One day, I’m a graduate student studying Global Affairs at the most prestigious university in China. The very next night, I’m arriving in a limo to make my debut as a female rapper in Beijing.


As I quickly discovered, it doesn’t take much to be a rapper, a DJ, a promoter, or any other role in Chinese entertainment if you are a black person who fits within their aesthetic archetype of those professions (This is problematic I know, but we’ll expound on that later). I met a guy at an Embassy event who I later discovered was performing. After talking to him about the nightlife, he asked if I could perform. Me, the adventurous spirit that I am, replied yes. He asked that I send him a video of my flow and that he would send it to the club owners who were planning a huge hip-hop event in China called “The Hip Hop Carnival.”


On the eve of the carnival, I met with the organizers at the club to perform for the club owner. “It was finally time…” I recall saying to myself, “…time to leave Ivana, the Schwarzman International Scholar, behind and put on full ‘Poison Ivy’ persona, ha!” Gasping deeply, I stepped on stage. As I stood in the center of this massive, flashy, and empty EDM club, I was flooded with the oddest cocktail of emotions. I suppose I recalled the many nights I spent there, in this very club, and I now had a complete realization of just how different a place could feel with all the lights on and the party-goers gone.


ivana west
Photo courtesy of Ivana West


RELATED: Diary Of A Black Traveler: Experiencing Cuba Like A Local


The club owner was a short, middle-aged Chinese man with a mustache and semi-serious demeanor. He dressed in a manner to indicate that he was in charge, fancy shoes and jacket, but still very much current and cool. A consummate nerd and perfectionist, I was running through every single detail and possibility of my upcoming performance in my head. I had no idea what to do or what to expect. I didn’t even know what beat they would decide to play. They ended up pairing me with a female rapper from China and told me to battle against her as practice. I mumbled something that I supposed rhymed, then I filled the rest of the space with Nicki Minaj “Itty Bitty Piggy” lyrics. They didn’t know the difference, honestly.


In all actuality, what I said didn’t even matter. The focus was on my vibe, rhythm and of course, the way I looked and move. The entire time I was nervous about meeting him, as though I was auditoning. It slipped my mind that they already had my likeness printed on flyers and the huge sign at the club entrance.


Later that night, a limo picked myself and the other performers up from a hotel. The other performers are dressed in very cliché and outdated “hip-hop attire.” We were quite the sight, indeed. The limo brought us to the club, where fans are screaming in excitement and taking photos. I happened to be the only rapper who was actually black American, though the entire night would be centered around black American culture. There was one other black American entertainer there, however. He was B2K’s own Raz B. Apparently due to conflicts with entertainment moguls or something, Raz B now resides in China—go figure. But that’s none of my business, so let’s get back to the rest of the story.


RELATED: Find Your Tribe: 5 Black Expat Communities In Asia


The night ended with all of us singing along to a tribute to Tupac and Biggie. I decided to go with the rap name of “Poison Ivy” for the evening, a play on my actual name: Ivana. Later that night, I was signing autographs as “Poison Ivy” and taking photos, but then again having my picture taken was the norm in China. By the next day, the club had turned images from my performance into GIFs that were circulating WeChat, a Chinese social media app, the next day.


china nicki minaj
Photo by Brady Bellini on Unsplash


As a black person living in China, depending on the area, it is not unusual to have your photo taken, to be stared at, or even touched. I remember once while I was in Confucius’s hometown, Qufu, visiting a temple for my Chinese Culture course and having an elderly Chinese woman touch my butt and giggle. I did not find this amusing. It is triggering how my curvaceous body was fetishized and treated like a circus attraction by all age groups. I got through it though, tough skin and boundaries built.


Don’t let my experience deter you or encourage you (*cough, cough* Soundcloud rappers) from moving to or visiting China! Overall, my experience there was nothing short of the stuff in films. Was I always an emblem of black respectability and a perfect representative of our complex, comprehensive culture? No. However, my experience did inform me of the power of our cultural capital. It is a “soft power,” as my global affairs cohort would say, and a genuine resource exported and consumed worldwide. The entire experience caused me to reflect on my own goals, aims, and desires. I became more empathically aware of the pressure to settle for imagery over substance. I never again wanted to be apart of a cultural charade that lacked the soul that hip-hop is rooted in.


Written by Ivana West

Want to share your travel story? Check out our community submission form HERE.