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A Guide To Cantopop: From Beyond And Sam Hui To Anita Mui
Since the 1970s, Cantopop has melded Western genres with local sounds to create a musical melting pot — much like Hong Kong itself. Read on for 10 Cantopop artists who have shaped the genre.
Written in Chinese and sung in Cantonese, Cantopop is a melting pot of global influences much like the city of Hong Kong itself. A direct product of Hong Kong popular culture, Cantopop — or HK-pop (short for Hong Kong pop music) — is inspired by Western pop, rock, jazz, disco and ballads. And while it may have been eclipsed by the rise of K-pop and Mandopop in recent years, Cantopop groups such as Mirror and Collar are making a comeback.
The Cantopop genre began in the 1970s, and reached its highest glory in the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, Cantopop artists such as Anita Mui (dubbed Madonna of the East), Leslie Cheung and Andy Lau (who was known as one of the Four Heavenly Kings alongside solo artists Aaron Kwok, Leon Lai and Jacky Cheung), toured the world — especially in mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Cantopop’s popularity started to decline in the new millennium, as Mandarin became more closely tied to China’s economic and cultural growth.
Interest in Cantopop has renewed following the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to prolonged border closures and travel restrictions. The pro-democracy protests in 2019 and the passing of Hong Kong’s national security law in 2020 has also contributed to a resurgence of Hong Kong pride, leading many natives to support their local artists.
Cantopop artists and composers hail from different parts of Asia, among them Taiwanese singers Sally Yeh and the late Teresa Teng, a Mandopop singer who also crossed over into Cantopop. There are also many Cantopop performers who were raised in Canada, including Denise Ho and Joyce Cheng.
During the pandemic, Cantopop boy band Mirror skyrocketed in popularity in Hong Kong. Local media has even described them as "the new kings of Cantopop." They’re hoping to bring their local success internationally, and released their first English single, "Rumours," in March.
As Cantopop experiences a resurgence, here is a list of 10 artists that have helped shape the genre over the decades.
Sam Hui is widely credited with popularizing Cantopop by infusing Western-style music with his usage of vernacular Cantonese rather than standard written Cantonese. He also used witty and biting lyrics to address contemporary concerns, humorously satirizing the problems faced by working class Hong Kongers.
Hui was also known for his flamboyant biker outfits and guitar skills. He is considered to be the first major superstar of Cantopop, and was given the name "God of Song." His relatability also earned him the affectionate nickname "Brother Sam."
Beyond was a Hong Kong rock band that formed in 1983, and is widely considered as the most successful and influential Cantopop band from Hong Kong. The band became known for singing songs about the pursuit of dreams, politics, peace and social issues including racism. One of their most famous works includes the 1990 song "Glorious Years (光輝歲月)," which was about racism and the struggle of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The hit song stood out among the sea of love songs that dominated the Cantopop scene.
Beyond’s music continues to resonate. Their song "Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies" remains an anthem for Hong Kongers for its themes of personal freedom and the pursuit of dreams. It became the unofficial anthem of the 2014 Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.
Anita Mui was a singer and actress who has been regarded as the "Madonna of the East" or the "daughter of Hong Kong" for her contributions to Cantopop. She was well known for her avant-garde costumes, high-powered performances and contralto vocals, which are rare for female vocalists.
She released 50 albums over the course of her two decade career. However, her career came to an abrupt end in 2003 when she announced she had cervical cancer, from which her sister also died at a young age. Mui held a series of concerts in Hong Kong that November — her last before her death in December at the age of 40.
Known for his flamboyant and androgynous style, Leslie Cheung is considered a queer pioneer in the Cantopop scene. His career was marked by both praise and criticism, with numerous public discussions focusing on his sexual orientation.
Cheung first rose to fame in 1984 with the release of his self-titled album and the single "Monica," whose upbeat production introduced a new trend to the otherwise sentimental ballad-heavy Cantopop. Cheung also rose to fame as an actor, starring in films including A Better Tomorrow, Days of Being Wild and Happy Together, which depicted a gay male relationship.
Cheung’s last concert tour occurred between 2000 and 2001, in which he collaborated with fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier to create drag-inspired performances. Cheung died by suicide at the age of 46, and his death shocked the Asian entertainment industry as well as the Chinese community worldwide.
Dubbed one of the Four Heavenly Kings (alongside Aaron Kwok, Jacky Cheung and Leon Lai), Andy Lau is one of the most successful Cantopop singers of all time. Each were solo singers who occasionally performed together on stage. During the 1990s, the Four Heavenly Kings – a name inspired by the the four Buddhist gods Jikokuten, Tamonten, Zochoten and Komokuten – dominated music and coverage in magazines, TV, ads and cinema, and each also developed successful acting careers. Lau starred in films including Infernal Affairs and God of Gamblers.
Lau’s singing career reached mainstream success in 1990 with the release of Would it Be Possible. And in 2000, he made the Guinness Book of Records for the most awards won by a Cantopop male artist. On top of singing in Cantonese and Mandarin, Lau has also sung in English, Japanese and Malay.
Faye Wong came to public attention in 1989 with the release of her debut album Shirley Wong, in which she combined alternative music with mainstream Chinese pop. Throughout her career, she has been known to push the boundaries of Cantopop by drawing influence from punk, dream-pop and indie. Wong named Scottish post-punk band Cocteau Twins among her favorite bands, and noted their influence on her 1994 album, Random Thoughts.
Wong is also known for her acting, starring in Wong Kar-wai’s film Chungking Express. Her Cantonese version of the Cranberries’ "Dreams" is famously featured on the movie’s soundtrack.
Joey Yung released her debut EP in 1999, but broke through the Cantopop scene with her 2003 single "My Pride." In the years since, she became known for singing slow-burn songs with climatic bridges, while her ballads and pop numbers have since made her a staple in the Hong Kong music scene.
With a worldwide fanbase, she has toured all over the globe with stops in the United States, Australia and Canada. Sheremains one of the most influential working Cantopop singers today. Her last Cantonese album Schrodinger's Cat was released in 2021, and continues to tour across Asia and parts of North America.
Collar was formed through the reality competition show "King Maker IV," and its name references what they consider to be the woman’s most attractive body part.
The name is meant to represent Collar as one of the most attractive girl groups, and their ability to enchant the audience with their talents and performances. The eight-member group debuted in January 2022 with the upbeat pop track "Call My Name!", which took heavy inspiration from K-pop with intense choreography and bright and colorful costumes.
Error is a boy band consisting of members who competed on the reality competition show "Good Night Show - King Maker" in 2018. While members of the group ultimately did not win (the winners eventually became Mirror), they formed Error as a comedic musical act.
Their single "404" is a parody of Mirror’s "In a Second" (一秒間)." While Error do not have as big of a fandom as Mirror, the group now appear on variety shows and are loved by many for their wacky and outrageous antics.
Mirror is a 12-member Cantopop boy group who have won numerous accolades in Hong Kong and have a loyal legion of fans, known as MIRO. Since their debut, Mirror has been considered one of the driving forces in the renewed interest of Cantopop with music that blends pop, funk, R&B and hip-hop. The group has prompted a wave of fandom culture in Hong Kong, with their faces plastered on billboards, buses and subway ads.
Now they are looking to further their popularity amongst international audiences with the release of their first English single "Rumours." The EDM-laced track has the members singing about the rumors surrounding a potential relationship, and its accompanying music video has since reached more than 890,000 views.
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5 Artists Showing The Future Of AAPI Representation In Rap: Audrey Nuna, TiaCorine & More
A growing number of Asian American and Pacific Islander artists are exploring how hip-hop can help them meaningfully express their multiculturalism — and they're being embraced for doing so.
Is it possible for an Asian American rapper to achieve widespread commercial success? In the 2016 documentary Bad Rap, no one could be too sure.
At that point, some firsts for the community turned out to be false starts: In the ‘90s, Mountain Brothers was the first Asian American rap group to sign to a major label, but left just two years later. In the early aughts, MC Jin lost critical career momentum he gained from his impressive winning streak on "106 & Park’s" Freestyle Fridays, when Ruff Ryders delayed his debut album release by more than a year. As Miley Cyrus sparked a national conversation about cultural appropriation in hip-hop, Bad Rap’s subjects faced questions regarding whether they’re just as guilty as Cyrus, or whether their music was helping break the “model minority” stereotype.
Since then, hip-hop, a Black music tradition, has spawned countless global scenes, bringing contemporary rap across the Pacific and beyond. Rap taking hold in Asia can still seem contentious, whether dissecting K-pop's use of the genre or revisiting the viral songs that landed Awkwafina in Bad Rap. But, there is also a growing number of artists who are figuring out how hip-hop can help them meaningfully express and explore their multiculturalism — and are being embraced by the music industry for doing so.
In 2013, Kanye West’s jarring Yeezus changed Audrey Nuna’s music tastes for good, encouraging her to check out hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest and MF DOOM. From there, she "started making what I wanted to hear," as she told Pigeons and Planes.
Nuna prefers to call herself a singer, to better reflect the stylistic versatility throughout her 2021 debut a liquid breakfast. Still, the "Robitussin flow" in "Comic Sans" is undeniable — to where Jack Harlow responded to her cold email and hopped on the song’s remix.
The making of a liquid breakfast made Nuna realize that she never has to search far to find inspiration. On "Blossom," Nuna’s grandmother laughs as she tells her about how, while fleeing the Korean War, she woke up from a nap on the migrant trail to find that her travel group — including her family — accidentally left her behind.
In the future, Nuna hopes to feature more Korean instrumentation as she channels her current influence, Radiohead. As Nuna told W, "We’re sitting here, living, because our grandparents were able to survive."
"She fell in love with the lifestyle of a pop star," pH-1 raps in "Yuppie Ting," the third track off his 2021 album But For Now Leave Me Alone. As he boasts of the Louis Vuitton he wears and the Michelin star meals he eats, pH-1 alternates between rapping in Korean and English with impressive precision, his flow skating over BlackDoe’s garage-inspired production.
Behind the scenes, pH-1 has felt more torn between the Korean and Western music industries than his music lets on. Even Jay Park, who has followed pH-1 since he moved to Korean and competed on rap talent show "Show Me the Money," once told him to write more in Korean. But for pH-1, to write exclusively in Korean would be to deny his Stateside upbringing in Long Island and Boston, and how he, like so many Korean Americans, naturally alternate between Korean and English in conversation.
"If I want to ‘financially succeed’ in Korea, I would have to make a song that’s very Korean-style. But that’s not me," pH-1 said to fellow artist Eric Nam in 2019. Instead, the more glittering spots of But For Now Leave Me Alone showcase pH-1 to be the experienced globetrotter he is.
In Bad Rap, Rekstizzy films a music video where, at a cookout, he squeezes picnic condiments not onto hot dogs, but the backsides of dancing Black women — for a song called "God Bless America." In his larger quest to become the "Korean rapper" he dreamed of in elementary school, he figured that outrageously offensive visuals were a must." "Whatever we do, people are gonna talk shit about us ‘cause we’re Asian," he says in the documentary.
Straddling the Asian and American aspects of one’s identity can seem impossible. But now, years after Bad Rap and after guest appearances in Adventure Time and Beef, Rekstizzy seems to have figured out an ideal balance. Mostly, he doesn’t seem nearly as pressed over proving that he’s American.
His own pop culture references, crude as they may be ("May cop a lewd body pillow on Etsy"), speak volumes. His music’s debaucherous nature recalls a wide swath of U.S. regional rap styles, from the Bay Area ("요리 (Yori)"), to the Midwest ("Mal Do An Dweh") and Atlanta ("Hentai"). As for his attempts to rap entire verses in Korean for the first time, apparently the jokes write themselves. As he and Bad Rap co-star Dumbfoundead realized while recording "Mal Do An Dweh," their takes on Korean slang sound hopelessly out of date, because as the latter realized, "We communicate in Korean more with our parents than our friends who speak in Korean."
Spence Lee is the child of a first-generation Chinese American and a Vietnamese refugee. But for much of his earlier material, his ethnic origins were hard to discern on record alone.
Spence Lee’s previous moniker, Shotta Spence, honored the "Dirty Jersey" that raised him — more specifically, the Caribbean supporters he gained before he relocated to New York, modeled for Yeezy, and gained producer Mike WiLL Made It as a mentor. That influence also appears all over his last full-length, 2019’s 1012; on songs like "Bounce," his cadence is equally inspired by reggae and trap.
Spence still shouts out how he came up with "shottas" and "rastas" on the autobiographical single, 2022’s "On God," one of his first under a new moniker bearing his family name. But that fact makes up just one chapter in his larger journey to capturing both the attention of Mike WiLL and 88rising, who jointly released the single. Mike WiLL explained to Joysauce how he and 88rising founder Sean Miyashiro saw "how Spence could be the bridge for many cultures, being from Jersey \[and\] into fashion, understanding his history, having principles and morals."
But Spence perhaps puts his new direction best in "On God," when he raps, "I do all this s— for my mom."
TiaCorine (whose father is Black and Japanese, and whose mother is part of the Shoshone Nation) ends her 2022 breakout album, I Can’t Wait with a breakup anthem dedicated to the poor music exec who counted her out. In "You’re Fired," she raps to keep from crying and sounding completely helpless: "You never listen to my songs, I’m always doing something wrong."
Today, her sly single "FreakyT" has 21 million Spotify streams and a Latto remix, it’s impossible to imagine how the situation in "You’re Fired" must have played out in real life.
TiaCorine’s music is Southern rap by way of Hatsune Miku — and it makes perfect sense, in an age where streaming has turned both hip-hop and anime (two of her biggest influences) into Stateside juggernauts. Her music captures the zeitgeist, though it also comes from an authentic place: While her father played formative ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop in his Range Rover, her mother blared pop-rock instead. "That goes into my music — of me, just being free. Me just being confident in myself," TiaCorine told Preme magazine. Thanks to that confidence, mainstream success not only seems possible, but inevitable.
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Photo: Courtesy of Henry Lau
Press Play: Henry Lau Shows Off His Musical Prowess With A Dynamic Performance Of "MOONLIGHT"
Genre-bending singer Henry Lau uses a loop station to perform his single "MOONLIGHT," incorporating the violin, cello and both electric and acoustic guitar.
With his single "MOONLIGHT," Henry Lau refuses to be burdened by his past relationships. Now, he's turning a new leaf, dancing carefree under the night sky, regardless of the negative emotions he might feel.
"I'm waking up in a daze, get it out of my face/ The sun is shining on every move that I make," the singer reveals in the second verse. "So, let's get to forgetting everything that went wrong/ Everybody here, we been crying too long/ We can dance about it to our favorite song."
In this episode of Press Play, Lau performs "MOONLIGHT" from a mansion rooftop during sunset. He constructs the entire song using a loop station, playing a violin, cello and electric and acoustic guitars — one of his signature performance techniques that prompted his nickname, "one-man band."
Lau released "MOONLIGHT" in January — marking his first single in two years — via Monster Entertainment, the label he founded alongside his brother Clinton. He released another single, "Real Love Still Exists," two months later; the track features Malaysian R&B singer Yuna.
Watch the video above to watch Henry Lau's impressive loop station performance of "MOONLIGHT," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.
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Photo: Courtesy of Nat Myers
ReImagined: Nat Myers Offers A Bluesy Rendition Of John Prine's Final Song, "I Remember Everything"
Korean-American blues singer Nat Myers honors John Prine by transforming the late country great's final song into an upbeat, acoustic folk track.
On April 7, 2020, the country world had to say goodbye to beloved icon John Prine. Two months later, his final song was posthumously released, and it was a poignant one: "I Remember Everything," a reflection on a well-lived, well-loved life.
"I remember everything/ Things I can't forget/ The way you turned and smiled on me/ On the night that we first met," Prine sings in the chorus. "And I remember every night, your ocean eyes of blue/ I miss you in the morning light like roses miss the dew."
In this episode of ReImagined, Kentucky native Nat Myers performs a cover of "I Remember Everything." Known for his nimble picking style, the Korean-American singer performs the song on just an acoustic guitar. He remains mostly faithful to Prine's original recording, but increases the tempo for a more folk-inspired sound.
Aside from covers, Myers has a blooming career writing original blues music. On June 23, he will release his newest album, Yellow Peril, via Ease Eye Sound, an independent record label and studio in Nashville, Tennessee, owned and operated by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
Press play on the video above to watch Nat Myers' cover of John Prine's "I Remember Everything," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of ReImagine.
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Photo: Courtesy of CHYL
Behind The Board: How Avicii Inspired CHYL To Leave Finance For A Full-Time Career In Music
After realizing her career in finance wasn't fulfilling, CHYL decided to take up music production casually — until Avicii's unexpected passing taught her one important lesson: life is too short not to pursue your passion.
When Chinese-Canadian music producer CHYL heard EDM for the first time after coming to North America, "a fire ignited" in her body.
Despite realizing her passion, CHYL opted for a career on Wall Street after graduating from Columbia University. "I hated it so much," she says with a hearty laugh. "In my second year of finance, I figured I really should start picking up some hobbies outside of finance."
From there, CHYL began taking DJ lessons casually and grew a deep appreciation for production. Though it wasn't until her idol, Avicii, passed away that she realized it was time to pursue music full-time.
"He was who I listened to a lot back in the day," she explains in this episode of Behind The Board. "Life is short. You have to pursue what you love to do. If you don't, who knows what's going to happen? You have to go for your passion."
After five years of making music, CHYL has perfected her process. First, she finds a vocal slice for the foundation of her music. Then, she works on finding emotion and energy. And most importantly, she doesn't overthink any of it.
"Sometimes it's the most simple and catchy thing that goes viral. It's a constant battle that makes something similar and catchy or something that shows off all your production skills in one song. It's a balance," she adds.
Above all, she always strives to make songs that stick. "A great song is memorable," she says. "Some of the songs that go viral on TikTok may or may not be great songs, but they're very memorable and catchy."
Press play on the video above to learn more about CHYL's musical journey, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Behind The Board.
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