Tuesday, November 23, 2004


solidarity personified

Haven't read the Intro? Start there.

As noted, the key question I want to address is this: "how does the presence of Asian Americans in hip-hop, this black cultural artform, look any different than that of white folks in Jazz, Blues, and Rock & Roll?"

This is a delicate question to approach, especially since conversations about race can rapidly spin into a hundred other areas. Especially since I was too hasty the last time I tried to explain my own position on the matter, I want to lay out some of my basic postulations and understandings.

A. Hip-hop is a dynamic, syncretic cultural form that draws on a multitude of traditions and influences.

B. It is also, unquestionably, a Black cultural form, not only drawing from a range of African American and Afro-diasporic vernacular, musical and other aesthetic traditions, but its positioning within American society is clearly within a socio-political context of Blackness.

C. Those two statements are not, in any way, contradictory so long as you accept that contemporary cultures are almost always transformed when brought into contact with others and that all cultures are construed, on some level, of hybrid practices. In this understanding, the term "Black" does not presume there is a 100% authentic Blackness out there any more than there is a 100% authentic "Asian American-ness" out there (the latter identity was a construction from its very inception as a term). However, understanding and appreciating hip-hop's hybrid roots doesn't fundamentally change its relationship - especially in the popular imagination - to Blackness. (I'm borrowing from Imani Perry's first chapter of Prophets of the Hood as well as covering ground that Tricia Rose already did a decade back in Black Noise).

D. The exchange of culture in the public sphere is worth celebrating since such a process can (but not always does) enrich those involved so long as the power relations are relatively equal (which they often times are not). The important thing to remember though is that what happens in culture does not always lead to similar transformations within socio-economic relations of power. To put it simpler, just because culture integrates doesn't mean that people do. And just because culture is profitable doesn't mean that communities producing that culture benefit from that profit. No one should be naive to think that the circulation of popular culture forms - such as hip-hop - represents a full social transformation.

Example: the bulk of rap's listening and consuming audience is white but this doesn't mean that Black/White racial relations have improved substantially over the last 30 years (see rising rates of segregation as indicator) or that hip-hop's dominance of American popular culture has put a dent into the sustained institutional inequalities generated from White Supremacy.

Cultural interaction is important but it's not omnipotent and while culture often absorbs and expresses tensions that are not easily resolved through social institutions like the government or economy, that doesn't mean they actually resolve those tensions.

E. In reference to Asian and African American relations in particular, there is a quaint notion that says that people of color can't be racist towards one another because we lack the institutional resources of White Supremacy. While I'm sympathetic to the political grounding of such an idea, it has the unfortunate effect of acting as a smokescreen over very real examples of racially-motivated discrimination and inequalities. Whether or not you want to call that Racism with a capital "R" or "little r" racism is up to you but let's just state this clearly: people of color can be, and often are, racist towards one another in ways that have structural, material consequences. Asian American merchants vs. African American customers in inner city retail stores for example. Or African American residents vs. Southeast Asian refugees in housing projects. Depending on the context, communities have differential access to structures of power and, at times, they will wield that access to advance their needs to the detriment of others'. Just to return to point D) - cultural interaction does not necessarily transform these unequal relations as much as we'd hope they would.

F. Last but not least, this just has to be said: there's certainly no such thing as a monolithic African American community and that goes x-times true for the "Asian American community". Not to get all Intro. to Asian American Studies on ya'll but in case people weren't aware of this: we can talk about Blackness and Whiteness in relative terms but there is absolutely no equivalent Asian-ness out there. The whole concept of an "Asian America" is a construct from its inception: APIs don't usually identity with each other except in cases of extreme political necessity and more to the point, there is very little sharing of material resources between different Asian American ethnic groups. Most significantly, APIs don't divide the world into "us" vs. "not us" since, there's no clear "us." Just look at WWII: anti-Japanese paranoia ran so deep that Chinese and Koreans couldn't act fast enough to say, "I'm not Japanese." In fact, most of what bonds Asian Americans to one another is not a shared racial identity but rather, a reaction to racism (i.e. we have to stick together since people can't tell us apart anyways). Left to our own devices though, it's not at all certain that APIs would or could craft the same kind of all-encompassing identity that Whiteness and Blackness have traditionally entailed.

Therefore, when anyone wants to point at "the Asian American community" you have to be more specific about who you're talking about: the imagined nation? Specific communities (i.e. Korean Americans or Filipino Americans)? Or just all people who look Asian, which is rather reductionist (to say the least) and unable to comprehend or appreciate the vast internal differences in class, immigration history, language, culture, etc. that exist between us. When I deploy the term throughout this (or any piece), I'm basically talking about Asian America as an abstract construction, something held together by gossamer-thin political threads but it's not a community that with much of an internal logic that everyone who's supposed to belong to it understands or agrees upon. This is a topic for a larger discussion, but I'm just going to roll this out anyways: what is the relationship between hip-hop and an Asian America that lacks even a hint of a unified cultural identity? It's worth chewing on but for now...

...let me finally return to the question at hand: "how does the presence of Asian Americans in hip-hop, this black cultural artform, look any different than that of white folks in Jazz, Blues, and Rock & Roll?"

There's at least two ways to approach this question and the first is based in material power and privilege. The White "presence," in my mind, refers to the legacy of exploitation and profiteering of Black culture to fill White coffers. If that's the case, it's hard to see which Asian Americans are profiteering off of hip-hop in an equivalent manner. Whether you're talking record companies, broadcast media companies (i.e. radio/tv), or print publications, I can't think of a single one of those that are Asian American owned or controlled. Collectively speaking, Asian America does not materially profit off of hip-hop. And more to the point, the collective Asian American presence in America, writ large cannot be said to have materially disenfranchised African Americans in remotely the same, systemic way that White Supremacy has.

I'm not trying to split straws here - you can talk about symbolic exploitation (and I address this in the next section) but the symbolism is besides the point if there isn't a material counterpart somewhere. In other words, if African Americans controlled the production, distribution and consumption of their cultural labor, the concerns over "appropriation" become vastly different.

Even with Jin - who is he a threat to exactly? I shouldn't have to point out that Asian Americans are all but absent from the ranks of signed rap artists. The reason why everyone focused on Jin this past fall is because Jin is all there is. That's not to forget Chad Hugo of the Neptunes or Dan the Automator or the contributions of underground artists like Chops and the Mountain Brothers (and no, I'm not forgetting Fresh Kid Ice and Rhythm X either) but for the most part, Asian American artists add up to less than 1% of major label urban artists.

While Jin certainly had a flurry of stories being written about him, the majority of those stories treated him more as a racial curiosity than anything else. No one was, for example, suggesting that he's much more talented than any other young rapper (black or otherwise). It was because he was an Asian American rapper - something most media outlets had never considered before - that Jin earned any attention.

Contrast this with Eminem who, far more than being focused upon as a white rapper, was also uniformly welcomed and lauded as some kind of hip-hop savior. Though I'm sure folks are tired of the comparison, what symbolically links Eminem with Elvis is that both men were praised for taking a Black artform (hip-hop and rock n' roll respectively) and then doing it better than the originators. Those claims are, of course, absolute rubbish, but my point is that I didn't see any press that was trying to validate Jin in the same manner. Especially now that Jin's album more or less sank, it's highly unlikely that we'll ever see the same kind of coverage again for the next big API rapper, unlike the ways in which the music press and execs are willing to get behind any possible Great White Hope in the rap game.

None of this is to say that Asian Americans don't benefit from legacies of racial inequality. One only needs to examine the history behind the Model Minority Myth to appreciate how Asian Americans have long been positioned (vis a vis White Supremacy) into divisive positions relative to other people of color. Asian Americans and African Americans are not the same community - we do not have the same histories, nor the same needs, and at times, our desires and needs can, have and will conflict with one another. BUT, to suggest that Asian Americans enjoy the fruits of White Supremacy as if they were indistinguishable from White? That's profoundly ignorant of history. Even Fred Ho, who calls me out as a counter-revolutionary, agrees with that point and he breaks down the historical problems with Kenyon's argument.

Getting back to hip-hop in particular, one could argue that Asian Americans SYMBOLICALLY (vs. materially) treat hip-hop the same way that White youth have.

Let me start by saying, there are some absolutely abhorrent ways in which different Asian Americans and especially Asians (in Asia) appropriate hip-hop - and more to the point - Blackness, onto themselves. Many of you, I'm sure, have heard of a phenomenon in Japan, among certain hip-hop fans, where Japanese youth literally blacken their skin and redo their hair into "Black" styles like dreadlocks and corn rows. While sociologically, I'm sure there's some very rich, intellectual insights to be gathered from these practices, to most, it just seems like a form of modern minstrelsy. Likewise, there are many "AZN" youth around America who hijack Black style and vernacular onto themselves - calling one another "ni**as" - yet have no social contact - let alone solidarity - with African American communities. Whether or not any of these youth are materially profiteering off their cultural appropriation is besides the point: it's problematic regardless and symbolic of larger legacies of racist love and theft.

However, the part cannot be presumed to represent the whole in this case. Most Asian Americans who actively participate in hip-hop - as performers and artists - do not, in my experience, approach hip-hop as a can of body paint they can just brush on themselves without any kind of political and identity positioning. In my experience, the majority of people interested in engaging with hip-hop, especially as performers, are extremely mindful to the culture's racial dynamics and more to the point, their involvement in hip-hop is an attempt - however tenuous or poorly executed - to build solidarity with the Black community.

Again, before people start raising a chorus of objections: I'm not saying that just because Asian Americans want to forge those coalitions means that they go about it the right way. Good intentions are laudable but that doesn't mean they don't lead down the wrong paths at times either. However, I think the intent here is significance. There's a reason why so many youth around the world are attracted to hip-hop and that's because the culture has come to represent a form of alterity that marginalized groups can identify with. Especially because hip-hop, as a practice, is so vocal and communicative, it becomes very attractive to other youth who feel that their voice isn't being heard within society.

I'm not claiming that every single person who picks up hip-hop is trying to rage against the machine. But I do think, when you talk about hip-hop within the Asian American community, you're largely talking about an attempt - however flawed or imperfect - to build a connection across racial lines, to establish a constructive relationship between the two communities.

I'm sure there are many white youth who seek the same kind of connection but the key difference is that Asian Americans are positioned as a marginalized, racialized minority community and I think that creates a fundamentally different kind of desire for solidarity than might exist for someone coming from the majority culture.

DISCLAIMER: I feel like a broken record but just to make sure people are hearing: this doesn't mean that inequality and discrimination doesn't exist b/t Asian and African American communities. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't problematize the ways in which Asian Americans are developing a cultural voice through the adoption of another community's cultural practices. However, my point has been to say that if you're going to problematize Asian America's relationship to hip-hop, you can't do it by applying the same critiques that get leveled at White America. I can appreciate why some people would choose to divide the world in Black vs. non-Black but I find that kind of binary to be as flattening as dividing the world between White vs. non-White. You have to have some appreciation for the differences between Black, White and Asian American. Otherwise, you're operating from a reductionist racial logic that serves no one.

Now, if you want to talk about the problems that exist when Asian Americans become involved in hip-hop, by all means, let's talk about those.

The single biggest concern, in my mind, is precisely what I address above: that cultural outreach doesn't translate into community outreach and that just because you have a generation of Asian Americans who have grown up on hip-hop doesn't mean that there have been fundamental improvements in relations between the two communities. I think that gulf is perpetuated on both sides of the race line, but as far as Asian America is concerned, I think there certainly could be more done to try to build genuine solidarity. There's obviously a lot of divisive politics that prevent that - our two communities are frequently thrown into conflict with one another (and yes, White Supremacy is to blame for much of that, but we've also proven to be fairly adept at it on our own, without The Man to blame). Given these state of affairs, I can appreciate why some African Americans would look upon Asian American hip-hop participants with some skepticism - it's like Black culture is good enough for Asian Americans to become involved in, but when it comes down to choosing sides in a fight, each side retreats to its mutual corner.

I don't have some grand, sweeping conclusion to make here, only that I'd like to think that hip-hop can still be a positive starting point (not end) to where African and Asian America can meet, exchange ideas, build cooperative relations. Forgive my idealistic zeal, but as many differences exist between these two communities, there are also many points of similarity that can be used as building blocks for solidarity - not the least of which is battling against the ways in which White racism reduces both our communities in order to further its own. That doesn't mean we turn a blind eye to the divisions between us, only that it would be to both our advantages to find ways of working through them. I don't think hip-hop is the key to that - it's just one small piece in a larger, more complex process. But I think hip-hop provides a space in which some initial level of identification, cooperation and coordination can occur. It's just not a panacea. Hip-hop won't save us from ourselves.

1. This all said, I can't help but have to address two small details in his essay that have irritated me to no small end. First of all, during my talk at the Asian Arts Initiative, I spoke of how Joe Bataan claims to have recorded the first rap song, before "Rapper's Delight." Kenyon seems to think that I'm invoking Bataan in order to revise rap history and deny due credit to African American pioneers. That accusation is patent nonense.

First of all, my point wasn't to revise rap history, it was to revise Asian American rap history, to offer up a historical example of an Asian American (Bataan was half-Filipino/half-Black) who was recording rap songs all the way back in 1979. Bataan doesn't tear down the canonized history of hip-hop as we know it - he doesn't challenge the contention that hip-hop developed out of Black and Puerto Rican street culture in the Bronx in the 1970s. In anything, Joe Bataan, confirms the roots of hip-hop within that social context since he himself was a huge Latin music icon in New York, someone who certainly had his ear to the proverbial street since he had spent so much time creating music within that space. The fact that anyone would call Bataan "obscure" only serves to highlight their own ignorance - Bataan was as "obscure" a figure in the New York music scene as Joe Cuba, Tito Puente or the Palmieri brothers. Bataan didn't create hip-hop but he was part of a larger musical and cultural scene that fed into rap's emergence. Crediting him for simply being there is not an act of historical revisionism.

By the way, and this is a side point, but it also is problematic that Kenyon tries to gently sweep Puerto Ricans into the general category of "Black youth" since while it is true that PRs have been racialized as "Black" at various times, it's not as if African Americans - especially as it relates to hip-hop - have been quick to embrace them as their own. This is a point that both Juan Flores and Raquel Rivera make in their respective works on New York Puerto Ricans and hip-hop's racial roots - to acknowledge Puerto Ricans as part of the youth culture that created hip-hop disturbs the neat, nationalist construction of hip-hop as strictly Black (notably, the "Puerto Rican question" is something that folks like Rose and Perry slide around in their works). I wonder if people's negative response to appreciating Bataan's role in New York musical culture is related, even though, as half-Black, he can just as easily be claimed by the African American community along the lines of the "one drop rule." Again, a topic for further rumination another time.

Second, Kenyon fundamentally misundertands me over this quote : "Wang said, 'hip-hop is the most democratic music because it doesn’t take the same skill as playing classical music.'" I didn't say "same skill," I said, "same skills," which is a very different term. Of course hip-hop takes skill - name a rap song that doesn't feature someone rapping about their abilities and talents. However, skills = sets of skill and I don't think anyone can reasonably claim that the same sets of skill that will assist you in climbing up the classical music hierarchy are going to serve you in hip-hop and vice versa. Specifically, classical music is structured within a far more rigid - and dare I say, elitist - institutional process than hip-hop. The
beauty of hip-hop cultural practices is that you don't need lessons or tutoring to get started. No one attends a conservatory to learn how to b-boy or make a beat. Your family doesn't have to mortgage a house to buy you the kind of equipment needed to learn how to rap or become a graf writer. I certainly wasn't saying that classical music artists are more talented than rap artists.