Power Struggle: Understanding Asian American Musicians Beyond the Black-White Binary

In her article, “Yellow Skin, White Masks,” Mina Yang asserts that emerging Asian American artists in hip hop must perform “within the constraints imposed upon Asian American artists generally, between the poles of whiteness and blackness, presence and lack, visibility and invisibility, subject and object” (27). Audiences often judge Asian American hip hop artists to be either assimilated into Whiteness or imitating Blackness, to be either invisible or too visibly foreign to the cultural genres in which they participate. Filipinx American hip hop artists defy such limited and binary categorizations. Rather than simply assuming a Black or White identity, their artistic works reflect a “global race consciousness,” a term Nitasha Sharma first uses to describe the work of desi hip hop artists. Filipinx American emcees, like Geologic from Blue Scholars, Bambu and Kiwi from Native Guns, and Nomi from Power Struggle, intentionally represent a translocal Filipinx identity in their music. Their performances force a new understanding of hip hop music as a practice that exists beyond the black-white binary and the national boundaries of the U.S. and reflects global counter-hegemonic struggles.

An emcee in the Bay Area, Nomi from Power Struggle exemplifies how Filipinx American hip hop artists marry global activism with their art. For Nomi, the messages of his music are deeply intertwined with his work as a community organizer and educator in the Filipinx community. Throughout his discography, Nomi makes explicit connections between his music-making, his own translocal identity, and the history of popular resistance in the Filipinx community in the Bay Area and in the Philippines. In the song, “Mr. Sagittarius…A Proletarian Path to Enlightenment,” Nomi tells his life history and his journey into conscious hip hop:

These eyes done see four continents deep
from the African coast to the Philippine sea
To the Midwest plains where the red man waits
to take back the land from the ghost-faced race
I’ve moved all across this blue round shape,
this place called Earth, singing blues to escape

With these beginning lines, he positions his experiences and his music-making within a global context, resisting the confinement of hip-hop artists within national and racial boundaries. As he recounts in a short documentary shot by Eric Tandoc, Nomi was born in Nigeria and moved to Minnesota when he was four. By referring to Minnesota as “the Midwest plains where the red man waits to take back the land from the ghost-faced race,” he resists U.S. hegemony by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of its white institutions.

Nomi started enacting and raising a global race consciousness through his music after he connected the struggles of working class Filipinx Americans with the struggles of workers in the Philippines. In the documentary, he talks about realizing that he needed to make “music that was relevant to more people” after he saw footage of the massacre of workers on a sugar plantation in the Philippines. In the music video for “Mr. Sagittarius,” Nomi overlays his lyrics over footage from his trip to the Philippines and from the massacre to reflect on his growing political consciousness and to educate others in the Asian American community:

Torn up conditions and kids living in shit
Could have been me, if my family wasn’t privileged
To get a visa to work where the money is major
You model minorities need to go back to Asia
Say your prayer to the workers who got murdered by the cops
Hacienda Luicita where the echoes never stop

In these lyrics, he vividly illustrates the need for solidarity among Asians across the globe. Using accessible language, he explains the way the economic system generates economic inequality by allotting only some – including Nomi’s family and the so-called “model minorities” – the legal privilege of working in comparatively better economic conditions in the U.S. His consciousness-raising supports Filipina DJ Kuttin’ Kandy’s claim that “Pilipina/o American performers have proven to be great intellectual leaders” (XXI).

Another powerful example of Nomi’s global race consciousness is the title track of his latest full-length album, In Your Hands (2014). In the song, “In Your Hands…Until the End,” Nomi represents his transnational identity through his lyrics, his mix of English and Tagalog in the bridge, and the images of himself, his family, and his community. He identifies himself as “an immigrant man with immigrant hands, trying to organize the workers in the power that lands,” a claim made more impactful by the introduction of the bass line and the actual footage of him addressing a group of older Filipinos in his community. Just as the desi hip hop artists in Sharma’s study used hip hop as “the soundtrack to their activism” (10), Nomi emphasizes the hard but necessary labor of supporting resistance through his music:

Singing like a seagull as the needle hits the edge,
Of a record that we made that made very little bread,
But the music is redemption, reflection of the life,
Collection of stories of Filipino lives

To Nomi and other Filipinx hip hop artists, their music-making is not merely an imitation of conscious Black rappers, but a conscious effort to support the popular resistance of a Filipinx community that stretches the globe. “I’m in your hands until the end,” is a continual promise that his music-making is committed to and shaped by the struggle of his people.

Works Cited

Kandi, Kuttin. ““Introduction: A Hip Hop Story to Tell: It’s Just Begun.” Empire of Funk: Hip Hop and Representation in Filipina/o America, edited by Mark R. Villegas, Kuttin’ Kandi, Roderick N. Labrador, Cognella Academic Publishing, 2013, pp. XV-XXIV.

Sharma, Nitasha. “The Appeal of Hip Hop, Ownership, and the Politics of Location.” Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 190-233.

Tandoc, Eric, and Tad Nakamura. POWER STRUGGLE documentary. Youtube, uploaded by Eric Tandoc, 18 August, 2010.

Yang, Mina. “Yellow Skin, White Masks.” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, volume 142, no. 4, 2013, pp. 24-37.

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