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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Next, we're going to meet a Chinese singer who's croaky voice is hardly ever in tune. Yet to his fans he is the voice of a generation and one of a few who dares to speak out. His latest album of edgy ballads focuses on the woes of modern day China. The band Cowboy Junkies has called the singer China's Leonard Cohen.

NPR's Louisa Lim met him in Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Singer Zuoxiao Zuzhou doesn't shy from China's most sensitive topics. In fact, he goes straight for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ZUOXIAO ZUZHOU: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: A case in point: his new song about the milk scandal, when milk tainted with melamine killed at least six babies. In the very first line, he launches into an indictment: the government blamed a private company, he sings, and the company blamed the farmers, and the farmers blamed the cows. This is typical of his dark vision and biting sarcasm. He says he can't help it.

ZUZHOU: (Through Translator) I don't understand politics. But perhaps my person is political. People say I write this stuff on purpose. But when I write, this is what I write.

LIM: Zuoxiao Zuzhou attributes this to his background. His family, he says, was very poor and uneducated. And he grew up in an isolated country town in Jiangsu Province. He was a high school dropout, joining the army at just 15 years old. His instinct is to identify with the victims and to speak out for them - even if others won't.

ZUZHOU: (Through Translator) Chinese people are too rubbish. I'm also one of them. No one is willing to stand up and speak out. Now our house is being demolished and so many people are happy for their houses to be destroyed. Out of 100 houses, maybe only one or two of us will stick it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ZUZHOU: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: For the past three months, he's led a public struggle against the demolition of the home belonging to his parents-in-law in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province. Forced demolitions, too, are the topic of a song, called "Nailhouse" - "Dingzihu."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAILHOUSE" - "DINGZIHU")

ZUZHOU: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: The term used for those who resist forced demolition. So far, the house is still standing which is seen as a victory for the singer. But he says it's only a matter of time before it's demolished.

ZUZHOU: (Through Translator) They can't knock down our house. They'll definitely find a way. Because a win for me would represent a win for the ordinary people, so they won't let me win.

LIM: Musically Zuoxiao Zuzhou is an innovator. He doesn't sing in tune. And his accent has been compared to a southern street seller's voice - buzzing and crashing, an honorable refusal of standard Mandarin.

Among his repertoire is the work report delivered to the 15th Party Congress by then Communist Party Chief Jiang Zemin.

JIANG ZEMIN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Zuoxiao Zuzhou gave it his own inimitable treatment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ZUZHOU: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: He denies he was mocking Jiang Zemin. He describes how the idea was born. It was 1997 and he'd been detained by the authorities for three weeks on suspicion of criminal damage, though no action was later taken.

ZUZHOU: (Through Translator) I'd just been released from jail where nobody talks to you. And I wanted to see something fun. Then I turned on the television and he was on every channel. I thought his voice was interesting. I went out to buy a People's Daily newspaper. I thought these can be my lyrics. I'll sing this. People thought I was imitating him but I'm not. My hometown is near his, so we have similar accents.

LIM: Zuoxiao Zuzhou is not a mainstream singer. He's an eccentric, appearing at a recent gig in his trademark hat and a long scholar's robe. It was his first concert in Beijing for two years - he's often banned from performing in public.

He's close friends with dissident artist Ai Weiwei. So close that the pair filmed a parody of Gangnam-style, dancing handcuffed together. When police beat up Ai Weiwei three years ago, for collecting the names of the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake, the singer was with him. Ai Weiwei was at the recent gig and named his friend as the most important musician in China.

AI WEIWEI: His music is, you know, the best, the most important, because he has a great attitude. I mean he has power and passion. And he always know what he should say. And this is great. People love him.

LIM: For his part, Zuoxiao Zuzhou is gloomy about the future. He thinks the new leadership can't change the country.

ZUZHOU: (Through Translator) I've never put any hope in Chinese politics. The people of this soil have no hope. There is a big problem with our education. For the past 60 years, people have been brainwashed. Everyone is too selfish. No one has any faith.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: His mood is best summed up in his new album, improbably an album of children's songs, where the innocent voices highlight the darkness of the words. Here they sing: One group of corrupt officials takes down another group of corrupt officials, and that's anti-corruption; a group of despots roots out another group of despots, and that's beating the mafia.

It's not about any one place in China, he adds quickly. This is happening all over the country in every county, in every town.

Louisa Lim NPR News, Beijing.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear more tracks from that new album at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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