Hip hop has been racialized as a black cultural form and following the rise of hip hop as a cultural commodity, it has been difficult for those to outside that identity to gain authenticity as hip hop artists. In Oliver Wang’s Rapping and Repping Asian: Race, Authenticity, and the Asian American MC, there are three distinct waves of Asian American hip hop artists: early 1990s, mid-1990s, and the millennium.
Wang identifies the paradox Asian American hip hop artists by citing “the continued absence of Asian American rappers [contributing] to the perception of their inauthenticity” (Wang 38). Asian American artists have been, and are still stuck in this cycle in which they are not able to achieve the same mainstream success as artists that are considered “authentic” because they are not represented in hip hop, yet that consequence is also the reason why authenticity is not racialized on Asian American bodies. This cycle has manifested through the waves in which Asian American artists have chosen to represent themselves as artists.
The first wave of Asian American artists came of age as artists while they were in college and performed explicitly as political artists. Artists like the Seoul Brothers, Asiatic Apostles, and Fists of Fury admired artists like Public Enemy for “using music as a medium to educate and elevate consciousness” (42). Artists in the first wave also only chose to perform for Asian and Asian American audiences, citing Asian Americans as their primary audience. However, they failed to recognize and apply hip hop as a cultural form and contribute to the community and their lack of involvement in hip hop as a cultural form contributed to their perceived inauthenticity. It also distanced Asian American artists of the time from the hip hop community, furthering this idea that they are outsiders or foreigners.
The second wave of artists distanced themselves as Asian American artists, and rather wanted to be seen for their talent and skills over their racialized identities. Because by the mid-1990s, Asian American hip hop artists had not been granted racialized authenticity within the hip hop community, they sought to find authenticity elsewhere. However, in doing so, they still cycled themselves in this paradox of inauthenticity and lack of representation in hip hop. While they were actively trying to ‘unracialize’ themselves to find authenticity in their skills, everyone around them was still racializing their bodies as inauthentic. These artists were the opposite of the first wave and while immersing themselves in a shallow perception of what hip hop was, they refused to accept the political roots and nature of hip hop.
The third wave of artists have taken it upon themselves to take ownership of their race and arm themselves against their audiences and critics. Wang compared Eminem and Jin as two artists who willingly racialized themselves to show critics that they are aware that their racial identities have established them as deviant from what is considered authentic in hip hop. The third wave was in the early 2000s and following the trend of the first and second wave, the third wave ended around eight years later around the financial crisis. What I call the fourth wave consists of artists who had some Asian American artists to pave the way for them and because of that take ownership of their identity while being able to navigate their identity as hyphenated Americans like Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina. Similar to Jin, Awkwafina prompts her listeners to an awareness of race and the issues faced by Asian Americans. In her breakout song, “My Vag”, Awkwafina makes few explicit references to her identity as an Asian American but the ownership she takes of her sexuality in relation to her racialized body immediately robs the ability to impose Asian stereotypes of femininity on her body. In an interview conducted with KoreanAmericanStory.org, Awkwafina makes reference to being seen more as an artist now, rather than an Asian American artist. She is known external to her listeners as having played minor characters in movies like Neighbors 2 and Ocean’s 8 under Nora Lum which is what she is most likely referring to rather than “unracializing” herself like artists in the second wave. Awkwafina takes ownership of her “Asian Americanness” while still attempting to gain authenticity outside of the hip hop community. Asian American artists today feel less of a need to prove their authenticity as anything other than what they are which has allowed their work and identities to be more fluid.