Thursday, January 06, 2005

We Real Cool? On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and Appropriation By Kenyon Farrow

The following was reprinted with permission:

I went to an event in Philly on Friday, November 19 at the Asian Arts Initiative, an Asian American "community arts" space, entitled "Changing the Face of the Game: Asian Americans in Hip-Hop." I cannot pretend I didn’t already know what I was getting myself into. The title of the event itself expresses a level of hostility to Black people – Since Black people are the current face of the game, and for whatever reason, that needs to be changed. But anyhow, I went, ready to see what was gonna go down...

The Main Event

Oliver Wang, Asian American writer, cultural critic and graduate student at UC Berkeley (where he teaches courses on pop culture), the opening speaker and panel moderator, gave an opening talk about the historical presence of Asians in hip-hop. Mr. Wang’s research into the annals of hip-hop history unearthed an emcee (who claims to have cut a record before "Rapper’s Delight") from the South Bronx, whom Wang declares as the "first Asian in hip-hop." He then describes him as "half Filipino and half Black." I couldn’t help but wonder how this emcee identified himself and how he physically looked, and why his Blackness was now a footnote in Wang’s historical re-write.

As Wang continued on, he painted hip-hop music and culture as this multi-culti "American" artform that everyone’s had a hand in developing. By doing so, Wang very skillfully ignored the reality that Rap was in fact created by Black youth (and Latinos from the Caribbean – many of whom are also of African descent and certainly ghettoized as "Black" in the NYC socio-economic landscape) in the South Bronx (or in Queens, depending on whom you ask). Wang went on to say that the only reason why Asians were drawn to hip-hop was because of the music. He also said that "hip-hop is the most democratic music because it doesn’t take the same skill as playing classical music."

Wang then asked a follow-up question to the panelists. Uh-oh! The panel included spoken word duo Yellow Rage, DJ Phillie Blunt, Chops of the Mountain Brothers, a Cambodian-American rapper named Jim, and his friend, the lone Black panelist who is an MC from Philly. Borrowing from the hip-hop romantic comedy Brown Sugar, Wang asked each panelist to talk about when they "first fell in love with hip-hop." All of the panelists, save the Black man, talked about hearing some rap song on the radio and falling in love, because it expressed "who they were" and "their experience."

Jim admitted he grew up in the burbs and came to hip-hop out of his isolation. At least that was honest. Michelle, from Yellow Rage, anointed herself the hip-hop historian (or shall I shay griot?) for the evening. Making jokes about her age, Michelle reminded the audience to pay respect to hip-hop’s roots and remember "the old school." The panel was asked another question by Wang and then he opened the floor for questions from the audience.

After squirming in my third-row seat for the duration of the talk, I had my opportunity. Quickly raising my hand, I was passed the mic. My question/statement was: In all of the talk thus far, we have conveniently skirted around the issue of race. But let’s be real, when we’re talking about hip-hop and hip-hop culture, we mean Black people, which you de-emphasized and de-historicized in your intro talk, Mr Wang . . . Now, we know about the history of Black popular culture being appropriated and stolen by whites, as in the case of Blues, Jazz, and Rock & Roll.

And now there’s hip-hop, and since we live in this multi-racial state which still positions Blackness socio-economically and politically at the bottom, 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?

The jig was up. I was the rain that ended the parade (or shall I say charade?). The room quickly turned to palpable hostility and anger. Since they were already clearly pissed, I decided to throw out a follow-up question: Mr. Wang, you said that Asian people are attracted to hip-hop because they just like the music, which I find hard to believe since hip-hop also came into prominence in the day and age of music video – where image and representation are as important (if not more) than the music itself.

That being the case, what is it about Black people (and especially Black masculinity in the case of hip-hop), and what they represent to others, that is so attractive to other people, including non-white people of color?

The Body Slam

Well, that did it. They were mad as hell. I mean, how dare I bring up Black people and appropriation, as if Asians can’t possibly appropriate Blackness in the same manner that white folks do! It couldn’t be, not while I’m in a standing-room only crowd of "conscious" Asian youth with locks and hair teased out (and often chemically treated) to look like afros!

Well, that panel couldn’t get that mic around fast enough! Some of the responses were too asinine to even bother with a critique. But I will tackle the main points. The first to respond was the lone Black man on the panel. Responding to my second question, he spoke in a condescending, yet gentle tone (you know, "brother to brother") about us "being a soulful people" and that’s why everyone wants to get with our shit and how I should see it as a "compliment."

Well, I am fine with you getting with it – on the radio or video or whatever – but does that mean you get to have it? Better yet, take it, and then use it against Black people to promote the image of us as intimidating and politically and culturally selfish? This is exactly the narrative that was used to promote Eminem and is being used now for Jin: both of them are framed as real "artists" and "lyricists" who stand dignified in the face of Black "reverse racism" and hostility (watch 8 Mile, read much of the press written about Jin’s appearances on 106th & Park)—as if Nas, Bahamadia, or Andre 3000 & Big Boi aren’t really artists but, as Black people are expected to do, just use "the race card" to get ahead.

And to treat Blacks as "soulful people" is the same as seeing us as primitives (with some genetic code programming us to gleefully wail and shout, shake and shimmy) who make this lovely music yet are too docile to be really intelligent, ingenious and artistic.

Several of the panelists at this event went on to critique commercial rap artists for being materialistic, etc. For example, after putting his arm on his Black friend’s shoulder and telling me that we need to "recognize that Blacks are on the bottom," Jim concluded by telling me that "it’s about class, not race" and how he tries his hardest to be "conscientious."

This is the same guy who earlier emphasized how capitalism diluted the politics of hip-hop without talking about Asian Americans’ role in the capitalist structure. Instead of dealing with this very important issue, the Asian-American panelists acted as if they were "more real" than Black commercial artists. So, because they get to be "underground" (which loosely means someone without a record deal), they get to be "real" and "authentic" over Black artists who have been commercially successful.

I have my own critiques of commercially successful Black hip-hop artists and their materialism, misogyny, violence and homophobia – which I have written and spoken about as well—but I was not about to give that over to some hostile non-Black people to use to make themselves more "down."

Michelle of Yellow Rage flat out screamed on me, in an effort, I guess, to "keep it real" with her duo’s namesake. Starting several of her sentences with the phrase, "You need to acknowledge…" she went on and on about how she is sick of people (I guess Black people) saying that hip-hop is a Black thing.

This Ph.D. candidate (who specializes in both Asian and African American Literature) went on to tell me that I need to "stop being so divisive" and "read my history" via the likes of cultural critics Tricia Rose and Nelson George so that I can learn and ultimately "acknowledge" that "nobody has a monopoly on culture."

And least of all Black people. As the descendants of slaves, the property of others, nothing belongs to us. Everything we do, including hip-hop and spoken word, can be done by anyone else. And yet, Yellow Rage made a name for itself by critiquing appropriation of Asian culture by non-Asians, including Black people (specifically hip-hop artists).

So, to the author of Ancestor Worship (a phrase generally referring to Black African traditional religious practice) and member of Asians Misbehavin’ (which appropriates the name from the Black musical revue of Fats Waller’s music, Ain’t Misbehavin’), I say to you, Michelle, if Asians have certain cultural boundaries that need to be respected (e.g. Chinese/Japanese tattoos, chopsticks in the hair, etc.), then why does that not apply to Black people? Maybe this is something Michelle can ponder as she works on her dissertation called "Untying Tongues" (which appropriates the title of the late Black Gay filmmaker Marlon Rigg’s work, Tongues Untied).

So I asked the first, and apparently last question of the Q&A. Not caring to see the "performance" part of the evening (though I’d have to call the panel a performance as much as the concert), I left the event, dealing with the angry glares on my way out. I thought it was over. But then a friend sent me a link to a commentary on the cultural possessiveness of Blacks over hip-hop on Oliver "aka O-Dub" Wang’s site written by Mr. Wang himself ( ).

The Aftermath

So, in a larger blog about Jin and Asians in hip-hop, Wang writes about the Asian Arts Initiative event. Describing how I raised the question I did, Wang responds:

"I’m constantly frustrated by these kinds of defensive attitudes around cultural ownership though I am quite aware of how they arise. The gentleman in this case was correct in noting that African American culture has suffered through a long history of being exploited to the gains of others and there is great concern that hip-hop is simply next on the list…Communities may think they ‘own’ a culture but that’s not how culture works. It’s not an object you can chain up. Culture doesn’t care about borders - it spreads as fast and as far as the people who consume it will take it.

I agree, yes, culture can also be misappropriated and exploited. But if people are really worrying about hip-hop becoming the latest example of Black culture being emptied of content and turned into a deracinated commodity, the problem doesn’t lie with Asian American youth. Or Latino youth. Or even white youth really."

It’s interesting – or more accurately, disturbing – that Wang uses the metaphor of culture being "chained up" in relation to African Americans. Wang, like Michelle from Yellow Rage, refuses to deal with what the legacy of being property (always owned, and never owners) means in the case of Black people and claims of ownership over culture. So, where Black people are concerned, both historically and contemporarily, it’s all good. We make everything for everybody.

Wang goes on assert that the "The color line here is painted in green. You want to talk about cooptation? Talk about corporations…" (right now W.E.B. Du Bois is rolling over in his grave). So I guess, as Wang puts it, the real (and I guess only) problem is corporations who promote hip-hop and make money off of it—of which some executives are Black, Wang is eager to point out.

That’s almost slick, Ollie. But not quite. People who don’t want to deal with their own complicity in the reproduction of anti-Black racism are very quick to point out corporations as the culprit. Interestingly, while emphasizing corporations, Wang doesn’t talk about his own relationship to them or that he makes a living writing for such corporations about a music that allegedly doesn’t require much skill or that he works for a university—which is also a corporation—and gets to have some control over the production of knowledge about hip-hop.

Instead of addressing this, Wang goes out of his way to point out that there are one or two Black people in some level of decision making capacity in the music industry. But why doesn’t he talk about how virtually none of them actually own the labels, and fewer are in control of any means of production and distribution?

The narrative of blame the corporation, but not me (or any living breathing person), and don’t talk about the bodies it oppresses in the meantime is such a mirror of the white nationalist narrative. It, to me, is the same as the white person saying, "Don’t blame me for slavery. My grandparents didn’t own any slaves. They came from Russia in 1902. And didn’t Africans sell their own people into slavery? And didn’t some Blacks own slaves?"

Well, maybe your "immigrant" ancestor did not own slaves, but they certainly benefited from a nation that valued whiteness above all else. And they got jobs in industry (that Black people clearly needed and couldn’t get easy or any access to) and amass wealth in a way Black people have been prevented from doing collectively.

A handful of rappers, athletes, and talk-show hosts doesn’t change the fact that a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center deemed that Black families are the only racial group in the United States who saw their wealth decrease in recent years. And your grandparents didn’t end up here by accident, no more than mine accidentally left the shores of Africa – "chained up." They came because the US wanted to balance a growing Black non-enslaved population with more white people. So the US took who they could get.

By the 1960’s the US again decided to balance a "mad and organized-as-all-hell" Black population by relaxing immigration to bring in more non-Black people of color. So, in many cases, the non-Black presence in the US was specifically set up in relationship against Black people. Even if your family was here before the 1960s, look at the history of every contiguous state formed between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The question of slavery is at the heart of the founding of every single one. The "slave," the "nigger," and the "criminal" are historical and contemporary positions that Blackness occupies. This reality is something everyone is forced to deal with, and yet nobody wants to be one of them.

So, what Asian Americans and Asian American politics (and I think "People of Color" politics as well) has yet to fully deal with is that we can’t talk about capitalism and corporations in some abstract sense. If we do then we ignore how one’s positionality against Blackness and Black people in a white supremacist context helps to define the issues of ownership, property and parameters and how they are racialized. Just because you aren’t phenotypically white doesn’t mean you can’t uphold white interests politically—as Wang likes to point out in his example of the Black executive—but Black people as a whole cannot function politically in the same way that non-Black people of color can in the current global paradigm (Yes! Global. Let’s talk about sub-Saharan Africa in relation to South America, the Middle East or Asia, if you must).

So, NOT being Black is what seems to matter more under capitalism than being white.

The Final Round

So, corporations are but one manifestation of the American project. But history and culture are also an equally important part of that project. History and culture inform narratives that form people’s logic and assumptions, which root themselves in the subconscious. We could overthrow all corporations tomorrow, and if our narratives stay the same, or simply shift shape without being utterly transformed, some other new and oppressive shit (aimed at Black people!) will take it’s place. And take the prison’s place. So, don’t put all your focus on corporations, or laws, or cages without dealing with the logic that makes us assume we need them in the first place.

There’s an old saying my grandmother has: "I’m not dealing with the form, I’m dealing with the essence!"

The essence is exactly this: Let’s un-assume that because we’re all up in hip-hop that we’re all on the same page. Let’s un-assume that because you might try to look like me or sound like me (or how you think I do both), that we are working towards the same goal, or that we even have the same enemy. I don’t think, despite efforts to think otherwise, that this was really ever Black people’s assumption.

To close, let me share a story that I think is very telling and illustrates everything I’ve been getting at here. I was living in New Orleans last year, and had just arrived for 2003 Satchmo Festival celebrating the life of Louie Armstrong. The event takes place in the gentrified Fabourg Marigny, and over that August weekend, cafes and restaurants fill with Brass Bands, Jazz and Blues artists.

I sat outside a coffee shop one day listening to an incredible quartet with a group of Black people I had just met, while the cafe was filled with folks from all over, including whites, Japanese tourists and Asian-American college students. One Black woman said to her friend, "Girl let’s go in!" The other replied, "No, I’d rather stay out here. I can’t experience it the way I would if it was just us. I always feel like part of the minstrel show when they be up in it. And there ain’t no place in New Orleans where they don’t go now..."

I turned to her, and gave an "Uh-huh," wanting her to know I was there to bear witness to what she’d said, and glad she’d said it. I, too, chose to stay on the outside for the very same reason. Asian Americans in hip-hop need to consider this Black woman’s concern, as well as this question: If first-generation white European immigrants like Al Jolson could use minstrelsy (wearing blackface, singing black popular music and mimicking their idea of Black people) to not only ensure their status as white people, but also to distance themselves from Black people, can Asian Americans use hip-hop (the music, clothing, language and gestures, sans charcoal makeup), and everything it signifies to also assert their dominance over Black bodies, rather than their allegiance to Black liberation?

People who now think that jazz is for everybody never think about what the process was to get jazz to that place, nor what that means for the people who invented it. This thought leaves me with one last – albeit very frightening – question: Will my niece and nephews be at a festival for Lauryn Hill fifty years from now, also standing on the outside looking in?

Kenyon Farrow © 2004


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