Burly Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei has never lost his sense of humor, even when facing harsh repression from his government. But while the idea of 55-year old Ai recording a heavy metal record might seem like a stunt, the source material for his first single, “Dumbass” (above), is anything but funny. The furiously angry, expletive-filled song is inspired by Ai’s harsh treatment during his 81-day imprisonment in 2011. He’s calling the musical project “a kind of self-therapy” and will release six tracks on June 22—the second anniversary of his release—as an album called The Divine Comedy.
Ai sings (or howls, growls, and bellows) in Chinese. As you can see from the grim images in the video above—with the artist re-enacting and re-imagining his experiences in detention—the memories of his incarceration are still raw and painful. While he’s called his music “heavy metal,” The Guardian points out that “it’s not exactly Metallica” (unless you count that Lou Reed collaboration). Ai himself says of his sound:
After I said it would be heavy metal I ran back to check what heavy metal would be like. Then I thought, oh my god, it’s quite different…. So it’s Chinese heavy metal, or maybe Caochangdi [where his studio is based] heavy metal.
Call it what you want: Chinese heavy metal, practical joke, avant garde performance piece… it’s still likely to get Ai in even further trouble with Chinese authorities. As he explained to the New York Times, however, he “wanted to do something impossible…. I wanted to show young people here we can all sing…. It’s our voice.”
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Man (if I may sound so dated and old), this Chinese heavy metal music ain’t too bad. It’s actually quite listenable. But the singing? I guess there is dissidence in dissonance; my ears just can’t cope with it. I am too used to singers who can hold a note, in key. I lasted about a minute :)