Keeping it “Real”

I don’t want to say that I am a special or particularly unique individual since, statistically, I probably am not. However, I feel that my racial experience is unique in that I have only recently actualized as an Asian American man. I say this half jokingly, but as someone who is biracial, (in my mind) extremely white passing, and bears the colonial vestige of a European last name, I have lived my entire life as White and Asian, with WHITE in all caps and Asian in a whisper. Since coming to Northwestern from the Bay Area, (which has “hella Asians” as people around here say), however, my conception of identity has radically changed. Now, “Asian” is not just an afterthought.

Starring John Cho.jpgWhat I have picked up in this short time as an Asian American is that to be Asian American is to have a chip on your shoulder. Whenever Asian Americans enter any space, we are expected to toe the fine line between “representing” our race while also “assimilating” into the spaces we occupy. We need to see Asian faces telling Asian American stories on television, lest networks practice erasure; but simultaneously, we daydream of a future where Asian Americans can play roles that are not racialized, like a James Bond film starring John Cho. Asian Americans must celebrate our foreignness while also weaving ourselves into the tapestry of American culture.

The principle question then, and the issues that has transfixed me for this entire class, regards “realness” or “authenticity”. Given these competing standards, it seems difficult for Asian American musicians to negotiate authentic performances and in so doing gain agency. Many artists, like Mistki, Japanese Breakfast, and Dumbfounded (as discussed in several blog posts not written by me) have done so successfully, but it remains a question up in the air.

When it comes to authenticity in Asian America, I like to point to Rich Chigga as I did in my first blog post, who, while not American, illustrates the dialectics of Asian American music. While Rich Chigga  (otherwise known as Brian Immanuel), initially  found success as a comedic rapper which capitalized on stereotypes of Asian masculinity, he has recently been working to gain popularity as a serious rapper. His most recent project includes a collaboration with XXXTentacion and Keith Ape and highlights his attempts to become a rapper who is Asian instead of an Asian rapper. It is telling however, that Immanuel decided to collaborate with Keith Ape who is arguably the most popular Korean rapper in America. Immanuel must figure out how to appear authentic in the rap scene as an Asian artist and it is not clear whether or not that authenticity precludes Asianness.

It is also interesting how blackness in the hip hop scene interacts with Asian artists who want to enter into that space. Since blackness is presumed and all the greatest rappers are black, nonblack rappers are immediately assumed to be “unreal” or “inauthentic”. Asian Americans experience foreignness to hip hop communities and so often downplay their heritage as in the case of Rich Chigga. While some Asian American rappers choose to heavily articulate their race through their music, they have yet to achieve the success of those who do not like Rich Chigga, Jin, or Far East Movement. Success then, seems tied to downplaying Asian heritage since this grants Asian American hip hop artists access to the “realness” ascribed to non-Asian Artists.

At the same time, I feel it necessary to distance ourselves from these entangling discourses of realness and assimilation occasionally to appreciate music as the aural pleasure that it provides. Often we can argue in circles due to the complexities of the heuristics of race in Asian America, and forget that art is an ends unto itself as I articulated in this blog post. Specifically in that example of Mitski, applying “realness” discourses does not seem to be particularly useful. On the one hand, Mitski performs herself authentically by telling stories that she wants to tell through her music. On the other, while her music can be read in racialized and gendered ways, she herself has articulated that these readings are merely a consequence of her own life in that she is simply trying to articulate her own lived experiences through song. We can read Mitski in the greater context of Asian America, but to do so ignores the artists intent as a music maker first and foremost. Besides, we would hardly analyze a White artist in the same way.

And that, to me, is what Asian American music is about. Asian Americans, due to our status as perpetual foreigners, are subject to stricter scrutiny. While Whiteness and Blackness are presumed to be authentic, Asians must prove their authenticity. When White Americans make music, they make music. When Asian Americans make music, they must represent their race and their art is politicized whether they like it or not. As the listener then, we must be conscious of the power dynamics in play within the musical community without allowing these discourses to ensnare us and prevent us from enjoying the artists’ art. Every so often it’s appropriate to stop talking about hegemony and crank Psychopomp up to 10 since that’s what Japanese Breakfast would want us to do.

I really don’t mean to trivialize the work that Asian Americans have done to gain the level of representation that they have now (though I still have yet to see a project with more Asian faces than Flower Drum Song, which we watched week 1). Nor do I mean to diminish the importance of the scholarly discussions we have entertained in this class, but rather I write from a place of confusion in that I am still searching for how to perform my own authentic identity in the spaces that I occupy. To be Asian American, I have learned, is not easy. To be “authentically” Asian American is even more challenging. Hopefully, with the tools developed in this class, I will come to realize the heuristics of “realness” to be less complicated than they appear.

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