MC Tingbudong invites everyone into his 3D hyper-reality playground VIRAL
The project is a conversation between China & Black America in an age of pandemic & protest
Some artists drop EPs with six songs and see how the public reacts. Other artists put out a video or two to build some hype for the EP. And other artists build a 3D playground that hosts music videos, virtual reality experiences, and live performances in six interactive worlds inspired by different technological eras, from MS-DOS to the Playstation era. I guess some rappers write verses, while others create metaverses.
The latter is Jamel Mims aka MC Tingbudong, an African American rapper, artist, scholar, and revolutionary who has just released VIRAL, an EP plus a multimedia project that is a conversation between China and Black America in an age of pandemic and protest.
“VIRAL is a project about a life lived at a historical crossroads in an age of pandemic and protest,” said MC Tingbudong. “I’m trying to envision and write music from the perspective of a future internationalist society, and use music and virtual reality to help bring you to that future world.”
With roots in Washington DC, Jamel always had a thing for languages. So much so that when he was offered the chance to study Chinese at another high school, he jumped at the idea. Unfortunately, the racial makeup of that school was a lot different than what he was used to, leading his teachers to attempt to dissuade him from taking a more ‘difficult’ language. He did anyway. “Thinking back, my experience with language was racialized from the jump,” he said.
In 2006, Jamel got his chance to go to Beijing and study abroad. Of course, being black in China comes with stares, whispers, and other odd behavior by the local population, but the fact that he was studying Hip Hop in China perplexed people the most. “‘You’re black from America and studying the Hip Hop here?’ they would ask with a confused look,” said Jamel.
His mission was to find the real Hip Hop. One day, a friend who produced Sexy Beijing, a documentary series that parodied Sex and the City that was very ahead of its time, asked Jamel to come with her for the bling bling Beijing episode. “That night really changed the trajectory of my life,” Jamel said as he met up with Beijing legend DJ Wordy as well as MCs Nasty Ray, Raph Yinsan’r, and the Yincang crew. That very same night, Jamel jumped on stage, rapping in fluent Mandarin but wearing a shirt with the characters 听不懂 on it. His crew started calling him Tingbudong and it stuck.
Soon, Jamel found a home in the Beijing Hip Hop community, because they didn’t see him as an outsider. “We would dance, freestyle, and debate Hip Hop artists. The Hip Hop crews were the ones I could interact with on a much deeper basis.”
Jamel went back to America and got a Fulbright scholarship to independently study Chinese Hip Hop. As he was getting ready to leave for China, he got pulled on the street and beaten by police from the Boston Police Department. “You don’t know you have a scholar!,” Jamel yelled as the cops abused him. The next day, he got a call saying that his scholarship may be revoked. He had to go down and basically beg for the scholarship not to be pulled. This incident would foreshadow Jamel’s anti-police brutality activism, and interests in protests and revolutions.
It was here when he got to thinking about appropriation. Are the Asian kids just appropriating Hip Hop culture and does that matter? When he asked some of his friends why they were wearing baggy pants, they told him it wasn’t appropriating black culture. Instead, they were copying what their parents were wearing during the Mao era in China. “Cultural diffusion was much less about appropriation and much more about appreciation and intersections,” Jamel said.
SECOND TIME AROUND
In 2018, Jamel headed back to China for the Found Sound China exchange program that had him team up with Chinese producers and create some music. After a month of working on the tracks, they headed out and played at various clubs in China, culminating with performances at Yue space in Beijing. Jamel followed this next year with a solo tour of performances as MC Tingbudong at venues in Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as the Modern Sky Music Festival.
By this time, too, Chinese hip hop had reached mainstream audiences domestically and overseas, with the popularity of shows such as the Rap of China. There was now a clear line between an Old School ‘shuochang’ flow and a more commercial-driven ‘xiha’ and Trap sound. Popular American acts like Famous Dex even featured collaborations from Chinese artists like the Higher Brothers. While everything started somewhere, Jamel thought, “Genetic copies may cause great divisions, so even remixing Hip Hop was making something good because it was cultural diffusion.
Jamel was also questioning the intersections of Black America and China. Why is there a prevalence of Chinese food places in every hood? Did anyone else know the game cee-lo, played for money against walls everywhere was actually based on the ancient Chinese game 四五六? He began to research these connections
Getting back to the States, Jamel was thinking about putting out three songs for an EP loosely based around the theme of these intersections between Black America and China. He wanted to tell this story through technology: a TikTok-friendly song, a LoFi Hip Hop YouTube streaming-type song, and a song inspired by the global sounds of the Shanghai underground electronic music scene. He planned to return to China to meet with collaborators. Fortunately, he revived a Civic Media Fellowship from USC Annenberg, which provided the space and resources to re-envision the project as an interactive portal that transports listeners to the virtual world of MC Tingbudong.
Called VIRAL and created in the middle of two pandemics - racism and COVID-19, MC Tingbudong’s virtual world gives people six experiences to go along with the music. There are music videos, mini-games, and even a VR interactive city-based environment to explore, woven together by a futuristic storyline and soundscape spanning Lo-Fi, Trap, JPpop, Drum & Bass, and Drill, Each item on the virtual dashboard is interactive and can lead you down a rabbit hole through BLM protests, WeChat feeds, futuristic neon Chinatowns, and a lot of surprises. Access to the virtual world is free until December 12, and Jamel will host daily programs, including live concerts with Shanghai Community Radio, Rise Radio NYC, and conversations with artists across the Chinese and Asian diaspora including Jason Chu, Eddie Lu, Kayla Briet, and Bohan Phoenix.
The name MC Tingbudong is not only an oxymoron because Jamel speaks perfect Mandarin, but it’s also perfectly paradoxical because he has such a deep understanding of Hip Hop and what it means to people that aren’t in America. “I want to challenge people’s perceptions of Hip Hop in the US, Asia, and around the world. I want to cultivate, build, organize, and get Hip Hop lovers from anywhere to come together and experience VIRAL and be inspired by the vision of a future society and culture without borders or language; to recognize the historical crossroads we’re in, and act accordingly.”
You can find the details and schedule of events as well as get lost for hours at MC Tingbudong’s amazing virtual playground at https://tingbudong.nyc/.