Aristophanes: The Taiwanese Rapper Making Mandarin Waves in Global Hip-Hop

Aristophanes: The Taiwanese Rapper Making Mandarin Waves in Global Hip-Hop
Credit: Etang Chen

What you need to know

The meteoric rise of Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes is a breath of fresh air in an industry that often marginalizes women.

Aristophanes (貍貓) spits rapid-fire Mandarin verses over glitchy, mechanical whirs, punctuated by the occasional melodic interlude.

While the 27-year-old's (real name Pan Wei-ju, 潘韋儒) intoxicating delivery is ethereal in its otherworldliness it is, at times, unsettling – filled with hisses and heavy breathing overlaid with irregular, choppy beats, which cut through songs with unstoppable force. And yet this is part of her allure – it is an oddness that sets Aristophanes apart.

“I don’t fit into any genre, I just do whatever I want,” Pan laughs. This impulsiveness has gotten her far. Since the release of her acclaimed album "Humans Become Machines" last year, she has toured the world, collaborating with the likes of Will Butler from the band "Arcade Fire" and renowned producer David Kahne. These projects are a far cry from her home in Taipei, where Aristophanes will perform a concert on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, to celebrate her return.

AristophanesPressPic1
Credit: Etang Chen
Aristophanes returns for a homecoming concert in Taipei on Jan. 26.

The News Lens caught up with Aristophanes to discuss life on tour, the difficulties facing Taiwanese artists and her plans for the future.

Music with no boundaries

“Even though some people do not understand me, they are still moved,” Pan says, talking about a language barrier that does not seem to bother her international audiences. “You can tell the emotion from the breath and the beat.”

“When you listen to music, the voice is an instrument,” she continues. In "Humans Become Machines" her words become honeyed by the speed of her lyrical flow, adopting a syncopated sound that acts as a thudding beat.

Her lightning-quick verses pack poetic musings on feminism, society and the nature of existence – an ancient Greek playwright inspired her name.

For many Taiwanese musicians, achieving international recognition can be challenging; poor earning prospects and a dearth of independent labels leave no room for experimental rap artists like Aristophanes to gain traction.

As former President Ma Ying-jiu (馬英九) said at the inauguration of the Ministry of Culture in May 2012: "If politics is a fence, then culture must be a pair of wings that fly over the fence."

Yet Taiwan's soft-power initiatives focus on pop music in an industry dominated by glossy Mandopop and K-pop. Experimental artists are forced either underground or overseas. This does not stop Aristophanes.

“Now we have the internet, so actually being an artist ... it is easier to be international,” Pan insists. It is, after all, how she gained worldwide recognition when electronic producer Claire Boucher (otherwise known as Grimes) found her recordings on Soundcloud and invited her to collaborate on the track "Scream" from the 2015 album "Art Angels."

Aristophanes now has a team of international producers willing to work on her new album.

“Even though I collaborate with international artists, I still feel a strong connection to Taiwan,” Pan says. It is hard not to think that investment in the untapped elements of its creative industry exemplified by Aristophanes presents Taiwan with a chance to expand its global influence.

For now, the artist is content to focus on the music: “I do not need to separate my fans into Taiwanese and international. You can have local communities based on other issues like gender, music, or issues you want to talk about. For example, feminism is a theme in my music – that works for both Asian and European girls.”

A male dominated industry

“The rap community worships masculine themes,” Pan claims – an aspect of the heavily gendered genre that underpins the paucity of female rappers around the world, let alone Taiwan. By excluding a percentage of the population, the industry threatens to miss out on vital creative talent.

Pan believes that change begins with perception.

“People think that there is a male producer mixing for female artists, but [women] are very important parts of production,” she says. It is a stereotype which she believes portrays women as idle bystanders in music's creative and production process.

“Bjork said that women should take a picture of themselves working on the mixer – it’s like you have to provide evidence to show that you’re working on the technical side,” she adds. “Kanye West had lots of producers working on his album, but people had no problem believing that he produced it.

“The situation is still male dominated, but I believe that things are going to change. And I’m happy to be part of that change.”

The meteoric rise of Aristophanes is a breath of fresh air in an industry that often marginalizes women while failing to give them credit as producers of their own music. It is a problem which Grimes, Tokimonsta and many other female musicians have campaigned against fiercely in recent years.

“I think that it’s good for the whole community, not just women but everyone, to see more girls working on the technical side; because we know that diversity can bring so many things, we need something different,” she urges, “That’s the root of the creative industry.”

You can listen to Aristophanes’ album on Spotify.

Editor: Morley J Weston