All of the sudden Cristal Coleman (aka Cristal C) is a prolific voice in Beijing’s performance scene. She’s been seen dropping surprise freestyle sets at Temple, crafted slams at Word of Mouth, and generally blessing the mic at Modernsky Lab with the likes of Section 6. Not bad for ninety days. Hit the links for pretty sounds and read a chat between Cristal and Loreli's new Read editor, Max Berwald, below.
Here's Cristal rapping with the new collective, Same-Sex Wavelength (we're a little obsessed with this track).
But also you should really hear this shit.
MB: Who are you and what do you do?
CC: Haha, I’m Cristal Coleman from Chicago. I float around Beijing doing art and meeting people trying to live and find inspiration. That’s the short answer.
MB: You're from Chicago. What's rapping in Beijing like after Chicago?
CC: I actually haven’t rapped in Chicago before. I’ve only rapped about Chicago while I was in college in Iowa. I talked about the difference in safety between the city of Chicago and my small town, private liberal arts college. The song is called Started From Chicago. I started rapping my second year in college, when I found that I could match poetry to music beats! It’s different than in Beijing because most of the hip hop guys I know like the old school American stuff, and that’s just not me.
MB: Hip hop history in Chicago goes back very nearly as far as hip hop itself. What is it like to come from one of the form's natural habitats to China, and see the form being used by locals?
CC: I actually think that the locals use styles from the East and West Coast of the United States. They listen to people who were from the ghettos of New York and California—I see those styles the most. I mean, some people know Common and some know new school as Chief Keef, but my Chicago vibes are beyond that. It’s more chill like Common, Chance the Rapper, Lupe Fiasco, K. Flay, a little bit of Vic Mensa and Noname Gypsy. Oh yeah, and the old Kanye…
MB: Recently there's been more attention paid (by people besides the artists themselves) to the craft of rap. (Viral VOX videos, documentaries, evangelist rappers willing to talk about "rap education," etc.) Do you have an approach to writing, and can you describe it?
CC: Hmmm… my approach involves a good beat… a good beat inspires a feeling, and I freestyle write on the paper. Most of the lyrics get done in thirty minutes of that, and then I might go back and add more parts where needed, brushing up the chorus, making sure I can take natural breathes and complete lines. It’s not really structured. More of a free flow of emotions at once. If I were teaching a class, I would outline the parts of a song that are needed, and what can be repeated. You know chorus, hook, verses, ad libs, stuff like that.
MB: What are elements you really like in hip hop as a listener? Is there overlap or distance between these elements, and those you favor as a writer/rapper?
CC: I favor writers and performers above all. I like those who can perform different voices (switch it up), and I like those who can articulate the psyche. Those are impressive elements of hip hop to me. That is also what I like about music in general, one instrument that can be manipulated in several ways—it’s versatile. And the writing. Ugh. I love it. I have a long list of artists who make me feel this way, so I can’t single out a few right now.
MB: Looping back to Chicago for a minute, any thoughts on the nature of Chicago rap? (Do you think your style is based on any tradition that could be identified as Chicagoan?)
CC: I appreciate the horns sampled in Chicago hip hop. I dislike music that promotes violence. I think I grew up listening to the rappers I mentioned above from Chicago, and that of course inspired me… anything I consume frequently inspires me, imprints, and comes out in a new form somehow in what I do.
MB: I know you also write fiction. Do the approaches (fiction and rap) inform or influence each other at all?
CC: I write fiction, prose, nonfiction, travel journalism, long WeChat messages that turn into short stories lol. Yes, I love it all. Do forms of one of my writings inform or influence other forms of writing…? Hmm… rarely one of my poems will turn into a rap; it honestly depends on if music is playing in the background (if so, it influences the rhyme scheme). I usually write about the same concepts in poetry as I do in raps: love, heartbreak, social inequalities, queerness, etcetera. Also, I usually structure my song lyrics, mostly the hooks and the choruses, as small poems. Two of my songs could be read as complete poems Blue Moon and Goodbye (Goodbye isn’t recorded yet). I hope that answers the question.
MB: Any thoughts on hip hop's place in queer communities, or the place of queerness in hip hop? This is interesting if you see some connection between the form and the identity, and obviously dull if these are simply two different things. For instance if we wanted to see the queer rapper in the same way we might want to see a queer gardener, queer baker, queer painter...
CC: I’m doing something with a friend that is new to the music scene… we have a collective called SSW (Same-Sex Wavelength) and we’re both queer, and are lyrics are queer and the beats are queer. We’re trying to push a queer revolution, and what better way than to write and record dance music about being queer?
MB: Concur. Circling back to Chinese rap– what has your exposure been to hip hop in Beijing? Any opportunities for crossover? When's the absolute soonest we can expect to hear you rapping in Chinese?
CC: Haha, rapping in Chinese. I think I will start with a few words here and there, some phrases. If someone writes a chinese verse for me right now, I can record within that week. It’s like music, the Mandarin language, so I would just learn the music and perform it. So it could happen very soon. Lol. I’ve found some opportunities here. They’ve mostly been by coincidence or chance or me requesting to perform music after some shows are over, or if I’m supposed to read poetry, I will say “I’ve decided to perform a song instead” lol. I sneak my way into the scene, but it’s starting to move forward. I’ve performed music at least ten times in three months in Beijing so far. And I’ve also just started a band with 3 other ladies, we’ll see how it all goes.
MB: What are your goals for sticking around in Beijing? What kind of work do you want to be doing artistically? Any projects we can look forward to?
CC: I’m trying to release at the start of 2017. I’m not managed and don’t have steady producers, beat makers, or a team, so it comes a bit slower than if it were funded or managed by an outsider. But I’m okay with that for now. I’m twenty-three and I have about twelve songs on my Soundcloud now, and it’s speeding up. We’ll see what I can do… I’m not in a rush. Though, I want to go on tour in the next two years, so hopefully I’ll have my current project and one other done by then. I also am dabbling into a bit of modeling, video production, and things like that. I’ll be in Beijing as short or as long as the art keeps flowing.
1. My surface-level understanding of you is that you're a fun-loving fellow with a burning curiosity for the world around him. In other words, your WeChat moments alternate between "meet me at this bar" and diatribes about astronomy. How accurate is my understanding, and how would you adjust it?
Social media, and for us in China that nearly begins and ends at WeChat, is a way for us to idealize ourselves. To only show others what we want to have seen….Okay, so now that I’ve uttered that trite platitude we’ll move on.
Basically I’ve made an effort to craft myself in a desired image, based around things that I want to share with those around me. I’m a music major, and fortunately I’ve been able to stay active musically even if I no longer play professionally. For me music is all about the experience of the listener. I play great music so that my audience can have fun. That’s what makes me happy. I am the consummate performer. Is the music good? Are you happy? Good, I’m happy.
The science is the other half, as I try to keep my posts generally to just music and fun facts. I want to be known as someone who is continually inspired by science and who loves to share science, a true “science amateur.” I want my friends, in turn, to be inspired as well. No one really needs to know about my day. Come to my shows and also learn about the Universe. That’s the basic idea.
2. Why'd you start writing about science, one. Two, why through WeChat posts?
Not a lot of people know this but I started “science sharing” because I was going through a difficult period in my life. I would “self-medicate” by trying to read up on things that would fascinate me so I would feel better, and I would try to try to stay inspired through one cosmic quote or another. All of this was thanks to an introduction to a website called Waitbutwhy.com. The author posts on a myriad of fascinating topics and writes in a wonderfully entertaining way, complete with stick figure cartoons, and it really got me excited about learning science again.
But why did I start writing? Because this:
“The Cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”
“Science is not only compatible with Spirituality, it is a profound source of Spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”
I posted those two quotes by Carl Sagan to commemorate what would have been his 81st birthday. Those quotes stuck with me, and about a week later I woke up and decided everyone should be just as inspired by science as I had become. That’s why I use WeChat, it’s so that everyone I know can see it, and hopefully read it. It also forces you to keep posts short and to the point, so they’re easy to read and understand.
What really drove this was that on a couple of previous occasions, I had tried to bring up fun science in a social setting and I was rather unceremoniously told to stop. You’re not supposed to do that in public, talk about science. Otherwise you’ll be branded as a “know-it-all” or “nerd”. So, in all honesty this was really just a way of acting out, of getting back, of saying “f-you”, of performing. At the end of the day I am a performer. Instead of getting angry and drinking and becoming aggressive, which I had done during previous rough episodes, I’d sit down and write an awesome science fact and then post it.
3. What sort of feedback or following do you have for your science posts?
Enough to start a science group (no literally, I started a science group)!
Haha. Actually it’s been much better than I realized. I’m one of those people who pays attention to how many “likes” a post gets. I try to gauge how many people have actually taken the time to read them since they are a bit long. Often I only may only get maybe 2 likes so I just kind of assume that it bombed. If I only went by this, I could safely say that I have a grand total of 5 readers (boom).
But, I actually quite often run into people who give me really good feedback on the star posts. They just don’t hit the “like” button. What amazes me is that these are not really dumbed down posts, they can occasionally be quite dry and heady. As it turns out, a lot of people are super into science, it’s just that no one talks about it. I’ve really been able to extend my science network because of it.
On a couple of occasions, I have had a friend tell me, “I like to read your posts because at the end of the day, I feel a little bit smarter.” I really feel proud when I hear that.
4. Tell me some fun facts right now. Things you think I don't know and will be delighted to find out.
God there’s too many. How about that we are all made up of mostly empty space? We’re made up of atoms, and that’s what an atom is, mostly empty space between the nucleus and its electron cloud. If you were to squish all of the atoms of everyone in the world together so tightly that there would be no space between one nucleus and another, the entire human race would fit inside of a sugar cube. This is incidentally, somewhat how a neutron star is formed (obviously not from people though).
That one was fun. But this is the one that I think is more important, and it paraphrases Carl Sagan’s words:
Let’s take you. You are only one of 8 billion people standing on a rock that is falling around a Sun that is only one of 400 billion other suns, in the outer stretches of a galaxy known as the Milky Way. That galaxy is only one in a vast cosmic ocean of other galaxies, hundreds of billions or maybe even more than a trillion (1,000,000,000,000), in just the part of the Universe that we know. Each one of those galaxies in turn contains a hundred billion to a TRILLION suns, and each one of those suns most likely has a number of planets falling around it, and some of those planets might, just might, also have life. Do the math.
You are comically, insignificantly, infinitesimally small on a scale that is utterly incompressible. All of your worries, your fears, your anger, your regrets, all of it pales when facing the great cosmic abyss. All of it. And yet you yourself, are absolutely fundamental to this home you call the Universe. You are the means by which the Universe can be aware, how the Cosmos can know itself, how it can explore itself. That’s why we must explore the nature of reality and examine the beauty of the Universe because in doing so, it connects us on that grand, cosmic scale.
5. How do you intend to go forward with this science education agenda?
Well, as far as WeChat posts go I’ll probably stick with developing new astronomy mini-series posts to introduce people to the wonders of the Universe. I recently started my “ask a (non) astronomer” series to answer questions from my friends.
Outside of WeChat there are actually a few projects in the works. For one thing I have the Beijing Science Group. We’ll keep having meet-ups and interesting conversations and have science themed appreciation nights.
I work quite closely with 4 Corners, as Tavey there is not only one of my closest friends, he’s the singer for our very own Solid Gold Dream Machine and is a science appreciator in his own right (way smarter than I am by the way). We’re planning on future science-themed events replete with panel discussions, lectures and a “science DJ.” We’ve also just started talking about the possibility of holding a “4C science fair.”
On the education front I have two more projects, a podcast and an official WeChat account. My good friend John Ellis is trying to produce a science podcast with me, which will happen when I stop procrastinating and write the first damn episode. As for WeChat, I am hoping to team up with a partner who has a stronger background in science and can read and write in Chinese fluently, so we can start a Bilingual WeChat account that can be advertised to the wider public.
6. What among your posts are some of your favorite?
Well, I am quite proud of my mini-series posts, as they took quite a bit of effort and time and discipline. Actually only one is even finished, my “star-stuff” series. The other is still ongoing.
For favorite posts, any of the ones with quotes I see as pretty inspiring. Carl Sagan (obviously), Brian Cox, even Alan Watts.
Nov. 27, 2015 is pretty cool.
But for all-time favorite? That would be the illustration of Carl Sagan’s famous, “Pale Blue Dot” speech that I posted on June 1. It’s a speech profound enough that when I played it for my “Carl Sagan Appreciation night” on my birthday, my friend turned to me and said, “this needs to be required reading for anyone in school.”
1. The first thing I thought while reading this was, how did she get to interview delivery men? Did she like, ask them for an interview when they dropped off her food? What'd you do and how'd they react?
Yeah, I actually ordered a lot of meals for a two week period from various places: Ele.me, Baidu Waimai, and Meituan. When the guys came to my door I told them I was writing an article on the delivery app industry and asked if I could interview them later. We exchanged WeChats. The first time I was really nervous about asking them. I thought they would probably want to avoid me once I said I was a "journalist," but instead they seemed comfortable and even excited. I think it helps that I don't look very intimidating, but they obviously thought it was really cool to be able to talk to a foreigner. One guy told me he felt very proud to have me in his WeChat contacts.
2. Are you still in contact with these guys? What're they up to?
Yeah, they still message me sometimes. One guy told me when I interviewed him that he was actually about to quit. He later got a job driving a car. He said he liked it but was still learning the roads in Beijing. Another guy told me he has gotten better at the delivery job, and is making a lot more money now. In the beginning he was too nervous to leave the company's meeting area, where they wait around to get the orders on their phones. But now he knows to hang out where the most restaurants are, so that he can be the first one to accept order requests. He told me now he makes between 15 and 20 deliveries per day, which is much better than he was doing before.
3. It's clear they have a hard living in Beijing, like many other migrant workers. Do you think the burgeoning demand for delivery providers is helping them, or keeping them stuck in a socioeconomic trap?
I honestly don't think it's doing that much for them either way. Most of them don't seem to stay at it too long. They have all done other types of labor in Beijing before getting into the delivery industry, and they will probably go on to do other odd jobs after they leave. If it wasn't for the delivery app industry they would be driving cars or doing construction or something else. It seems to be a pretty good job though if you can work directly for a restaurant, instead of being employed by a big company like Ele.me. The one guy I spoke to who was doing that was making about twice as much as the other guys. He was also the most positive person I spoke to about the job and about Beijing.
4. You're a freelancer with options to write about anything. Why did you decide to write about this?
I used to work at restaurant, which is a crazy job, both in terms of the logistics involved and because customers can sometimes be pretty mean. Because of that I was amazed at how efficient the delivery people were. I wondered if it was a really tough job and if customers were often rude to them. I guess I also have a soft spot for underdog stories of people trying to make it. I feel like a lot of the time we see the service people who do these jobs as part of the background noise of our Beijing lives, and don't really give them a second thought. I wanted to show them as people and highlight their stories.
It actually turns out the job isn't as hard as I thought. They told me most of the customers are pretty polite. The main issue is financial-- they just don't get paid enough to save money or really support their families.
5. What other topics are you looking to explore going forward?
Lately I've been really interested in minority communities within Chinese society, and how they interact with society at large. I'm curious about how people who are different for one reason or another get treated, and how they react to that treatment. To start I've been thinking of doing profiles on the deaf community and also people who are suffering from mental illnesses.