When Imran Zeb first came into this world his British-Pakistani parents were shocked to see a white-skinned, blonde haired baby looking up at them. He was one of only 3,770 people in the U.K. born with albinism, a genetic condition involving a lack of melanin. As he got older, he became acutely aware of the fact that he was different from the rest of the Muslim community and started to feel alone and isolated. He sometimes struggled to make friends and found it hard to have relationships.
All this changed in 2005 when Imran travelled to China. Although he stood out as one of the few foreigners, nobody seemed to notice that he was an albino, as they were unaccustomed to seeing ethnicities other than Chinese which gave him a sense of anonymity. He fell in love with the country and its people and eventually moved to Shanghai where he got married, learned Chinese and started to make a name for himself as an underground rapper. I caught up with him to find out about how this new beginning changed his life and what it’s like being a westerner in the Chinese hip-hop scene.
Transgression: How did you end up visiting China in the first place and what about it made you want to move there permanently?
Imran: I was undertaking a PHD at St. Antony’s College at Oxford. My field of study was Islam in China. I was initially in the north of China undertaking research as is apparent from my heavily northern-accented Mandarin. China had always held an interest. I grew up watching old Kung Fu flicks and listening to Wu [the Wu-Tang Clan are known for incorporating imagery from Chinese martial arts films into their music] and my father was a taekwondo instructor, which I know is Korean, but still! I grew up in Hackney, East London, and as such we may say I’m a product of my environment [although now heavily gentrified, Hackney was regarded as a high-crime area until recently]. China offered a clean slate.
Transgression: What exactly did you get up to there that made you seek a clean slate?
Imran: Without incriminating myself, let’s say I had a few run-ins with the powers-that-be during my youth.
Transgression: You’ve previously said you liked the anonymity of Shanghai. Could you elaborate?
Imran: In China, I pass as a white guy. It’s a largely homogenous society and of course there are Chinese albinos who stick out but I blend in as just any another foreigner. Shanghai is huge and everyone has little time for anyone. You’d think that’s bad but for someone who wants to be left alone, it’s good.
Transgression: How do the Chinese take to an English rapper rapping in Chinese?
Imran: The Chinese language is tonal. I was fortunate in that I grew up with Punjabi which is also tonal. As such, I was able to acquire a rather proficient level of Chinese. People get impressed here if you can speak Chinese and go nuts if you can rap in it. You can go, chill, go on stage, spit a verse and get compensated handsomely for it. It’s a good look.
Transgression: What’s the hip-hop scene over there like?
Imran: It’s good, though people are cautious of being overly political and critical of the government. You and your family can disappear if you do that. Artists in the U.K. and U.S don’t know how lucky they have it. Freedom of speech is vital and only appreciated when it’s taken away. Hip-hop culture here has made into a very Chinese thing. There’s Chinese vernacular that lets heads know you’re hip-hop. I feel people don’t live and breathe hip-hop like we do in the U.K. or U.S. I am hip-hop – the way I speak and carry myself. Here, it’s contained.
Transgression: You rap about some political issues in your songs. Does that place you at risk?
Imran: That’s one reason I’ve stopped recording; I’ve got kids to take care of. They probably wouldn’t do anything to me but my wife is Chinese. They could and would go after her and her family. Collective guilt is a tool of totalitarian regimes.
Transgression: Are there any Chinese rappers that you rate over there?
Imran: D-Evil is good. He’s funny. K-So is okay. Here if you want to be big, you have to remove all politics from your music as censorship is heavy. MC Hotdog, an older Taiwanese rapper is also dope. He’s found the perfect balance between mainstream and underground but he works out of Taiwan, which is different to the mainland in terms of freedoms.
Transgression: How easy is it for a westerner to integrate into Chinese society? What were some of the biggest cultural obstacles?
Imran: No matter how good your Chinese is you’ll never be Chinese. You’ll always be an outsider. If you’re willing to make an effort in terms of meeting people and speaking to locals it makes things easier. Many people want a Chinese girlfriend as they like Asian chicks but don’t want to accommodate her culturally, as if they’re somehow culturally superior. With age and time, you realise that we’re all people and that you generally get further in life if you’re flexible.
Transgression: What are attitudes towards Muslims like?
Imran: My Islamic tattoos throw people off. They often feel Muslims are from the Middle East. They don’t really understand the idea of converting to a religion.
Transgression: Finally, what are your plans for the years to come?
Imran: I wouldn’t mind opening a company and bringing U.K. artists out here. There’s so much money to be made here. I’m an average rapper and get paid from hip-hop alone, although I speak Chinese, which helps. For now though, I just want to be a good role model to my little mans. Nothing else matters.
*Words by @nickchesterv.
*Art Direction by Ainsley Jade.