“Out of a hundred rappers, there’s like, five Asian American rappers… There aren’t many Asian rappers doing it.” This is the first line from the trailer of a documentary called Bad Rap. Bad Rap, which actually has not even been publicly distributed yet but debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, follows four fairly prominent Asian American rappers: Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks. The documentary discusses, at least according to the trailer, the obstacles Asian American rappers go through in the hip hop industry to make it big, and why those obstacles exist.
Hip hop formed in the 1970’s in New York in African-American communities; it was very much birthed from African-American culture. Because of this, most hip hop artists have been African-American. While there definitely have been big artists of non-African-American descent, they have been few and far between (Beastie Boys, Rick Rubin as a producer, Eminem). And these non-black artists have been white. Thus hip hop has been dominated since its birth by African-Americans, which makes sense, since hip hop is a part of African-American culture. But the downside to this is that other minorities, mostly Asian Americans, have had a difficult time finding success in the industry, though it is getting easier nowadays with the Internet and accessibility of music. Asian Americans, out of all minority groups, probably have had the lowest success rate in the hip hop community. Why is this?
Here’s a little background, from my point of view, as to why. I was talking to my friend, a Korean American, the other day about the “Asian American identity,” and he said something quite insightful. He said he believed that Asian Americans do not have their own identity; rather, there were three identities to which Asian Americans lean towards and draw from. He said that Asians in America either identity with white America, black America, or their home country/country of ancestry in Asia. I don’t know if this is completely true or scholarly, but I certainly have seen this in my experience. And for the Asian Americans that identify with black America and have an interest in hip hop, it’s difficult to break into the culture for many reasons, but it really boils down to one main, important one.
The reason is because these Asian Americans, like the ones in the documentary discuss, are battling the “model minority” myth. Rosalind Chou, in her book Asian American Sexual Politics, discusses this myth. She says that “the pursuit of academic excellence was and is a defense strategy against racism,” meaning that keeping one’s head down and excelling in school was a safe way to exist, especially for young Asian Americans in a school setting, without challenging the white hegemonic masculinity that was established as the norm by white males. Chou talks more about this in one of her chapters, “External Forces – Under Western Eyes.” In the chapter, she talks about Asian Americans growing up and the environment created by the dominant group, white males. Asian Americans are often the targets of bullying, and because of this, many are forced to defend themselves, which perpetuates the model minority view of Asians, as they keep their head down to avoid confrontation.
Therefore Asian American rappers are forced to break this myth, which is shocking to Americans. America is used to the stereotype of Asians because quiet, subservient, and intelligent, and therefore cannot reconcile the fact that they are beginning to see Asian Americans participate in hip hop, a traditionally African American, hyper-masculine, and all around very different culture than stereotypical Asian American culture. Therefore, Asian American rappers are met with harsh criticism, and it is generally harder for them to be successful. In the trailer for Bad Rap, one rapper states, “They expect us to be that model minority.” Another says, “Fuck stereotype [sic], you know, fuck what you expect. This is who I am.”
Because of stereotypes and the model minority myth, which started as a defense mechanism to the hegemonic masculine environment created by white males, Asian Americans are not able to participate fully in an important subculture of America. Hip hop nowadays has become more accessible than ever; while it started in the African American community, it has reached a global scale and like all music, should be shared and appreciated by everybody. But Asian Americans are not able to. It will be a long battle to break the myth of being a model minority, but we can only hope that one day, Asian Americans will be able to experience success in the hip hop industry.