Red singer rising
Updated: 2012-04-06 07:54
By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)
Martin Cityzen, who sings Chinese red songs, considers cultural differences the biggest hurdle. Provided to China Daily
US performer strikes chord on the ground
Mention "red songs" in China and images of massed choirs belting out patriotic, revolutionary scores spring.
Many older folk who still remember the struggles of the Chinese Communists on the road to New China fear that the songs, heavy with tradition, are losing their appeal with younger audiences who are more interested in pop music.
Enter Martin Cityzen, a 25-year-old Colorado native who is fast building a reputation as a hip-hop singer of Chinese folk music.
During the Spring Festival this year, Cityzen was invited to perform at galas for Chinese TV stations.
Cityzen first shot to fame in July, after his online video rendition of Yingshanhong, a famous song praising the courage of the Red Army, received about 1.5 million hits in less than three weeks.
The US performer added hip hop and reggae elements, rewrote some of the lyrics and recreated some parts of the song to give it a "modern twist".
"I like his takes, which refresh the old songs and give them a new vitality," says Zheng Yang, a fan of Cityzen as well as folk songs. "He also has a beautiful voice and impressive performance skills."
Cityzen's passion for music started when he was a child. He put together a band during high school before heading to St. Lawrence University in New York, studying political science and economics. He arrived in Shanghai in 2006 as an exchange student.
After performing in gigs in Shanghai, he discovered his music struck a chord with Chinese audiences - prompting him to consider seeking his musical fortune in the country.
"I really enjoy having new experiences, doing more adventurous stuff. If I pursue music in America, I don't think it has all the advantages that doing music in China can bring. Because in China, I can travel, experience a different culture, learn a new language and be part of a fast growing market, which are all great benefits I wouldn't have in America."
So he came back to China in 2009 after graduating and got a job teaching English in a college in Nanchang, Jiangxi province. But three times a week, he would play the guitar and sing in a bar for about one hour, earning about 100 yuan ($16, 12 euros).
His singing career took off with an appearance in the 2010 Happy Boys, a Chinese talent show similar to American Idol.
"I would never do this in America as my mentality growing up was always more alternative. American Idol was perceived as too pop and too commercial," he says. "But in China, if you want to become a famous singer but don't have a large social network and connections, TV competitions are helpful."
Cityzen recalls how he had to write a new song very quickly after passing the show's various rounds, getting his friends to translate the lyrics into Chinese.
"An important lesson I've learned is that even if you are not fully prepared, you should still go for it; do not let the fear of not being perfect stop you," he says.
By playing his own music, he finally made it to the top 30 among more than 200,000 participants. He quit his teaching job and focused on music.
Cityzen found himself drawn to the unique aspects of Chinese folk music, many of them red songs. "I like red songs like Yingshanhong, which have very beautiful melodies. It's beautiful no matter what you sing about."
When the country was celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, Cityzen thought it was good timing to come out with his own versions of these songs - to the delight of many listeners.
But Cityzen is also trying to come up with his own original music.
"I want the Chinese audience to see me as an artist, just like other singers that write original music. And listen to the music because they like the song, not just because they like a white guy singing in Chinese. It is a challenge that I look forward to."
Cityzen is finely tuned to the reaction of Chinese listeners to his music and the different tastes between East and West.
"In China, the singing culture is very popular and music is very lyrically driven. So songs that people can remember and can sing at karaoke sessions are very important," says Cityzen, who is speeding up his Chinese language lessons so that he can write better lyrics.
Still, there is one segment of the Chinese audience that he does not attempt to cater too much to - those who go for love songs.
"I like to sing about personal growth, following your dreams, overcoming challenges, dealing with loneliness and such and the element of love also being just part of all that," he says.
In 2010, Cityzen started a band in Beijing called Martin's Crosswalk after meeting some people who shared his musical dreams of making it in the country.
Apart from writing and playing music with his band mates, he has also written, acted in and directed two 20-minute movies, telling stories about their musical aspirations. That is scheduled for release this month.
"Martin is humorous and optimistic," says Fan Runyu, the band's drummer. "But when it comes to work, he is a perfectionist. He takes every rehearsal as a real performance and won't stand any slight errors."
Strangely enough, the US singer of Chinese red songs still considers cultural differences the biggest hurdle.
"The way people do business, the way of life in China, is different from that in America. Even when you speak good Chinese, there can also be some misunderstanding," he says.
Tan Hui, Cityzen's agent and a close friend, recalls a business dinner when Cityzen was asked to sing a song but refused.
"Americans won't sing at the dinner table, but in China it is not rare. So I had to kick him under the desk and whisper 'sing, sing'," she laughs.
Another thing that troubles Cityzen is that most Chinese audiences have relatively narrow images of foreigners. He says that when people watch TV, they see foreigners, but do not really know who they are.
In the past, some fans would request photos with him after seeing him perform but had no idea who he was.
"The challenge is being branded as an artist rather than being branded as a foreigner," he says.
The situation is getting better as he performs more, interacts with fans and uses micro blogs and online forums.
He is now working on a first album that includes all his original songs. But he also wants to perform in bigger shows and be able to hold concerts.
"That should happen when I have enough fans to fill a big stadium," he says.