Ever since Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five dropped The Message in 1982, the evolution of hip-hop has transformed into a global movement, which has broken down many racial and social barriers as well as unify people from all walks of life through memorable music. Even now, in the age of technology and social media, hip-hop has become so accessible to mainstream audiences across the globe that it’s a breeding ground for new talent to tell their story and have their shot at greatness.
However, even within the realm of indie and underground hip-hop, certain figures are seen as either rarities or novelties, and this can make or break the future success of an artist. It can either give artist recognition for their creativity, charisma, and technical abilities as an emcee or make them infamous for their unoriginality and shortcomings as an artist. Although, there are some instances where an artist will receive praise solely based on their novelty appeal, instead of their actual skills as a lyricist. The most notable example of the paradigm is the burgeoning visibility of the Asian-American YouTube rap community.
Hip-hop, in general, has had an extensive reputation for embracing individuals who feel like outsiders within their personal life, regardless of race or gender. As an avid hip-hop head, I welcome diversity within the community because you never know which artists’ will surprise you. I remember when, Chinese-American rapper, MC Jin was reigning champ of Freestyle Friday on BET’s 106 & Park in 2001. Also, Seba Jun, better known as Nujabes, is one of my favorite hip-hop producers of all time, even though he was not Asian-American.
However, with the growing popularity of YouTube, Spotify, and SoundCloud, more and more Asian-Americans are picking up the mic, but how many of them are lyrically gifted? Asian-Americans in the independent media of internet hip-hop produce and reproduce two types of artist: those who latch onto black culture for dear life and those who take black culture and make it unique to them.
For example, let’s take the songs Good Kush and Alcohol by Lil Crazed and 24KTOWN by Dumbfoundead.
In Lil Crazed verse, he paints himself as a lady killer who braggadociosly glorifies having a lot of money and expensive cars as well as talk about how people hate him because of his success. In the video, he comes across as your typical pants sagging, blunt blowing rapper who embodies American consumer culture through these formulaic semiotics of rap culture.
The discourse of Asian-Americans in hip-hop can be explained through Stuart Hall’s Communication Circuit. The production of Asian internet rappers started from the influence of black rappers who represented the rebellion and innovation associated with being the minority. The object was to portray hip-hop as a means of forging their identity as an American and to separate themselves from their parents and tradition. The message of Americanization was circulated frequently throughout television, advertisements, movies, and the internet. Soon, Asian-Americans received this message by realizing that hip-hop is a vessel to assimilation because it allows them to participate in American culture, and establish masculine credibility by carrying the relics of black expression. Thus, resulting in more Asian-Americans rappers and producers reproducing this discourse and the cycle starts over again.
Despite Lil Crazed being a product of the discourse of consumer culture, his image exposes and asymmetrical relationship between the Asian-American and African-American community. His image shares with the common characteristics of a black stereotype yet has no ties to his own Asian heritage. He was able to capitalize on the novelty of being an up incoming Asian-American rapper in mainstream America, but he relies on black culture as a crutch more so than a tool. Even though Lil Crazed intention was to show non-Asians that he shares the same conceptual maps to legitimate his American identity; his music is the prospective of the dominant mainstream, instead of the vision of Asian-American Media Independence.
On the other hand end the spectrum, there are Asian-Americans who can take the discourse of hip-hop, and elicit a subculture that creates a distinct genre in hip-hop music that resist hegemonic ideas and paint an accurate depiction of Asian-Americans; for example, the song 24KTOWN by Dumbfoundead.
From the scenery of the music video to the socially conscious lyrics about Asian-American issues, DFD captures that hybridity of redefining what it means to be Asian-American without be fully swayed by assimilation. DFD’s mastery of storytelling creates a symmetrical relationship with Asian-American and African-American audiences alike, because his lyrics elicit an imagined community for Asian-Americans, which is where the power of hip-hop music lays. He demonstrates a realistic representation of Asian-Americans by sharing common forms of oppression and racism, but, by doing so, he is going against popular belief which will diminish his popularity in mainstream culture. Like I mentioned earlier, the rap community favors artists, not because of hype or novelty, but because of their ability to make you feel their struggle through their prospective. In the words of Q-Tip, “opinions are like voices, everyone has one.”