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Yunggiema (央吉玛) is a singer from the Menba minority people who emigrated from Bhutan to the Southeast region of Tibet over 300 years ago. She sings the songs and stories of her ancient clans-people, as passed down by her grandmother. Some of these are set to sparse traditional arrangements and others, to more modern beats.

Her brand of ethnic music is niche to say the least, contrasting sharply with the typical C-pop and Korean acts that tend to pick up the headlines in China. The chances of Yunggiema’s music being granted the time of day beyond a very small circle of world music fans were always going to be limited. There are several ways to break through such glass ceilings: established artists will often grant developing artists permission to create derivative works e.g. mixes (this can of course work both ways), or sometimes directly collaborate. Synchronisations are also an effective way to reach new audiences, however in these cases the music will always be ancillary to the focal content – the film / advert / product. Yunggiema went a step further in 2013 and placed herself squarely on the TV sets of a mainstream Chinese audience, by participating on Chinese Idol (China’s equivalent of Pop Idol – a music-oriented talent reality show).

It can be difficult to have any control over the result of associating with a given thing. This is especially so when that thing itself is intangible – for instance, another brand. It could be charged with many feelings, and connected to other irrelevant objects, times, and narratives – much like the schemata in our mind will flag up a basic set of associations when one says the word “beach” but also a number of eclectic or dysfunctional images (for anyone who has seen Jaws for example). In the case of Yunggiema, her challenge was to give her musical career a boost through associating with a prime-time talent competition, whilst upholding her credibility amongst fans. Inevitably, Yunggiema’s appearance on Chinese Idol had a polarising effect on her fans, with some believing the authenticity and sincerity belying her music would be “profaned” in some way. Besides the music, there was also the risk of Yunggiema inheriting the legacy of baggage that came with the Chinese Idol brand: the risk she would become ‘that Pop Idol girl’, and cast off like a piece of worn garb after the show’s finale.

As with most prime-time talent competitions it is the stories themselves that capture audiences, and Yunggiema’s unique tale – which involved departing the safety of her home and remaining in Beijing to develop her musical career – along with her unique Tibetan style enchanted viewers, resulting ultimately in her earning a second place position on the show.

Not encumbered by the obligations that came with coming top of the podium, Yunggiema was able to use the momentum from the show to branch out. Naturally she now insists that no association between herself and the TV program that kick-started her long-term career be maintained. She has broken away and gone on to make appearances at festivals across the country, including most recently the Wood+Wires festival in Shanghai. Perhaps the key takeaway here is that Yunggiema’s personality and background was well grounded, and developed over a long period of self-cultivation and identity building. For this reason she was able to adapt to the media machine’s demands, but leave unscathed after successfully drawing attention from the masses. She retained her original admirers by staying true to herself.

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