Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hip-hop Is Saving Asian-American People...

New York streetwear staple Mighty Healthy recently dropped this tee on an unsuspecting public... but really when you think about it, it was only a matter of time.

Inspired in part, at least, by this tee, the homey Dallas Penn went in over at, his new jumpoff, with a blog article titled "Asian people are saving hip-hop..." (for the record, Dallas is Mighty Healthy extended family via the legendary 40 Diesel).

And you know what, I think Dallas is more right than wrong. Sure, hip-hop is bigger than race - after all, while dominated by Black culture, Hip-Hop's roots in 1970s inner-city New York sprang from a mixture of African, Latin American, and other cultures and influences - but our people have been getting it in in a major way, from streetwear (BAPE, Mighty Healthy, The Hundreds, Staple Design, and far more are Asian-owned, -designed, and -founded) to DJing (Qbert, Neil Armstrong, and Babu, to name some prominent heads) to hip-hop journalism and media empires (king of the hip-hop internets Miss Info, columnist/author Jeff Yang, the homegirl sooey). And while we have been slacking on the prominent emcee tip, don't get it twisted: Asians and Asian-Americans are out there hustling.

I'm not going to front like we were in the frontlines from the beginning though. The pioneers of hip-hop - while diverse - were, primarily, Black and Latino, with some White faces mixed in, and others representing occasionally.

The Asian-American population has existed for around 150+ years , since the mid-19th century, when Chinese and Japanese men came streaming over to the West Coast in search of opportunitites for railroad work and comparatively well-paying menial labor. With a high cultural value placed on the concept of "saving face", not to mention racist and aggressive barriers placed around new Asian immigrants - and even those Asian-Americans whose families had been in the country for generations - the Asian-American population adapted to its surroundings by, well, adapting. We shifted, settled in, got in where we fit in, and generally became a population that fit the role in Western society of the polite child: "seen and not heard".

For much of the history of the Asian-American, this was the role we played: silently adaptable, accomodating of social norms and roles. Cast as muscled brute labor, Asians in America labored and died working on railroads and washing clothes. Later recast according to the whims of society, Asians in America adapted, shifting ideas of success towards the sciences: computer scientists, engineers, medical doctors.

But the voices of Asian-American men and women were, throughout this process of casting and re-casting, broadly silent in the public forum. People spoke about Asian-Americans; they spoke at and even to Asian-Americans; but rarely, very rarely, did people bother to listen to Asian-Americans. The silent adaptability that had so long functioned as a strength of the community at large now found itself a detriment, that calm silence and careful studiousness taken as meek acceptance - even welcome! - of domination by larger cultural forces.

Of course, there have always been exceptions to the cultural stereotype, individuals whose voices spoke of the internal strife caused by the pull towards social conformation and the push toward individual dreams. But those voices rarely found an outlet; and when they found one, they were far too often unsupported - alone, with no one to carry on their movement once it had passed.

In recent years - at least since the early 90s - Asian-Americans, especially those growing up as children of poor, recently-immigrated families, have found themselves in the same urban environments as the fathers - and successors - of hip-hop, many attending the same poorly-funded inner-city schools as Black and Latino children. Raised in these surroundings, it is no surprise that the Asian-American population in the 1990s and 2000s found itself increasingly identifying with hip-hop culture.

The most beautifullest thing in the world is that hip-hop has a quality that provides the exact cure to the problem of silence and marginalization which so many Asian-American voices suffer.

The culture of hip-hop - including all its elements, from emceeing to deejaying, bboying to graf writing, beatboxing to fashion - is grounded exactly in the kind of brash and confident outspokenness that Asian-American voices long for. Emotion and expressiveness is a key component of Asian art, but often in an internal, community sense: pouring out one's heart and soul is respected, but to do so to the world at large is not seen as brave, but rather weak. However, American children of Asian families understand that, in the American public discussion, you have to project your voice to make it heard; sitting back and waiting for your turn is an invitation to be ignored and neglected. Our forefathers' silence may have set the economic foundation for this generation's existence, but now it's time to speak up - that our voices, rapped, written, scratched, and worn, can set the social foundation for the next generation's progression.

Asian America has been a people searching for a voice, a message searching for a medium. In hip-hop, we may have found all of that.

And Dallas is right, too: hip-hop in 2010, and throughout the last decade, has been a medium in search of a soul. While cats claim to worship authenticity, hip-hop is - and has been ever since the Sugarhill Gang bit rhymes from Grandmaster Caz to get bank - perpetually in a state of losing its heart to material interests.

But remember that silent adaptability that helped the first Asian-Americans survive? Similarly, Asians and Asian-Americans have quietly been working their way into the lifeblood of hip-hop culture. I have ridden around town in Beijing 8 Mile-style, bumping Tupac with a gang of Chinese kids - born and raised - who knew every overstressed rhyme (and not a word else of English). South Korea is home to some of the sickest bboy crews and battles in the world. And everyone knows that, right now, hip-hop fashion is entirely dependent on the Japanese street scene, with names like Nigo and Hiroshi Fujiwara ringing cash register bells in "streetwear" stores from DC to LA to NYC to Berlin. A few months ago, flipping through's style section, I came across a young Brooklyn kid who, when asked "Who inspires your style?", responded, "Koreans at my school."

Hip-hop has gone from Brooklyn, Staten Island, Philly, Detroit, and Atlanta to Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo; and, even more impressively, it has gone from the South Bronx to the Asian enclaves in Flushing; from Black communities to Asian communities in Atlanta; from Southlea to Korean hoods in Houston. In the process of doing so, it has been both preserved and updated. There is something about its essence that has been specially loved and embraced by the Asian-American communities, even as its mainstream face goes from backpack to trap to crunk to snap; and, in return, it has given young Asian-American men and women a voice and a space for personal and financial empowerment and growth.

Asians may be saving hip-hop; but hip-hop may also be saving Asian-Americans.

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