Hong Kong rapper Fotan Laiki redefines success online as she uses music to ‘hold up mirror’ to the rigid society
She’s 22, didn’t go to university, and doesn’t have a full-time job, but the rising trap star embodies the anger of many young Hongkongers through her bold raps and raw music videos
Fotan Laiki is a Hong Kong rap sensation with a cult internet following that has seen her music videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. She may appear to be a wild child, but in reality she is the epitome of a generation of Hongkongers who are struggling to find their place in a society that has a rigid definition of success.
“Adults think that I’m wasting my time and not achieving anything. I didn’t go to university. I don’t have a full-time job. I’m just a ‘rubbish youth’ in their eyes,” says the 22-year-old rapper who is working in the trap sound, a subgenre of hip-hop dominated by US artists such as Gucci Mane, ASAP Ferg and Post Malone.
But this “rubbish youth” isn’t so rubbish after all. Sitting at a cafe located at the government headquarters in Admiralty, she recalls a time when she was a passionate secondary school student named Wong Lai-ki who was involved in social movements such as the protests against the controversial northeast New Territories development plan and Occupy Central.
Laiki says in the beginning she did not pay much attention to the news, but she came to believe that the government was not being honest with the public. She says when the “umbrella movement” took place in 2014, and the police started attacking peaceful protesters, her frustration kicked in.
“I was very angry. How could [the government] do this to the people when all we wanted to do was to express ourselves?” she asks. “And as a student, what could I do?”
Little did Laiki know, but the 2014 movement would play a part in the beginning of her career in music. During her time at the Occupy sit-ins on the streets of Mong Kok, she met and became friends with Ah P of influential local indie band My Little Airport.
Last year, My Little Airport released an album titled Fotan Laiki, with a photo of Laiki on the cover. Laiki was not involved in the music production, but the title track is about a girl who cannot keep a job for more than four weeks and lives every day like it’s her last.
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Laiki won’t say how much the character in the My Little Airport song resembles herself, but it’s true that she didn’t sit the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exams and she’s also only been working part-time jobs at bookstores and galleries since leaving school. “I didn’t think my results would be good enough to get me into university,” she says.
However, Laiki’s true turning point came last year when local rapper YoungQueenz asked her to share the stage with him at Hong Kong’s Clockenflap music festival. She then recorded the track Fotan Laiki with him – and it was the song’s music video that made her a cult star in Hong Kong’s indie scene. “Initially it was just going to be a live performance, but then he [YoungQueenz] wanted to do a music video,” she says. “We had no idea what to do. We just randomly shot the footage in the streets.”
The raw street shots are reminiscent of Fruit Chan’s Made In Hong Kong released in 1997. While Chan’s film is a powerful tale about the hopelessness of youth 20 years ago, Fotan Laiki raps about the despair of young Hongkongers over a trap beat; her lyrics full of anger and frustration expressed in her heavy use of Cantonese slang and foul language. “Foul language is everywhere in our society. It is a part of me that I don’t need to hide. You can choose not to listen to it if you don’t like it,” Laiki says.
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Music critics praised the song’s boldness, saying it captured the fury young people feel towards a society that favours the elite and labels anyone who does not follow the standard path (getting a job and buying a flat) as a failure. They also gave a thumbs up to the music video for its raw style that shows Laiki and her gang causing chaos as they roam the streets.
Critic Yau Tai-tung wrote about the song’s vast popularity online in HK01: “Hong Kong people always vent their anger towards the government, their bosses, colleagues and families on social media as ‘keyboard warriors’. But they won’t take any action in real life in order to protect their jobs. Are they envious of the young people in the Fotan Laiki MV [music video]?”
Laiki says she is surprised about the overwhelming response to the music video – even her mother and two younger sisters are “very supportive” and are “happy that she is pursuing something” important to her.
Although going viral on the internet might not be considered success by many adults in Hong Kong, Laiki seems to have found her direction. She recently teamed up with rapper Chaat Yeung on the track I Don’t Like, and continues to perform while taking part in her friends’ film projects.
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“Things didn’t change after the “umbrella movement”. People just got on with their old way of living. I try to stay positive and express myself through music,” she says. “The creative process gives me room to think. It’s like meditation. And when I think about how I’m going to perform a song, it feels very good,” she says.
Laiki says she wants to collaborate with more musicians to gain further experiences before carving out a definite path in music. She is drawn to trap because it’s a form of music that gives her freedom. “I don’t need to think when I listen to it,” she says.
“Usually people don’t care about us. We are the rubbish youth. But like it or not, we hold up a mirror to this society,” she says.