“I understand the hardness of their lives,” Mr. Li, 23, said during a recent visit to Dalian, a seaside northeastern city. “I spent my childhood watching sheep and cows and going to the river to swim.”
Mr. Li’s followers tune in daily to watch him laze on a couch, impersonate characters like rigid teachers and raucous cabdrivers and perform rap-like songs, known as hanmai, or microphone shouting.
Many of his compositions center on love, inequality and the struggles facing young people searching for meaning outside of China’s big cities.
Critics have called his work lowbrow, offensive and sexist. But Mr. Li says he believes the strength of his fan base shows his ideas resonate.
“Most Chinese people come from common families, or even from poor families,” he said. “My work speaks to them.”
Raised in Jinzhou, a northeastern city of three million, Mr. Li struggled as a child to find his footing.
His parents were laid off from a state-owned pharmaceutical company in the late 1990s as the government pushed to privatize China’s economy. He dropped out of school at 15 and worked odd jobs as a street dancer, car salesman and meat griller.
“Our parents’ philosophy was, ‘If you survive, that means you qualify to be part of society. If you starve, that means you’re not trying,’” he said.
Mr. Li said his own life mirrored the experiences of many of his fans: a bitter childhood that gave way to fierce independence and a desire to provoke.
Angry and dejected, Mr. Li turned his tales of misfortune into songs on China’s modern-day obsession with money and his struggles to court women. He began live-streaming them in 2014 on YY.com, a popular online platform.
One of his most famous pieces is titled “Listen Up, Women!” In it, he argues that young women place too much emphasis on wealth in choosing mates:
Many people say men turn bad when they get rich,
But I want to ask you today,
Do you want men who are good but have no money?
Mr. Li’s words quickly…