Hip-hop and rap are seemingly the two hardest forms of music for aspiring Asian American artists to break into. Commercial success for Asian rappers has been difficult to achieve, and it’s even more difficult for new Asian artists to gain a foothold in the industry. Asian Americans have had difficulty breaking into hip-hop/rap industries due to the “model minority” status of Asians, Asians as a “safe foreign race,” and how Asian artists incorporate their race while walking the blurred line between appropriation and appreciation.
Asians are frequently looked up to as the “model minority,” since they achieve supposed educational and economic success, but this limits their ability to succeed in hip hop/rap. Oliver Wang explains that Asian Americans lack of success comes down to their marketability and how racially inauthentic they are in a genre typically defined by blackness (pg. 36). This in-authenticity stems from the perception that Asians are model minorities. Jaeki Cho, the producer of the documentary Bad Rap, explains how “Asians come to the US, they get into the middle-class jobs—what do they have to rap about? … What hip-hop is perceived to be is the antithesis of what Asian Americans are considered to be in this country,” highlighting how the perception of Asian success limits their ability to achieve “authenticity” and commercial success within the rap community.
Asian American rapper Dumbfoundead’s single Safe explores the concept of Asians being considered a “safe race,” which relates to being a model minority. He made the song after Chris Rock made jokes about Asians at the 2016 Oscars and explained that ““I just kind of felt like we were becoming this ‘safe race,’ That’s kind of the reason I wrote that, to let people know that, ‘Nah, it’s not cool. We’re not that safe race to poke fun at.’ It’s getting old, you know?” While the song focuses on how Asians are continually ignored in film, it also has applicability to how Asians are viewed in rap and hip-hop.
Safe’s lyrics highlight how Asians are viewed in a negative light in all forms of media. The song starts with “You took me as safe / That was your first mistake,” implying that Asians are viewed by executives in media as a race that doesn’t take risks and can be marginalized without consequence. They’re also seen by the public as “safe,” relating back to the model minority status of Asians. To expose the lack of Asian representation in multiple areas, the song continues with “Its been the same ol’ thang, I swear the game don’t change / What you talking bout there ain’t no space / Guess i gotta go and make more space,” highlighting how Asians who want to break into areas of art must go and make their own way despite the lack of desire for Asian Americans in media.
The most important aspect of this single comes through the music video, where Dumbfoundead replaces white actors in lead roles with his own face. These visual representations of Asians replacing actors of other ethnicities seems out of place, but his point is that Asians can play lead roles too, and should be given the chance to succeed in all areas of media. At the end of the video, a white director comes into the scene and removes Dumbfoundead from the set as he says “Your face just doesn’t have that Hollywood star power,” which relates back to Wang’s contention that Asians are not seen as marketable in all forms of media, especially rap and hip-hop.
Dumbfoundead in Pulp Fiction (Safe)
Dumbfoundead in The Brady Bunch (Safe)
Another key limitation to Asian Americans is the difficulty of making hip-hop/rap music without coming off as appropriating black culture. Wang explains that “one of the fundamental tensions Asian American rappers have to contend with is the distance between Asianness and blackness,” which leads back to whether or not Asian American hip-hop/rap is “authentic (pg. 40). Salima Koroma, the director of Bad Rap, explains how “You have the people who are sick and tired of hip-hop being appropriated, who are like, “Fuck these Asians. I don’t care if you’re good or not, this is not your shit,” exposing how a portion of the hip-hop/rap community doesn’t believe Asians can be authentic in this form of music and are instead appropriating black culture. This conflict between being Asian or just being a rapper presents a difficult situation in front of Asians as soon as they enter the hip-hop/rap scene, as they have to contend with not appropriating what is often seen as a predominately black music form and fight back claims that their music is inauthentic due to their race.
Asian Americans continue to slowly make strides breaking into and gaining respect in the hip-hop/rap industry. However, the contention between being seen as a model minority and making authentic music limits the ability of Asian Americans to be marketable and commercially successful. Dumbfoundead’s single Safe showcased how Asians are often seen as a “safe” minority in all sectors of media, which limits their opportunity and puts them at risk for casual racism. At the same time, any aspiring Asian American rapper has to make sure they are not seen as appropriating the roots of rap and hip-hop music. It is still unclear whether or not Asian Americans will gain prominence in the hip-hop/rap scene, but rappers like Dumbfoundead are doing their best to break the “bamboo ceiling.”