In our new series #NotYourTokenAsian, R29's Asian & Pacific Islander staffers take on the pop products, stereotypes, and culture wars that surround Asian American identity. Stay tuned as we celebrate our multiplicity during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
If the Roseanne reboot taught us anything about the way a certain segment of white America looks at people of colour, it came in the third episode when Roseanne Barr tried to flatten the Black and Asian American experience into one. Her character and her husband fall asleep and realise they’ve dozed through ABC’s Tuesday sitcom block. “We missed all the shows about Black and Asian families,” Dan says.
If she had ever bothered to watch black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat, she might have realised that the two shows convey exactly the opposite sentiment: that Black and Asian families each engage in their own distinctive struggles and joys that have as many differences between them as between the working-class white family she’s a part of. And beyond being unfunny and lazy writing, the joke also reveals an even greater ignorance of the tense relationship between the two communities, one that has played out in mainstream pop culture at large. While films with Asian and Black leads like Rush Hour and Cradle 2 the Grave point to a kinship forged through outsider status, disagreements and misunderstandings have run much deeper throughout American history: on Southern plantations, in L.A. Korean-owned stores, and anti-affirmative action lawsuits.
Nowhere in modern culture does this tenuous relationship play out more tellingly than in hip-hop. From Nicki Minaj’s recent “Chun-Li” single to Korean hip-hop group BTS to Migos’ “Stir Fry” hit to Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, cultural exchange is being whipped in both directions, across continents, at increasingly rapid digital speeds. And while some efforts have resulted in groundbreaking collaborative artistry, some of it veers into cultural tourism as artists rely on superficial signposting (the guns, slang, and booze that permeate Asian hip-hop) to claim exoticism (the fake Chinese, hair chopsticks, and ninjas in Black hip-hop) or coolness at the expense of the actual people. Black and Asian artists too often use hip-hop to reduce each other into stereotypes at a time when genuine solidarity is needed more than ever.
But, hip-hop’s early days suggested that cross-cultural swapping would be more thoughtful. In 1993, a group of Black Staten Island rappers released a debut album that would become a lasting classic. But instead of a pounding bass drum, the album begins with an audio clip from a 1983 Hong Kong martial arts film. The Wu-Tang Clan were fans of the kung fu movies that regularly played in neighbourhood cinemas who later on became plain-old kung fu fanatics; they channeled its aphorisms, value systems, and vicious barebones aesthetic to animate their own hard-knock experiences. And while there was an exoticising aspect to “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” the group would genuinely explore various aspects of Asian warrior culture. Albums by the group’s members would continue to heavily interpolate clips from Jidaigeki or Hong Kong gangster movies, and RZA scored Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai and even directed his own martial arts film, The Man With The Iron Fists, starring Cung Le and Lucy Liu. While their tributes did focus too narrowly on the mythological aspects of Asian culture, they still for the most part treated those stories with empathy and nuance.
It’s a little unclear how we went from Wu Tang’s earnest obsession to the current state of affairs, where it seems that the demeaning of Asians is done almost as casually as a hometown shoutout. Kanye West, Lil Wayne, J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, Tyler the Creator, and most likely your favorite Black rapper have all rapped a variant of the totally hilarious and super original “eyes so low I look Asian” joke. Cardi B, who runs the game at the moment, called Kim Jong-Un “Won Tung soup” on Twitter, while her fiancee’s groupmate, Quavo, straight up calls Asian people “chinks” in “Get Right Witcha.” One wisecrack on its own is innocuous enough, if slightly annoying. But if any rap album I listen to runs the risk of making fun of my eyes apropos of nothing, that’s an issue; the pervasive pattern presents an undeniable portrait of a slanted perception, in which Asians are othered and associated only with an altered state.
And while most Black rappers don’t go further than one or two punchlines, there’s one artist who consistently makes poor choices: Nicki Minaj. Earlier this month she released the music video for “Chun Li,” which she said was a tribute to her Japanese great-grandfather. But the video — and subsequent performances, including a cringey SNL appearance — contains visual and lyrical content that is not a focused homage to Japan but rather a garble of exociticising Asian signifiers. There are anime explosion effects (Japan), a tattoo of Chinese characters (China), a reference to mai tais (Polynesian), and coolie hats (Vietnam); Chun Li herself is a Chinese character written by a Japanese video game maker. In attempting to pay tribute to her own heritage, she instead conflates many Asian cultures into an Orientalist mess — just like she did in the “Your Love” video, in which she raps about a Thai samurai while in a geisha costume.
“many E/SEA ppl in Western world are unable to wear buns and chopsticks in hair without being stereotyped, fetishisised. struggling to embrace our culture for fear of it disadvantaging us,” the British/Japanese pop star Rina Sawayama wrote on Twitter. “we are called "chun li" as a diss and are our diverse cultures homogenised.” Instead of representation, Minaj has once again diminished the Asian image to caricature; she makes it that much harder for artists like Rina to be accepted on their own terms.
But when the channel flows in the other direction, with Asians and Asian-Americans engaging with hip-hop, the results can be equally dismissive. There’s a history of racism toward Black people in Asian culture that stems from racist colonialist depictions of Africans, and those misconceptions continue to rear their ugly heads, whether in the form of blackface, monkey costumes or disdain for “Black Panther.” And when Asians embrace hip-hop, it often feels like the flip side of the same coin: a blatant commercialised fetishisation of “Black characteristics” like barbaric bravado and sexual power in order to cancel out stereotypes of Asian impotence and servility. While Rich Chigga’s “Dat Stick” was undeniably technically impressive and funny, it also reduced the genre to a menacing aesthetic from the safety of across the globe. The Korean rapper Keith Ape was less subtle in his appropriation: his “It G Ma” is a blatant rip of “Bitch You Guessed It” by O.G. Maco; its video is full of grills, cups of lean and designer jackets. And the Punjabi rapper Nav and the Cambodian rapper $tupid Young both freely use the n-word, channeling the toughness it implies without carrying its burden.
That’s not to mention hip-hop’s influence on the world of K-Pop, arguably Asia’s most lucrative cultural export. Artists like BTS and CL make hip-hop with a startling sheen; they turned an art form forged in poverty into a giant advertisement for an alluring foreign lifestyle. And while BTS borrows extensively from Black artists, they look on as their own fans unleash vicious racism against Black listeners. It’s honestly unclear to me why these groups get a pass when the Australian Iggy Azalea is endlessly mocked for her own appropriation.
To use Black products without understanding Black history shows how Asian artists, and especially K-pop groups, strategically co-opt favourable parts of the hip-hop aesthetic while discarding the unjust parts of the Black experience. Asians have faced hardships in America, but nothing compared to hundreds of years of bondage. The model minority myth, while harmful, pales next to the pervasive racism that still exists against African-Americans. And white people in power have historically used Asian-Americans to drive a wedge between them and Black communities. Asians can’t swipe from Black culture while also helping to systematically deny them opportunities.
But it feels precarious to point so many fingers because despite the vast differences, Black and Asian people are still both marginalised groups in America. We’re still trying to have our voices heard amidst a white homogeneity, where our creative output already comes with an extra layer of scrutiny. Adding to the confusion is the the lack of American cultural education in Asian countries; can we really fault a Korean artist for being inspired by a dominant global art form?
The way forward is, again, through collaboration and dialogue. Historian Jeff Chang, and radio presenter Miss Info are both Asian Americans and have worked tirelessly over the years to bring hip-hop to new audiences in academia and on the radio. After Keith Ape’s early error, he’s started touring with Black artists and creating music with them; he reached a peace with O.G. Maco after giving him royalties on “It G Ma,” and the song received a fully cross-cultural and incredible remix featuring A$AP Ferg, Father, Waka Flocka Flame, and the Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead. Keith Ape is a member of 88 Rising, a media company that champions Asian artists from across the diaspora and facilitates collaboration with the Black artists that inspire their music. The company has earned respect by engaging with the Soundcloud rap movement; their recently announced festival will feature Ape as well as the newly re-christened Rich Brian and the African-American artists Yung Bans and Toro Y Moi.
So while hip-hop is still tethered to a uniquely Black American struggle, the free flow of the internet has allowed it to become a vessel for oppressed voices around the world. Just like rock and jazz before it, the music will expand and mutate, with rappers like the Chendu/Brooklyn artist Bohan Phoenix interpolating Asian instrumental samples and bilingual lyricism, forming new strains of hip-hop that are truly intercontinental.
But for these new forms to emerge, Black artists will need to treat Asian culture as more than a squint, and Asians will need to dig further into Black culture than simply a strategic means to coolness. Hip-hop has always been a way to empower oppressed people to tell their own narratives. These lazy efforts threaten the very essence of that, and those looking to expand and elevate the genre would do well to remember that.