned whether Asian rap groups like Higher Brothers’ hip-hop careers are the result of cultural appreciation or appropriation. This conversation is especially timely as anti-Blackness continues to prevail in Asian communities in and outside of the continent.

In person, as a Black person in the audience, the show often felt to me like a performance of Blackness itself. Between the traditionally Black hairstyles, their heavy use of African-American Vernacular English in their songs and stage banter, the dance moves (at least one group member hit the whoa every eight count) and their swaggy outfits, you could feel the influence of the group’s Black peers. But from Rebel’s mezzanine, I only spotted a few visibly Black people in the audience. This is not that unusual at rap concerts in Toronto. But it was interesting to see Blackness all around, with so few Black faces actually present.

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Samuel Engelking

In the VICE series Minority Report, MasiWei cited Eminem as one of his influences. His explanation was translated to say “Eminem is white. It’s encouraging to us because it means that Chinese people can be like white people and make Black people’s music. It made me realize that I can do it as well.” Um, ok.

In an all-caps Instagram essay, Higher Brothers’ translator/North American liaison/blue-haired hype-woman Lana Larkin (aka Higher Sister, who opened the show) dismissed the charge of cultural appropriation along with the concept of culture altogether.

“The concept of ‘culture’ is something we make up, constantly & continuously by the way we talk about it and treat it as if it were a real thing out there in the world,” writes the UC Berkeley masters student. “If I hear the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ one more time I’m gonna vomit!! Why?? It’s a pretty reification of cultural purity!”

While this is a thoughtful defense, it brings back a point often underlying conversations like this: the validity of cultural ownership is only called into question when Black people seek acknowledgment for their creations.

Higher Brothers bring a lot of charm into what they do, which entranced the crowd for the whole set. One fan on the mezzanine was so overwhelmed with excitement that she inadvertently dropped and trampled her own vape pen. It was a whole ordeal.

But in spite of the high energy throughout the show, it wasn’t without ebbs. During each group member’s solo set, DZKnow aka KnowKnow urged the crowd, eerily similar to this Jeb Bush moment, “make some noise for me!” Their solo moments weren’t as dynamic or exciting as they were as a foursome.

Repackaging Black cultural innovations to a non-Black audience, the performance at times felt like a live chatbot aggregation of what is considered cool. It’s impossible to verify the Higher Brothers’ authenticity in their claim to the culture. It’s also pointless to police.

Higher Brothers clearly have a dedicated fanbase, not to mention industry co-signs in the form of respectable features from artists like ScHoolboy Q and Denzel Curry. So while these questions won’t just go away, if this concert was any indication, the group are here to stay. 

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Samuel Engelking

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Samuel Engelking

@nowtoronto | @sumikoaw

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