As a fan of local music, I was surprised (in a positive way) to see OG rapper MastaMic and other young underground artists such as JB, Billy Choi, Kiri T and TomFatKi performing at the Chill Club Awards on live television last month. Besides the unneglectable rise of local boyband Mirror and other local artists and idols, many of us see this as a sign of the resurrection of Cantopop and Hong Kong music after the industry’s golden years in the ’70s and ’80s.
Just a couple of years ago, the city was still mourning the apparent “death of local music” for various reasons. Many saw the early 2000s to the late 2010s as a rather depressing period, as local music never seemed to go far from samey love ballads. As K-pop, J-pop and music in China and Taiwan continue to gain popularity, Cantopop fans slowly shifted their interest from local productions to what the global music world has to offer. Local television broadcasters also played a vital part in this with their alleged bias towards artists under traditional record labels, and inadequate support for underground musicians. This explains why Hong Kong doesn’t really feature “underground” musicians on prime-time TV. Even the city’s largest annual indie music festival, Clockenflap, had been accused of priortizing overseas artists over local ones at one point.
With young artists stealing the spotlight and experienced ones gaining their well-deserved fame, the city’s music scene showed great change for the better in recent years. We can try to understand this from two angles.
First, the city tightened its grip on Hong Kong identity after the Anti-Extradition Bill movement lasted for months on end and shook Hong Kong to its core. With the National Security Law in effect and the Basic Law Article 23 that prohibits foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities on its way, many of the city’s people feel suffocated from their curtailed freedom of speech and expression that comes with an erratic red line. Cantopop music, renowned for its poetic lyrics, became one of few outlets for Hongkongers to express themselves and seek consolation. Exploiting the subtle and fluid characteristics of the lyrical language, local music that responds to social changes, namely the mass migration wave and a sense of belonging to this place, has stepped in to construct a something that resonates with Hongkongers and Hongkongers only. I did a very brief statistic check that compares the Spotify Top 200 Charts in Hong Kong in the first week of May in 2022 with that of 2018. Four years ago, the top 10 tracks were entirely occupied by international artists; today, the same 10 tracks are all taken by Cantopop artists, with each track’s streamed time exceeding that of 2018 by double, at least.
And it wouldn’t be fair to not mention the boyband Mirror while talking about today’s music scene. Debuted by King Maker, a Viu TV talent show in 2018, the idol group has grown exponentially over the years, from appealing only to a niche group to hosting 10 concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum this coming July and August. Besides the idol group’s obvious charm on stage, many see their success partly due to Covid-19. The pandemic had put most of the world on pause since 2020, which in turn forced people to look inwards, within their own borders. Like many other local artists, Mirror took advantage of this and shone. It is also to their credit that new producers, writers and musicians, such as the R&B singer-songwriter Gareth T., Wilson Ng Lam Fung and independent band The Hertz, got a chance to share their talents while collaborating with the band.
With more exciting collaborations between mainstream and indie artists, a jam-packed concert line-up and the emergence of more young artists that fill the city with diversified music, it is safe to say that Cantopop is back to reclaim its glory.
Max Fisher. “‘One Country, Two Nationalisms’: The Identity Crisis Behind Hong Kong’s Turmoil”