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Talk Asia

Interview with Musician and "Godfather of Chinese Rock and Roll", Cui Jian

Aired August 03, 2012 - 05:30   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: (voiceover): This is one of the most recognized songs in China. A man asking for love. It's not only famous for being one of the country's first homegrown rock tunes, but because, in 1989, student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square adopted it as one of the anthems of their democracy movement. A historical event that would underline the star status of the song's creator, Cui Jian.

Affectionately known as "The Godfather of Chinese Rock", the pioneer's musical journey began as a trumpeter for the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. But, by the 80s, the classical musician-turned-rocker burst onto the stage with songs like this.

Opening the ears of Chinese society to a sound entirely different from the propaganda tunes of the day. Introducing lyrics that talked about frustration, idealism, and alienation. By the 90s, Cui was blocked from large-scale performances, his lyrics seen as challenging authority, forcing Cui and his band outside of mainstream culture.

Six years ago, Cui resurfaced, singing alongside the Rolling Stones in Shanghai and, today, is still rocking China's crowd.

This week, on "Talk Asia", CNN's Stan Grant is in Beijing with China's first rock star to talk about Tiananmen, censorship, and playing alongside Mick Jagger.


STAN GRANT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Cui Jian, welcome to "Talk Asia". "The Godfather of Chinese Rock" - that's what you've been called. Are you happy to be known as that?

CUI JIAN, MUSICIAN: Yes, but I'm kind of tired about -

GRANT: You're tired.


JIAN: Kind of.

GRANT: Because you're still playing -

JIAN: Yes.

GRANT: -- you're not exactly someone who's retired.

JIAN: Yes. Yes.

GRANT: Where does the love of it come for you? What inspired you to be interested in rock and roll?

JIAN: You know, this is a very individual feeling. You know, they gave me so many space to think and then to explain myself - really myself.

GRANT: So it really connected with you?

JIAN: Yes, yes.

GRANT: Was there a moment - was there a song or a musician or a singer who really connected with you? You said, "Yes, this is what I want to do."?

JIAN: So many. When I start listen to rock music, I start from Paul Simon, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Police.

GRANT: How old were you, then?

JIAN: I was 24 or 25.

GRANT: So you're 24 when you really start to think, "This is what I'd like to do. This is the sort of music I'd like to do". But you'd been involved in music before.

JIAN: I start play trumpet when I was 14-years-old with my father. I had kind of a classical music training.

GRANT: But you went from trumpet to guitar?

JIAN: Yes. I work in the sing and dance troupe symphony band. And then it turned to Beijing Symphony Orchestra. So I play trumpet there.

GRANT: Your father, you said, was a musician. Was he a real influence on you?

JIAN: Yes, very much. He was working in a Beijing - no, in Army march band. And then turned to sing and dance troupe. So I have a strong influence from him.

GRANT: And making that switch from trumpet to guitar for being a rock band - tell us about that whole time for you. You have to become a showman. How did you make that change?

JIAN: When I'm holding a guitar, I got a little more confident. You know, actually, before that, I would say I was a shy guy. You know, I was trying to looking for some better way. And then finally, I found a guitar and I really can sing. And people give more attention on me and I thought, "OK, this is the thing I will do forever".

GRANT: I want to talk to you now about the song "Nothing to My Name". When you wrote that song, were you really imagining that it was going to become the anthem to be so much associated with you, take on such meaning, become so controversial. When you wrote it, were you thinking about that at the time?

JIAN: I don't know. I wrote the song very quick. It's early 1986. That year was international peace year. So there was a company who want set up two concerts in Beijing [UNCLEAR] amazing. I was invited by the leader of a company. He told me, "You can play one song. What are you going to sing?"

So no, I didn't know this is a song could be a, you know, success.

GRANT: But the song took on a whole new meaning in 1989, didn't it? Tell us about that.

JIAN: Actually, the students pick up so many different songs. This song is just one of them. I was kicked out by the leadership of the students because someone would think this was pretty dangerous for them. For the students to get such high - excited. Too excited for them, it's not good for the health - for their health. So, I was kicked out at the time.

GRANT: You were too dangerous for the students. And "Piece of Red Cloth" as well - you also sang that. That also took on this meaning, didn't it?

JIAN: Yes. I wrote the song I think it's '87. The message on the paper - on the lyrics - you couldn't tell it is a political song. It could be a love song. Because I wrote this song, you know, maybe on the age of two side. You know, I said maybe is love or sex or one is politics.

GRANT: Do you think that rock music needs to be political? It needs to say something to people that really touches them - really inspires them?

JIAN: Yes. I am proud of that. Of that I did this. I want to give a serious message in the pop music. Right now, I think most of the rock and roll music - they just don't want touch this. You know, they think this is not fashion anymore. And that the young people will think this not cool. I think this a part of rock and roll music - good melody, good energy, and good message.


GRANT: Whenever anyone talks about rock and roll, you talk about the parties. Was it a wild time? Was it a crazy time?

JIAN: Yes, party time.





GRANT: Do you think China has changed a lot during your lifetime?

JIAN: Yes. Wow.

GRANT: A lot of people say this now.

JIAN: Yes.

GRANT: They feel as if the politics is changing and, you know, the people are becoming more comfortable about speaking out, you know?

JIAN: Yes. I think the biggest enemy in this country is the corruption. I think everybody will - now they learn it.


JIAN: That this is really hurting this country.

GRANT: Political corruption?

JIAN: Yes.

GRANT: Business corruption?

JIAN: Yes.

GRANT: Do you think that people are more unhappy in China now?

JIAN: Definitely. Yes.

GRANT: Yes, I always feel like someone -

JIAN: Someone will - you know, they do this, "I'm happy, I'm happy". And then, after they deal with it back home, I actually think some people do. It's something people do.

GRANT: Yes, yes.

People don't really associate China and rock and roll. And, at that point, in China, it was still - it was opening up, but it was still very closed to a lot of people. Was it easy to listen to the Rolling Stones, or the Police, or David Bowie? Where did you buy that stuff? Where did you - how did you get access to it?

JIAN: In Beijing. You know, I think it's only in Beijing, I think. You know, it's very hard for the people, you know, in the other city who has no connection with the, you know - to the foreign people working in the embassy or professors teaching in the college or students in the college how have a lot of friends.

GRANT: So it was a group of friends?

JIAN: Yes.

GRANT: A group of musicians. And you're all sharing music together, talking about music together?

JIAN: Sure .

GRANT: That's where it really came from?

JIAN: Yes.

GRANT: Was it a small scene at that point?

JIAN: It was pretty small. But if you in there, you don't feel small. Because every day, you with them. Every day you talk about music with them. And you drink with them. You have party. You're, you know, with them.

GRANT: It's funny. Whenever anyone talks about or thinks about rock and roll and those rock and roll scenes, you talk about the parties. People always imagine, you know, the wild times as well. Was it a wild time? Was it a crazy time?

JIAN: I think it's even wilder than that was.

GRANT: Even wilder here.

JIAN: Now, yes. Really. And it's real - nobody talks about money, they talk about a good time. So that's real.

GRANT: So it was just a party time?

JIAN: Yes, party time. Now, everybody always talk about pay and talk about, you know, talk about so many things.

GRANT: You were just doing it for the love of it, then? Not worrying about the money.

JIAN: Actually, we made pretty good money at that moment.

GRANT: Did you?

JIAN: Compared to normal, you know, work.



GRANT: 10,000 people. Did you feel, then, that you were accepted? You feel, then, that this was - China was saying, "Yes, this person has a voice. This person has a right to speak. This person is someone that we should put on the big stage".

JIAN: For the young people now, the going to the concert or the going to follow some big stars - unfortunately, now, you know, they don't want message anymore. They want be a part of economic developing. They don't care about message now. So -

GRANT: They're not politically interested?

JIAN: Yes, so, it's not dangerous anymore - being the political rock and roll musician in China.

GRANT: How do you walk that line between wanting to say something politically, but knowing it could have big consequences? You could get into a lot of trouble.

JIAN: Yes, I think this is kind of a game. Or you have to censorship yourself first. Even before you start writing.

GRANT: So, you've done that?

JIAN: I did this, yes. That is a part of your life, you know, to being artist in China. It's not only me. We have so many friends who has a lot of this kind of experiences. So we communicate a lot. I know - we really think this is a part of us. We cannot escape from that.

GRANT: In China, saying anything politically -

JIAN: Actually, it's not that hard anymore.

GRANT: Not that hard, now?

JIAN: No. Actually --

GRANT: If you say it the right way? Is that what you're saying?

JIAN: Yes. Or you have to keep saying that. You make this kind of noise in the long term already. And then people will say, "OK, this guy - that's him. So, you know - "

GRANT: Let him sing.

JIAN: A least he's not trying to making trouble. He has this kind of a responsibility deeply in his body and then they will think, "Maybe we should listen to him. It's not bad for us".

GRANT: So you have to keep that message over time?

JIAN: Yes.

GRANT: But you did pay a price. You did have songs banned.

JIAN: Yes.

GRANT: Playing live was difficult for you - you had to play in smaller venues. Was all of this because of your association with 1989? With the protests? Because of your music? Because of your lyrics?

JIAN: One hand is - we had a lot of songs banned and a lot of shows banned. And, on the other hand, we still had a good time. We can feel someone is helping. We really can feel that. It's from everywhere in China.

GRANT: Were there people who were coming to -

JIAN: People working in the government and people, you know, sit in the audience seat, or people in anywhere - in business, in foreign companies, in Chinese companies. I can feel it so warm. Someone really tried to help me.

GRANT: Do you think that being banned and having this reputation -

JIAN: Yes?

GRANT: -- actually might have helped you in some way?

JIAN: You're right. You know, when I was first time in Seattle - I played in Seattle Bumbershoot Music Festival. And I was only one to invited by the Seattle government to give a speech. Because they believed we are the one who can, you know, represent the young people in China. So they ask me to give a speech. In some way, we had a good images about China. People would think, "Oh, China is changing. China is open".

GRANT: If you see artists like Ai Weiwei, for instance - very controversial. We know has had his problems with the government. Do you identify with people like that? Do you think they are going - people like Ai Weiwei are going about things the right way? Making the right comments?

JIAN: I have no direct position to say that, because I'm very close with him. He even tried to design a house for me, you know. Yes, so - and he did this for free. So, he's very nice to me and he's very brave. And I was worried about his, you know, his family or his personal life.


GRANT: You sang with the Rolling Stones.

JIAN: When I listen to their music, I would feel - it's a good dirty. I mean, not the bad dirty.

GRANT: Yes, yes.





GRANT: Mick Jagger - you sang with the Rolling Stones. He's your hero - your idol, and you end up being able to sing with him. It must have been an amazing moment for you.

JIAN: I couldn't believe that it was true. I still couldn't believe it. Because I saw them many, many times on the videos on TV. And I feel totally different way about listening to their music. When I listen to their music, I would feel - it's a good dirty. I mean, not the bad dirty.

GRANT: Yes, yes.

JIAN: It is a holiday feeling. I mean, enjoying the life, you know. Suddenly, when you're driving a car and you listen to their music and you can feel a man talking the truth about love, about family, about sex -

GRANT: His feelings -

JIAN: -- you know, this guy talking about the truth. He writes something bad, but it's the truth. You know, that kind of good feeling. I think China needs that. It's noble.

GRANT: Were you nervous before you had to play with them?

JIAN: I was a little nervous, because I had a lyrics problem. Because I'm not a good cover song singer.

GRANT: Right.

JIAN: So, I have to sing in English, which is not I'm used to do.



JIAN: I was trying so hard to translate into Chinese and he refused to sing in Chinese.

GRANT: I want to talk about your future. You were involved with the Snow Mountains Music Festival. They're calling that, really, China's Woodstock. Is it the same sort of thing? Big music festival - what's the future of that?

JIAN: I have to say, that music festival is the first official government support rock music festival. Before that we have so many underground music festival - like mini music festival many years before the Snow Mountain Festival. But that festival is pretty, you know, official.

GRANT: Are you really pleased - excited - about that new generation of rock and roll singers? I know you said people don't want to hear the message anymore. But are you excited about the music?

JIAN: I asked myself many, many times about this. I think, internationally, you know, there was something wrong. You know, the message is good and the energy's bad. Or everything is good -

GRANT: The lyrics are bad.

JIAN: The lyrics are bad. Whatever.

GRANT: Do you think that's because we're getting old, you know? We're too old, now -


GRANT: We like the old music, we don't want to hear the new music.

JIAN: No, I like Hip-Hop music. I like electronic music. I like, you know - I can get a lot of energies from the young people.

GRANT: You're moving, as well, into film now. You're in "Beijing Bastards", which was banned as well. Did you feel that was really about your story?

JIAN: It's like a documentary, but it's not my story. So, it Yuan Zhang arc, Yuan Zhang view, Yuan Zhang is the director about rock and roll music in China.

GRANT: And transcendence? 3-D film. Again, your story. Is it difficult to get a film like that released?

JIAN: It sounds like it's not hard. We change a little bit, like the slang language like in the lyrics. One song I came out to play, that's it. So, that's it.

GRANT: Do you see yourself moving more into film, now and moving away from music? Will you do more film?

JIAN: When I was growing up in the army, I have a lot of chances to see the [UNCLEAR] movies. I remember when I first time to see a good movie, I would write it down. That's like a diary. And I give starts, like five star, four star. So I really, you know, loved being in the world - of a movie's world. You know, I can feel another dream.

GRANT: And just finally, you've been such a star, or such an iconic figure here in China. What about the rest of the world? Does that interest you? Being able to play to international audiences. To really take your message and music to the world?

JIAN: Definitely, I'd love to. I always tell my manager, say, "OK, we should make our price down". You know, we just want to make the budget low. We played in Germany and in New York City, we stayed in a friend's home. You know, because the hotel there is very expensive.

GRANT: So, whatever you can do to get your music out, you're prepared to do it.

JIAN: Yes. But not recently. Our music is too political for the foreign viewers or listeners. They will think, "Oh, the rock and roll music from China, it must be political".

GRANT: It's about the society.

JIAN: About you. About a person. What do you want to be? What do you want to share with your friend, with your family? People will say, "You are so Western". What? I say, "I'm not a Westerner, you know, I'm Chinese". And people will say me, "You play your rock and roll music, and then you're becoming non-Chinese". I say, "No". I say, "I'm more Chinese than you". I wouldn't say that. I say, "Why you say that?" "Because you're making trouble, and the Chinese people don't want making trouble".

GRANT: Well, I hope you continue to make trouble and continue in your career. Cui Jian, thank you very much for talking to us.

JIAN: Sure.

GRANT: Thank you.