By Stephanie Zhang
The paper investigates authenticity for Asian/Asian Americans in the space of rap and hip-hop culture which is predominantly Black. With much animosity between the two groups, particularly in America, the topic attempts to reconcile the Asian search for identity with its historical and modern intertwinement with Blackness.
The introduction to the text provides the origins of rap music, emphasizing its roots in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City amongst Black youth in the 1970s (Bronx, 1970s) who drew from a combination of African beats and modern pop. Similarly, they began rhyming over the beat, drawing from their life stories of living in poor areas under racist conditions. The text continues with a definition of performative Blackness, that Blackness can be achieved through performances and practices instead of being born with Black skin. By 1984, Asian Americans had their beginnings in rap as the first Asian American rap group, 2 Live Crew, began in Riverside, California. This was also the year rap had spread internationally to Juliana’s, a popular club in Beijing that was the first club to play rap music. As rap grew rapidly in popularity, so did the mixing and deejaying of beats. In 1991, Asian American rap group Mountain Bros was created, marking the beginning of an Asian American group making their own beats. In 1992 and 1993, Invisibl Skratch Pklz, a Filipino-American DJ duo won the DMC World Championship. Meanwhile, in Beijing, Kunlun Hotel Crystal Disco began having regular “hip-hop” nights in their club. In 1992, the Atban Klann was also created in LA, marking the beginnings of Filipino MC apl.de.ap’s career. In 2001, MC Jin began his career in New York, introducing the mixing of “multi-cultural” rap as Jin would oftentimes rap in Chinese. In 2004, Kero One began his career in San Francisco, California, beginning the incorporation of jazz and RnB into popular rap culture. In the current day, multiple international groups in Seoul, Korea; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Tokyo, Japan show the wide spread of rap culture. The globalization of rap music and hip-hop culture exemplify the adoption of rap culture and music in Asia.
The feelings of otherness in Asian American spaces posits the question of authenticity for Asians in America as well as Asians in rap. Asian Americans often have to assimilate to whiteness in a futile attempt to approach whiteness, yet also attempt to approach Blackness through rap and hip-hop culture. Is the utilization of rap as a means to escape “otherness” functional for Asian Americans? Researching rap music gives spaces to focus on Asian Americans turning to Blackness when feeling othered, drawing from interviews of multiple Korean rappers: Reckstizzy, Dumbfoundead, and Awkwafina. It proposes the way Asian Americans create identity outside of the Black-White binary through rap music, analyzing the term “Expression Predilection”, coined by Asian American rap group Mountain Boyz as well as hip-hop song “Morning of America” where Asian emcee Prometheus Brown attempts to address the hip-hop movement of the 80s.
In order to addresses conflict within the trans-nationalism of rap music, I attempt to identify how Blackness is defined/performed internationally and how Blackness interacts within ethnically homogenous countries. The countries oftentimes turn to popular media portrayals of Blackness to learn stereotypes of Black folk as a monolith. Through this phenomenon, I discuss the positives of rap spreading internationally (gains in cultural understanding and new forms of expression) as well as discussing negatives of rap’s spread as well (commodification of Blackness and appropriation without thorough understanding). Through these images, international rap artists attempt to reconcile the spread of Western rap music with traditional culture. Through the lens of post-colonialism and globalization, an analysis of popular “gangsta” rap in Asia such as “It G Ma” by Keith Ape is necessary. “It G Ma” utilizes trap, a rap style and beat with origins in Atlanta, alongside Korean and Japanese cultural symbols and language. The piece highlights the attempted reconciliation of trap music alongside Asian instrumentation, language, and cultural symbols while complicating the historical legacy of colonialism as Asians in rap attempt to define “authenticity” for themselves.
“It G Ma” simultaneously appropriates Blackness yet maintains its cultural closeness to East Asia through the use of Asian cultural symbols. Of the four rappers on the track, three of them are sporting cornrows, a traditionally Black hairstyle while attempting to emulate a “gang” style of rapping towards the camera, holding bottles of alcohol and drug paraphernalia. They rap with gold grills in their mouths, touting their skill in rapping and making money. The appropriation of Blackness is infused with Asian cultural symbols, however. They hold bottles of makgeolli, a traditional Korean rice wine. The animations intertwined with the video depicts yen and won, the symbols of money in Japan and Korea. One of the Japanese rappers engages in a verse on The Blue Hearts, a Japanese 80s punk group while holding a can of Korean beer.
These aspects of analysis turn to question the possibility of Afro-Asian solidarity. With Anti-Blackness rampant in AAPI communities because of white supremacy as the root cause of the violence, the trope of model minority and the usage of citizenship/immigration requirements pits the groups against each other. The LA Race Riots and the shooting of Akai Gurley are products of inter-community violence. I attempt to address the continued tensions that stemming from historical “otherizing” sentiments by white supremacy. I also address ways in which rap music/hip-hop culture is used to create solidarity. Looking from a historical aspect, Richard Aoki, and many other activists, first entered Black spaces due to proximity and culture of rap music. On another hand, the paragraph will also analyze modern-day rap collective 88 Rising as an organization with international Asian and Black collaboration.
It is hoped this study will provide a building block for increased Afro-Asian relations and utilization of rap music as a starting point for continued inter-community communication and coalition-building.
“It G Ma.” Performance by Keith Ape, et al., YouTube, Hi-Lite Records, 1 Jan. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPC9erC5WqU.
Koroma, Salima, director. Bad Rap. Netflix, Jaeki Cho, 2016, www.netflix.com/title/80134952.