The faces of mainstream hip-hop seem relatively homogenous –– if you take a look at Forbes’ 2016 “Cash Kings,” you’ll find that of the top 20 all-time highest earning hip-hop acts, 17 are black males. An industry built out of the music of African Americans, born of their struggles and politics, it stands to reason that many of its participants identify as such. But, when other groups attempt to enter hip-hop, it can be seen as inauthentic; so it’s within this difficult context in which Asian Americans in the industry have to try to carve out a place. Yet, it seems despite how many freestyle battles they win or who they collaborate with, they can’t seem to break through that wall.
Asian American rappers (I will focus only on male rappers for the purposes and constraints of this analysis) are denied access to mainstream success on account of the distinct stereotypes placed on Asian men that are counter-cultural to the black, hyper-masculine narrative that dominates hip-hop culture; and because of that denial, they have had to simultaneously and deliberately subvert those stereotypes and embrace their Asianness in order to find some version of success.
Like much of what we see in pop culture today, black hyper-masculinity in hip-hop is deeply rooted in history, as professor Jelani Cobb said in the PBS Independent Lens documentary “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.” Cobb explained, “the reason why braggadocio and boast is so central to the history of hip-hop is because you’re dealing with the history of black men in American. And there’s a whole lineage of black men wanting to deny their own frailty.” Originally used as a tool of resistance against an oppressive society, hip-hop has been popularized by the mainstream, and now, what a rapper “should” look like, rap like, talk like, dress like, etc has been codified and comes with certain expectations. And when a rapper steps out of the commercial box in which consumers have come to understand rap in, it’s near impossible to attain large scale success.
That brings us to the “issue” of the Asian American rapper. As Oliver Wang describes in “Rapping and Repping Asian: Race, Authenticity, and the Asian American MC,” hip-hop, more than any other genre, relies on this idea of “realness,” which is praised above all else, whereas fakeness, discredits you as an artist “beyond redemption” (36). Confronting the idea of realness for Asian American rappers is difficult, especially when you take into account all the territories that come with being labeled “Asian” in a white hegemonic culture –– “black masculinity is associated with stereotypes of hypermasculinity and sexuality, physical aggression, and the underclasses,” writes Wang. “These stand in almost diametric opposition to so-called model-minority stereotypes of Asian masculinity: effete or asexual, passive, and middle class” (41).
Jonathan Park, better known by his stage name Dumbfoundead (DFD), is one of the better known Asian American rappers on the scene. Aware of how Asian men are seen, DFD knows that he doesn’t fit in that narrative, but he also knows that others in the industry will try to limit him because of it. In their words, he’s not ‘marketable,’ as he says in the Bad Rap documentary promo. “I don’t know what goes through the minds of these label cats when they hear my stuff … I don’t think they think they can market me right now, and I don’t know what it is about me they don’t know how to market…” said DFD. That’s the common excuse, Wang says, that “‘it’s a matter of talent,’” even though talent is ambiguous at best. Really, “it comes down to the issues of marketability and, intimately related to that, how racially inauthentic Asian Americans are in a social world of fans, artists, media, and industry, where blackness is normative” (36).
If blackness is normative, then Asianness won’t sell in a capitalist society that’s profited so much from selling black culture to the masses. In an interview with ATK Magazine in 2015, DFD spoke to how he fights against that: “Asian males are looked upon as timid or passive. And that’s not what I am, obviously and that’s what I try to show that to the max. If I’m already a dude that doesn’t give a f**k and who’s not shy … I put that times 10 when I make music to put that point across.”
DFD feels that he has to overcompensate for the stereotypes others have tried to fit him into by doing everything “times ten,” going above and beyond in order to deliberately subvert those stereotypes and make music that will prove to producers and his peers in the industry his worth, not only as an artist, but as an Asian American one. Though this in some way plays into part of the model-minority trope, the idea of the “over-achieving” Asian, it’s necessary for Asian American rappers to do so in order to subvert the part of the stereotype that hinders their success in this industry.
One just needs to look at his lyrics to see: in his song “Safe“, DFD rhymes about whitewashing in the media, rapping
You ain’t never seen a yellow boy wild’n yellow boy shinin’ / Sound the alarm, I got news / Go ahead and pro-file em’, I ain’t pro-violence / Shhhhh, silence is how yellow boys move
Clearly, he doesn’t try to make his Asianness invisible or try to ignore it, with lines that deliberately speak to the timidity and reticence associated with Asian men. “Yellow boys” act in silence, and he, on the other hand, is a “yellow boy” but he’s someone they’ve never experienced before; “you” have never seen an Asian man “wild’n,” or engaging in activities outside of those he’s expected to. He’s there to make noise, to “sound the alarm,” and to prove that he’s different in order to be seen.
And when Dumbfoundead writes in Korean Jesus,
Took me 20 years to grow this f**ckin goatee / It’ll take another 40 years for you to shave it off me
he pokes fun at the idea that Asian men have a tough time growing facial hair, a barometer of success and manliness in America, again, showing awareness of where America places him, an Asian man –– but, he also defends his Asianness, taking back his slow-growing beard and putting it in his terms, not in the insulting way it has been meant for years. He’s spent a lot of time cultivating his capital in this industry, and it’ll take “you” a long time to take that away from him.
Dumbfoundead puts it best himself when he rapped, “You took me as safe / That was your first mistake.” Asian Americans have always been viewed as “safe,” a docile creed, a minority to compare all other minorities’ success to while they quietly set an example –– rappers like Dumbfounded say no more. Though they have to work harder to subvert these stereotypes set upon them, it leads to a more authentic rhyme, songs grounded in hard work, struggle, oppression, and hip-hop that addresses their own experience.