Even though she has already made three albums and is one of the coaches on the reality singing competition The Voice UK, Jessie J hasn’t been deterred from taking on a new challenge. She is currently competing in Hunan Satellite TV’s The Singer, one of the most highly watched reality singing shows in China.
The move comes after the 29 year-old admitted she wanted to get back to singing rather than mentoring others. “I love to SING. I can’t explain how blessed I feel to sing to millions of people every week… The love I am feeling is amazing,” the songstress explained recently on her social media account, before adding that “100+ million people in China” watch the weekly show.
But fans outside China were baffled to find her on a foreign singing competition. A video of Jessie J singing a cover version of the late Whitney Houston’s I have Nothing went viral beyond China and led one British fan to tweet: “Wait, I’m confused… Is Jessie J now a contestant on a singing show? I thought the whole world already knows who she was?”
“Did Jessie J seriously enter a Chinese talent show? I’m so confused,” another wrote online.
The premise of the Chinese show is to pit eight professional singers against one another with the live audience voting on their favourites. Producers in the past had invited some foreign singers – like Dinmukhamed Kanatuly Kudaibergen from Kazakhstan last season, and Shila Amzah from Malaysia – but Jessie J is the first British contestant on the show and also its first recognised ‘global’ name.
A report on Baidu said she makes $5 million per episode, which – if true – means that if she doesn’t get voted off, and lasts all 14 episodes in the season, she could make $70 million just from appearing (plus her new popularity in China will likely see her paid to endorse products).
So far, not only has Jessie J won over Chinese fans with her powerful vocal performances – she was voted first place three weeks in a row, unprecedented on the show – her friendliness has also made her an unexpected ambassador for UK soft power. Whenever she is not rehearsing, she is spotted roaming around Changsha – where the Hunan TV network is headquartered – sightseeing and shopping. One fan even took a picture of the singer taking a bite of stinky tofu, a popular (and pungent) fermented snack.
“I never thought I would bump into an international superstar here in Changsha. She is so friendly, taking pictures with anyone who asked. I’m so star-struck,” one netizen wrote online about meeting her.
“Jessie J is so down-to-earth. I wish she’d just move to China permanently,” another gushed.
She has also made new friends on the show itself. For instance, when the UK star saw Zhang Tien, a young debutante contestant from Hong Kong, weeping offstage after messing up a performance, she ran up to give her a hug. She even cleaned up Zhang’s smudged mascara and took off her fake eyelashes, with the impromptu scene leading netizens to describe Jessie J as “the best girlfriend one can find”.
“The moment between the two singers feels so genuine and authentic. It just goes to say that Jessie J is not only beautiful on the outside but also on the inside,” one fan wrote on weibo.
Other audience members, however, are more curious about what Jessie J made of the disappearance of another contestant, rapper GAI, who failed to turn up after making second place in the first episode. While no explanation was offered, all his footage from the previous episode was eerily cut out.
Netizens speculated the move was related to the recent crackdown on rap music in China (see WiC393). Shortly before GAI was pulled from the show, the media regulator was reported to have circulated new guidelines telling broadcasters that they should not feature hip-hop music or give airtime to people with questionable morals or visible tattoos.
Still, yanking the 27 year-old rapper off air has caught the industry by surprise. After all, unlike other rappers, GAI had always toed the Party line, touting the virtues of traditional Chinese values (in one song, he rhymes about a monk enduring hardships). In the first episode of Singer, he also avoided showing any of his tattoos.
“Hip-hop isn’t all and just about moaning and criticism,” GAI told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “Chinese hip-hop has a mission to promote positive energy which suits China’s reality.”
It is not the first time contestants on The Singer have been pulled for political reasons. Hins Cheung, a Hong Kong singer, was dismissed before the show premiered last season. At the time, industry observers reckoned media authorities were not pleased with the singer’s involvement in the city’s ‘umbrella movement’ a large-scale student-led protest that rocked the city in 2016.
Meanwhile, the rap community is increasingly worried about the genre’s status in China. A producer told Entertainment Capital, an industry blog, the strict new media controls could derail the future of hip-hop in the country. Many concert organisers have already received unofficial notices that for the remainder of the year all hip-hop performances are to be closely monitored. “I really don’t know what will happen. We can only take a step by step approach,” one event organiser lamented.
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