A Rhythm of His Own

An Interview with Huang Bo

Huang Bo, founder and lead singer of the funk band The Verse, is a Chinese artist who looks to the West for musical and spiritual inspiration. Huang grew up in Changsha and moved to Guangzhou in the 1990s to study oil painting at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. It was there that he formed a grunge/metal band called Blind Influx and his musical career began. In the late ’90s he moved to Beijing and joined up with guitarist Guan Wei. Together they formed The Verse in 1999. A decade later, Huang now lives and works in Xiamen, Fujian province. His music is a fusion of soul, R&B, funk, reggae, and rock. In addition to performing, he lectures, teaches younger musicians, and writes articles promoting soul music in China. In this interview he talks about his influences, his attitudes towards traditional Chinese and Western music, the relationship between religion and his work, and the state of modern music in China.

Western pop music has had a dramatic impact on your music. How were you influenced by this genre and how did you incorporate its elements into your own music? When using these elements, do you have a sense of cultural estrangement?

Some of my greatest musical influences include Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Prince. I started listening to Michael Jackson’s music when I was in middle school. I learned to break dance and even read his biography. Later, I was introduced to the music of Ray Charles, James Brown, and Stevie Wonder, all of whom have had a huge impact on my music. In the beginning, I was simply fond of their music and would mimic them. Later, I started to appreciate on a deeper level what they did in their music. As time went by, creating music became more spontaneous and natural for me.

Regarded as the origin of modern music, soul music spread from the southern part of the United States to the rest of the world. Its rhythmic foundation captures its universality, and my music is grounded in this philosophy. Since rhythm initiated from the human body, people from all over the world should understand it. However, Chinese people generally do not pay attention to—let alone enjoy—rhythm. Many people here tend to be overtly or subconsciously resistant to rhythm. This probably is the biggest barrier to promoting my music in China.

I know you are a devoted Christian. How has religion influenced your music?

Appreciation of art and appreciation of God are inextricably linked. Every wonderful piece of art ultimately refers to the almighty divinity. My religious belief provides a solid base for me and ultimately leads to my aesthetics. I have made consistent progress studying and comprehending the essence of art while practicing Christianity. I am grateful to God for enlightening me.

What role does Chinese culture play in your music?

Over time I have become less and less fond of Chinese culture. Musically, it is a barren land hampering propagation. To a certain extent it’s similar to Indian music and Central Asian music; the music has colorful ornaments but lacks an integrated structure. Sometimes these elements are appreciated by a certain exoticism and can occasionally provide some good ideas, but they are no longer the main foundation for my music.

What characteristics of you as an artist tend to be the most misunderstood?

I like focusing on the essence of modern music. In other words, appreciation of the sound should always be emphasized over any message embodied in the music. The content of one’s music should be spontaneous expression. However, my funk music is often considered merely a sensual pleasure. Most people don’t understand the role traditional music plays in modern music. They believe that funk or blues are musical forms disconnected with their era. In their opinion, I am anything but cool.

What does your ideal audience look like?

Ideally they have the ability to appreciate a longer history of musical traditions rather than simply following the trends. They can think independently and have their own styles even though they don't pursue stylish things. They are sensitive to the true essence of music rather than being obsessed with a particular message or interpretation of a piece.

If you were not composing music, what would you do as a profession?

I've always enjoyed painting. I am also interested in movies, comedies, and writing. I have a very consistent vision when it comes to art. No matter what form it takes, all art shares a similar essence: to express the beauty of the divinity. But without a doubt music will always be my favorite medium.

How would you describe the relationship between you and the city in which you live? How has this relationship changed over the decade?

I just moved from Beijing to Xiamen, which I believe is the most beautiful city in China. Xiamen also has a very rich humanistic history. Before this, I lived in Beijing for 12 years, during which my impression of the city progressively got worse. Once upon a time, Beijing was a platform for a wide range of values; all kinds of people could find their place in the city. However, recently it has become increasingly money-driven, full of anxiety and restlessness. At some point, it will be no different from Shanghai. This is why I moved away.

Courtesy of Huang Bo
Huang Bo jamming with a local resident on Gulangyu island.

I now live on a small island called Gulangyu in Xiamen. It has beautiful scenery and is quiet since it has no cars. I can drink tea in my house or play guitar on the beach. There is a guitar band formed by senior citizens on the island. I enjoy jamming or just hanging out with them.

As a musician living in contemporary China, what do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy advocating the philosophy of modern music. In the West, the culture of modern music has existed for hundreds of years; the general public is almost born with a basic education in modern music. In China, the public only has a fragmented understanding of it due to the lack of a basic education on this history.

Currently, music education in China mostly focuses on classical music. Schools don't have the capacity to teach the theory and the practice of modern music. Outside of the academies, many modern musicians are teaching themselves. However, they might only focus on a single technique instead of having a broader understanding of the horizon. That’s why the current development of Chinese pop music is inferior in quality. Most productions are repetitive and simply go with the flow.

So it is important for me to help promote modern music. I enjoy this kind of work because it helps music lovers better understand the music that they love.

What kind of challenges do you face?

I decided to move from Beijing to Xiamen partially because I found it difficult to find collaborators in Beijing, where very few musicians could meet my performance standards. Therefore, I wanted to find a peaceful, less materialistic place where I could train young musicians systematically. This is the reason why I came to Xiamen, and so far it is going pretty well.

Music, Pop Culture