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Rap refers to spoken or chanted lyrics and rhymes to music and or just a beat for accompaniment and is a key element of hip-hop music and culture. Hip-hop has its roots in the impoverished black ghettos of the South Bronx of New York City in the 1970s. It evolved as a resistance to mainstream pop culture and as a way for the black youth to respond to oppression and racism.

The original subject matter of early or old-school hip-hop and rap was about partying and having a good time. But from this grew rap as social commentary. Angel Lin Mei-yi, a professor from the Faculty of Education of the University of Hong Kong, has researched local hip-hop culture. She says that in the 1970s and 1980s, before it became the huge commercial industry it is today, hip-hop used to feature rappers who complained about society and the hypocrisy of the adult world.

Lin says ethnic minorities in Hong Kong share a similar lowly, grassroots background to the African Americans in the South Bronx where rap music was born. As they are not given many opportunities to voice their discontent, making and sharing music online has become a way for them to express themselves.

Lin also sees rap as way for the ethnic minorities to break down barriers in their daily lives. “To the young generation, no matter which race you belong to or what language you speak, as long as you like this art form, you are a part of the hip-hop community,” she says.

To Telmo and Kaliandasani, hip-hop unites people regardless of their origin and culture, but it is important to take the first step and be more open-minded in order to mix with and unite people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Back in secondary school, there was a huge gap between the ethnic minority students and the Chinese students at their school because they were put into separate classes. But when their performances won applause from the Chinese students, they discovered that music could transcend ethnicity. That was when the idea of bridging the gap within the local hip-hop community first took root in their hearts and minds.

Multicultural rappers join together to produce the Hong Kong Underground Cypher 2.0. (Courtesy photo from Hector Telmo)

Telmo says they first had a vision of working with local artists five years ago. Then, in 2012, they decided it was the right time to bring together Hong Kong-based hip-hop artists from all walks of life to produce Hong Kong Underground Cypher 1.0. A cypher is a collaborative track featuring different hip-hop artists who rap freestyle one after the other and try to outwit each other.

But after releasing Cypher 1.0, some people complained, “Why isn’t there a Hong Kong rapper if you call it the Hong Kong Underground Cypher?” Dope Boy remedied the situation for Cypher 2.0 by inviting two local Cantonese rappers to participate.

One of them was Wong Kai-lam, also known as USB. Wong, the 23-year-old local emcee who participated in Cypher 2.0 in October last year, relished his first experience of working with ethnic minority rappers.

Wong mainly raps in Cantonese because rap is about expressing yourself in the language that you feel most comfortable with. Although he may not fully understand Dope Boy’s English lyrics, he says he looks the words up in a dictionary if there is something he does not understand. He respects these ethnic minority rappers who rap in English and in their mother tongues as well.