Hip hop has always had a focus on resistance among marginalized groups and the collective rejection of traditional power structures implemented by a white, hegemonic society. As stated by multiple authors, including Sharma and those who contributed to “Empire of Funk”, there is a message of individuality and ownership that stems from hip hop. However, in many cases, hip hop tends to appropriate Black culture, especially when practiced by groups such as Asian Americans, a model minority. This is true of both East and South Asians. In this piece I speak of the opinions I have about the rampant appropriation and general disrespect that may stem from ignoring the roots of the Black Nationalist Movement, and the importance of such groups as Blue Scholars in addressing issues of resistance against oppressive structures amongst marginalized groups.
Firstly, it is important to analyze how exactly hip-hop changed the traditional Asian American music scene, and how hip hop functions as a genre. As Sharma eloquently points out, hip hop “confounds the notion” of America as a “post-racial society”. This is true when such songs pointing out the hypocritical nature of a white-dominated society expose the general inequalities inherent in such a society. There is an idea that hip hop accepts the rejects, and allows them to carve out their own small, but impactful corner in the music world. In Empire of Funk, the authors highlight the importance of individual relationships with hip hop, especially amongst Asian Americans, in putting together a combination of personal and collective experiences—a relatable mélange of ideas that other, younger Asian Americans use to guide their futures and understand the oppression that occurs in a white-centric society. There is also the use of hip-hop as a tool to raise funds for social improvements, utilizing people’s inherent connection to music in general, and using it as a tool to garner change. Blue Scholars is a prominent example of a group that engages in such activities. Asian Americans may find their “scene” in hip-hop, as is true with the Phillipin@ musicians and DJ’s mentioned in Empire of Funk.
Blue Scholars, a hip-hop duo based in Seattle, are one example of a group that seeks to expose injustices through music, specifically within the hip-hop genre. As is true with what is stated in Empire of Funk, Blue Scholars uses their music as a tool to promote social change and encourage activism within communities that suffer from oppression. In 2007, Blue Scholars even participated in a “Stop the Killings” tour to bring awareness of deaths occurring in the Philippines. Blue Scholars represents one group which refuses to buy into the traditional capitalist narrative, in that they opted to sign with their own record label, and “signed to the people”, a bold move which made their fans their primary financial support. Such moves show that not all music has to function in the same style, in which mainstream labels are utilized to garner financial and social capital. It is important that such artists as Blue Scholars exist, so as to gain popular support, but also be a source of social commentary about what groups that may not always be in the public eye may experience.
There are many connections one can draw between hip hop’s functioning as a genre and other activist art forms. The questions asked include whether music produced by races other than African American are capable of being “black” at their core, and whether Asian Americans participating in hip-hop is inherently wrong. For example, in Flower Drum Song, the musical score was composed by two white men, but performed by (mainly) Asian Americans. Does this mean the music was not truly Asian American? In my opinion, this takes away a certain element of Asian American-ness that is essential for the music to truly reflect Asian ideals. As white men, there is an ignorance that stems from being the dominant group, and composing music that may not reflect this feels artificial. Of course, the song “Chop Suey” must be mentioned in this case. In connection to hip-hop, is rap produced by Asian Americans truly rap, and can it reflect oppression in the same way as if African Americans were producing it? In my opinion, the genre of rap is open to anyone, and if utilized non-problematically, “counts” as hip-hop. However, if a South Asian Artist, Vivek, and other Asian Americans claim to be a part of a “Black consciousness” of sorts, this crosses the line into problematic appropriation of Black experience and culture, leading to the same artificial feeling to the music produced. Blue Scholars is careful with the inherent meanings behind their music, illustrating a more non-problematic sense of what it means to engage in hip-hop without taking away from the predecessors of the genre.
All in all, it is important that Asian American hip hop artists engage in meaningful dialogue about the impacts of their work in mainstream media. While raising awareness of social injustices and the like is important, it is also important that such artists avoid appropriation of Black culture, and understand that the roots of hip hop stemmed from Black Nationalist struggles—Brown Power was an offshoot of this main movement, and should not be confused with it. Blue Scholars and other such groups serve important functions in a society obsessed with “being Black” (As Katy Perry so wonderfully illustrated for us) and bring a more down-to-earth view of hip hop as a genre.
See below for a closer look at Blue Scholars’ work: