Curatorial Statement: Asian American Invisibility Goes Beyond Music

Throughout the quarter I would have to say that I’ve been extremely optimistic about the future of Asians in the hip hop industry. In two of my blog posts I’ve highly praised artists like Keith Ape, for his ability to create opportunities for himself and his fellow Asian artists, and Dumbfoundead, for being a great representation of Asian American artists in the hip hop community. The truth is that for Asian artists, it has not always been rainbows and butterflies. There isn’t a smooth and buttery road to success, and it has nothing to do with the quality of music produced by Asian artists, but everything to do with their race. In a black-dominated genre such as hip hop, Asian artists are not only underrepresented but also constantly accused of cultural appropriation and wearing black culture as a mask. There has always existed a notion of discrimination against Asians in hip hop. Throughout the entirety of hip hop’s history, Asian Americans have remained almost invisible, a problem that extends beyond the industry and into the everyday lives of Asian Americans as a whole.

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Asians, by all stereotypical definitions, are the antithesis of what blackness stands for. In his paper, Oliver Wang said that “black masculinity is associated with stereotypes of hypermasculinity and sexuality, physical aggression, and the underclasses, these stand in almost diametric opposition to so-called model minority of Asian masculinity: effete and asexual, passive, and middle class.”(41) But in my opinion, hip hop is not defined purely by the concept of blackness. In the words of Northwestern University’s Professor Nitasha Tamar Sharma, “hip-hop is not either a multiracial art form or a Black one. Rather, hip-hop is a multicultural production of Black popular culture.” As mentioned in my first blog, hip hop was created as a tool for expression. The Zulu nation advocated for “peace, love, unity and having fun,” NWA resisted against police brutality through using hip hop as a messenger. Through class discussions, we defined hip hop through components such as word play, flow, and production, not through race. Yet to this date, Asians in hip hop are seen as leeches and culture vultures. No matter how original an Asian American artist is, he will always be seen as inauthentic by some.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors
Speaking of culture vultures…

The solution to this invisible barrier set by the idea of “inauthenticity” has been to erase all traces of foreign identity. In her U.S. debut “Lifted,” CL made sure that her music contained absolutely no traces of traditional Korean culture or any of her K-Pop roots. In fact, many new listeners claimed that they did not know CL was Asian or was a K-Pop star in Korea. Her lyrics, such as “got gold on my necklace, gold on my wrists,” and “I got myself a 40, I got myself a shorty” were not only extremely unoriginal but also very problematic. A K-Pop star glorifying the infamous 40-ounce malt liquor, expensive jewelry, and the term “shorty,” things that are associated with urban ghettos, is not only ironic but also offensive. The song’s placement in the Billboard’s Top 100 showed that there exists a very discriminatory gate-keeping method for musical success in America. With “Lifted,” CL further added to this idea that Asian American artists are inauthentic. It is not a coincidence that the last Asian hip hop artist who made it to the Billboard Top 100 was the Far East Movement with their electronic-pop fused with hip hop sound. Their biggest hit, “Like A G6,” was a hip hop banger with some techno-infused production and auto tune that hid the Asian identities of the members of the group. With the exception of these two artists, Asian American musicians have pretty much never hit mainstream media such as Billboard. The problem with Asian American artists pushing away their Asian identity is that it is a very temporary solution to a problem that will outlast it.

The problem with Asian Americans being an invisible minority expands to much more than just music and media. Invisibility as the model minority has left a lot of people out, economically and socially. Society tends to ignore the very real fault lines among Asian sub-groups. For example, in the state of Arizona, Thai Americans have one of the lowest per capita incomes at $18,774, while “large proportions of Japanese (31 percent) and Vietnamese American (29 percent) renter households are severely housing cost burdened, spending 50 percent or more of their incomes on housing costs. These rates are higher than all other racial groups,” and “nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of Vietnamese Americans and one in five Korean Americans (20 percent) lack health insurance.” Politicians aren’t actively looking to fix the problems that Asian Americans face. When was the last time a presidential candidate addressed Asian voters at all, despite the fact that over the years the number of registered Asian American voters has increased significantly. For example in North Carolina, a perennial swing state, the number of registered Asian Americans has increased 130 percent from 2006 to 2014, while in the United States as a whole, Asians have experienced the largest growth in voting public, growing four times faster than any demographic group from 2000 to 2010. Asian American invisibility extends far beyond entertainment. It affects the way our brothers and sisters live their lives.

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