Early in the quarter, our class read and had discussions on the topic of Asian Americans in the genre of hip hop. To inform this dialogue, we read pieces by DJ Kuttin Kandi, Benji Chang, Michael Viola, and Nitasha Sharma, each of whom presented their perspectives on the topic, and listened to (as well as watched) some of the Blue Scholars’ (a rap duo) work.
Before working with any of the more nuanced ideas surrounding Asian Americans in hip-hop, it is important to draw a line between hip-hop and rap. This demands attention, especially given the current climate of music in mass media, because many people clump hip-hop into the broader genre of rap. Hip-hop was created as an art form of resistance at the intersection of the Black and Latinx communities in the Bronx towards the end of the 1970s. From its inception, hip-hop has been resistant and radical. This resistance often manifested in lyrics supporting personal expression and positivity, as well as addressing institutional issues in artists’ environments. With this knowledge, it is easy to see why viewing hip-hop and today’s generic popular rap as entirely the same genre is counterproductive.
The authors of the pieces we read clearly had this division in mind, as they each paid no validating attention to the misogynistic trends and performative Blackness of the modern rap game. DJ Kuttin Kandi and Benji Chang both focused on their personal relationship with hip hop, giving a more anecdotal feel. Their style of writing allowed both authors to interact with the communities mentioned in their writings. For Kuttin Kandi, this manifested in learning from the Pilipinx community of Queens and constantly viewing her position in hip-hop as one of a student. For Chang, it was searching for spaces of genuine (or authentic) interaction with the genre and combining his love for hip-hop and mission of social change (which, in reality, are inherently connected).
The other authors, Viola and Sharma, took a much less personal approach to the question of Asian Americans creating/taking up space in hop-hop. Viola’s points are direct, as he makes the arguments that cultural critique without analysis of class and social systems can be used to protect systems of oppression and that integration between academics and the working class is key in social transformation. An expansion of this first argument would be that viewing a resistant art form/genre such as hip-hop as solely cultural expression or commercial endeavor without acknowledging the structural issues that it comes out of works for the detriment of art and artists who create it. Sharma’s arguments are even more complex because she discusses the industry of hip-hop/rap, its allure for Asian Americans, and the context of Asian American identity as a producer of hip-hop. The most striking points she makes are that hip-hop is a “multiracial production of Black popular culture” and that it can be applied to the global struggle of oppressed people rather than simply the domestic struggle of Black and Latinx people in the United States.
To put the ideas of all four authors together, hip-hop is seen as a radically resistant art form with inherent ties to Blackness and Latinidad. For Asian Americans involved with the genre, this means that it is important to pay some sort of respects to its creators, whether that is through verbal acknowledgement or a certain type of consciousness that aligns with its original values. If an artist wishes to create hip-hop (and not rap), however, this alignment of consciousness is a requirement.
The Blue Scholars is a non-Black hip-hop duo that exercises agency in the genre in a knowledgeable and respectful manner, maintaining the resistant and cohesive nature of hip-hop’s origins. The album we used to spotlight them, Bayani Redux, is full of funky/jazzy sampling and lyrics focused on recognizing a united struggle among oppressed people and an agency to resist oppressive structures. For example, Opening Salvo on the album holds the lyrics, “I write what I can/ to get our fam in other lands to understand your pain/ cause your beef is mine and we one and the same/ and I know about this privilege/ but if you’re from where I’m from/ then you know a bigger burden comes with it.” This section shows both the understanding of a unity among people in the struggle against oppression (capitalism, imperialism, etc.) and the understanding of privilege as non-Black individuals and the responsibility to use it for the movement of resistance. These ideas surface numerous times in each song by the Blue Scholars, making them a duo that I (and likely each of the scholars mentioned) support.