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When the caged bird sings...
When the caged bird sings...
Kai Strittmatter

BEIJING - "So," says Ai Weiwei: "Now they get to listen to this.”

By “they” he means his jailers. "My voice may not be perfect, and may not even sound good. I admit I was a little inhibited at first. But it’s a voice and now it’s out there."

As of this week, Beijing avant-garde artist Ai Weiwei is also a singer. "The powers-that-be have always forced us to listen to their voice," he says during a conversation in his studio in Caochangdi, the capital city’s artists’ quarter. "And mostly it was anything but pleasant: it was the voice of hate."

The way Ai Weiwei’s debut as a singer was billed was: Ai Weiwei Goes Heavy Metal. The single and music video he released on Wednesday was not really Heavy Metal, and more modeled on the mix of talking and singing favored by the artist’s songwriter friend Zuoxiao Zuzhou, who also produced this debut performance.

Zuzhou says he thinks the famous artist and rock music go well together: "Ai Weiwei is direct, authentic – born to perform on stage."

Ai Weiwei says working on the song was “therapy” for him, a way of trying to exorcize his 81-day prison stint in 2011. The 55-year-old artist, who also sees himself as an activist, was thrown into solitary confinement for alleged tax evasion.

"The worst was when they told me it would be many years before I would be able to see my little boy again."

For the music video, Ai Weiwei recreated his prison cell inside his studio. Every square centimeter of that place was seared into his brain, he says. The wallpaper is identical, as are the uniforms of the two guards that never stood further away from him then 80 cm (2.6 feet) irrespective of whether he was sleeping, showering or sitting on the toilet.

The artist stated that the video is also a reminder of just how many people are still sitting in such cells. This month John Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation in the United States announced that the number of political prisoners in China is higher now than it has ever been in the reform era. Compared to the conditions some prisoners are kept in, Ai Weiwei’s cell was relatively comfortable.

The music of Ai Weiwei’s song was written by Zuoxiao Zuzhou, while the artist wrote the lyrics himself. Translating the song’s title as “Asshole” or "Dumbass" is keeping things relatively polite, and the verses are so foul-mouthed that they had the representatives of the foreign media conferring with each other about what could be left un-bleeped. "If we follow our house rules on this I think the only thing we can actually broadcast is the "lalalalala" part," quipeed one.

The song takes on not only China’s system but all the intellectuals and artists who have adapted to it. The BBC translated the only lyrics it deemed fit to print as: "Stand on the frontline like a dumbass, in a country that puts out like a hooker ... tolerance be damned, to hell with manners, the low-life's invincible."

Ai Weiwei relates how when he was released the police told him they could arrest him again at any time and if they did "you’ll never get out then."

The Ai Weiwei video was filmed by Christopher Doyle, a cinematographer who has worked with directors like Wong Kar-wei and Jim Jarmusch. The film also touches on the fantasies of the guards. They asked him what Western women were like.

"But that question was the first sign of humanity, of life, I got from them," Ai Weiwei says.

Within a month the song should be followed by a whole album to be called "The Divine Comedy." Before the release of the record, Ai Weiwei will be exhibiting art work in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale. He won’t be able to attend the Biennale because Chinese authorities have confiscated his passport. Still, he says, things have improved: he’s now allowed to leave his house, even if he’s constantly shadowed by state security agents when he does.

And of course the Chinese government makes sure Ai Weiwei’s work and thoughts are kept as far away from the Chinese people as possible: his blogs, tweets and videos make it through only to the tiny minority that knows how to tunnel under China’s Great Firewall. "Perhaps 0.00001% of people here will ever find out that this song exists, but it’s dedicated to them,” says the artist.

After a pause he adds: "I’m alive. I can still be angry. I’m satisfied. My voice is back."

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