Hip hop is simultaneously seen as a meritocratic art form while being a racialized genre. The genre’s foundation in the conditions of the South Bronx and making do with the resources they had, it is seen as though “anyone” can make it in hip hop. Yet, the equity and “meritocracy” of hip hop is clearly a fallacy because of hyper racialization of artists and bodies associated with hip hop. It would be too simple to say that the primary reason for some artists success over others is because of their race, but Asian American artists have to overcome the “inauthenticity” that is projected by their Asian bodies compared to the “authenticity” of black bodies in hip hop.
Dumbfoundead is noted in the critically acclaimed documentary “Bad Rap” as one of the most salient Asian-American hip hop artists and the current wave of Asian-American hip hop artists. Dumbfoundead started his career over 10 years ago as a battle rapper which gave him the credibility he needed within the hip hop community to jumpstart his career: yet, his career is nowhere near the same level of other artists like Lil Yachty or Quavo who have attained mainstream success without putting nearly as much time in as Dumbfoundead. Growing up in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, Dumbfoundead recollects in an interview that his experiences of being surrounded by Chicano and LA hip hop culture helped him enter the battle rap scene at the age of 15. His skill earned him credibility however, Dumbfoundead had to be extra creative with his lines to overcome the Asian jokes that were predictably thrown at him.
In his comeback to the battle rap world at King of the Dot’s “Blackout 5” in 2015, Dumbfoundead faced Conceited in one of the most viewed battles on Youtube. Conceited constantly brought race into his digs however Dumbfoundead’s identity specifically as an Asian American hip hop artist came into question during the press conference. He was asked questions like “In a battle between Jet Li and Jackie Chan who do you have your bets on?” and “Do you feel pressure with 2 billion people supporting you across the globe?” whereas other battle rappers, in particular black battle rappers, were never asked qualifying questions about their race/ethnicity. Even being called the “token Asian” at the battle, Dumbfoundead still did not have the same “authenticity” as just a hip hop artist in the realm where he first gained credibility.
In The Appeal of Hip Hop, Sharma raises the question of who owns hip hop. Although hip hop has roots in black traditional forms, it is a “multiracial production of Black culture” and ultimately the notion that “real” hip hop is only created by black male artists was constructed by “corporate White interests” (Sharma 214-215). Essentially the race-based pressure to both be “authentic” and question the “authenticity” of other artists perpetuates white supremacy in that the concept of “authenticity” itself is something to be capitalized upon. At the end of the battle, Dumbfoundead and Conceited hugged it out, indicating that all that was said was in the spirit of a good battle. However, their individual reconciliation does not reconcile Dumbfoundead’s “inauthenticity” as a fellow artist. All of Conceited’s jabs were racially charged and rather than attacking Dumbfoundead’s talent or previous bars.
Although the concept of race based hip hop “authenticity” is a construct that was created to be capitalized on by white corporates, the manifestation of the construct is very real. Dumbfoundead’s “authenticity” has been and is still questioned throughout his career as an Asian American artist. In “Bad Rap”, Dumbfoundead references his battle with Conceited and discusses how most of Conceited’s material was fairly predictable because it is what he had heard throughout all of his battles. As the result of the his hyper racialization within hip hop, Dumbfoundead has had to prove his “authenticity” and credibility through being a more skilled lyricist and battle rapper. His skill has been proven time and time again, however, he is not what the mainstream is looking for. While quirky, niche rapper Awkwafina has found mainstream success, Dumbfoundead’s skill has not been enough to enter the mainstream in the supposedly meritocratic hip hop community.