Almost Got It: Dumbfoundead’s SAFE

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When people discuss the underrepresentation of Asians/Asian Americans in American media, they typically focus on movies and television. This discussion generally neglects to mention another large aspect of the media: music. Of course, there is still extreme underrepresentation of Asian Americans in American music, but there are factors that make this issue difficult to address. These factors are the inherent “colorblindness” of music, the constantly changing atmosphere of the music industry, and likely many more excuses that White people have created to protect their privilege/discrimination.

As we have discussed in class, Asian Americans in television and film have recently had increased success in resisting controlling images and reclaiming the way they are presented (as well as their stories). As pointed out by Yen Le Espiritu, this type of resistance has been present, even if in small amounts since at least the 1970’s (111). We are beginning to witness small glimpses of this in the music industry as well, with artists like Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park gaining popularity. Dumbfoundead is rapper from Los Angeles (Koreatown, specifically) who made a name for himself in the LA battle rap scene and eventually started recording, acting, and speaking out for more/better representations of Asian Americans in the media. Because he is approaching this task in both rap and television (he has a role in Power), Dumbfoundead faces two very different battles. On the one hand, even taking up space in the rap scene as a non-Black person introduces the question of authenticity, and the historic emasculation of Asian American men in our media makes it even harder. On the other, Park faces the blatant neglect of Asian American men that is present in the bulk of American television and film. These two battles come together in SAFE, a song/music video that Dumbfoundead released in May.

As we see in the video, Park replaces the White actors of various “iconic” movies and TV shows with himself. The lyrics of the song are much more direct, succinctly presenting his feelings about the underrepresentation being called out. In the first verse, he points to other minority groups having success, and even what some would call privilege, then sarcastically says “the sky is the limit, [change will come] any minute now.” He ends the verse reiterating the quiet, timid controlling image of Asian American men, quickly moving away from the feigned optimism. In the second verse, Dumbfoundead points out that the White men constantly getting cast in lead roles aren’t any more special than he is and comes to the conclusion that he must create more space if he wants proper representation.

Although SAFE calls out the absence of Asian American men in television and film, it is important to keep a critical lens even when viewing cultural resistance. For example, Dumbfoundead fails to exhibit any understanding of the hybridity that Lisa Lowe references in Heterogeneity, Hybridity, and Multiplicity. I say this because he doesn’t mention women at all. Even in the video, he is clearly the centric figure, and no White woman is replaced with an Asian American woman the same way he replaces White men. It is possible that he simply believes Asian American men are in more need of representation than women, as only he is kicked off of the set in the end of the video, leaving the Asian American woman and children. If this were the case, there would be even more to critique, as it is clear that men should not be placed at higher importance than women, especially when performing racial critique (as was seen in the ‘90’s with men like Louis Farrakhan).

Although it is by no means optimal, Dumbfoundead’s very specific, and flawed, critique (focusing only on Asian American men) is understandable. I do, however, believe it shows room for more growth in his social justice lens. Park has made progress in this aspect of his life to get to where he is now. In an interview with Fader, he said “I wanted to start rapping because I wanted to get bitches at first…Eventually it grew into something deeper and I became more passionate about it. I realized that it was a powerful tool for me to talk about certain things and stories that weren’t being told.” I think this progress shows potential for him to open his lens to acknowledge Asian American women as well, but if he fails to do so, he will be ignoring even more stories, or in terms from class, this opportunity for strategic essentialism.

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