Who is MC Jin? Until recently, I had no idea. MC Jin was one of the first Asian Americans to be signed under a major record label, but he met with lots of criticism as one of the most famous Asian American rappers. From a comparison of an early song, Learn Chinese, to a recently released song, Comin’ Up, I will explore how MC Jin’s Asian American identity complicates his attempts to find a niche in this industry without commodifying his Asian-ness. Through this exploration I will question the necessity of Asian American’s involvement in rap and whether MC Jin has truly persisted a negative discourse of Heteromasculinity. The rise in popularity of rap among all ethnic and racial groups has given rappers the potential to influence the culture of hip hop and concurrently the discourse of minority identities at large.
While MC Jin’s earlier songs Learning Chinese embodies white heteronormative expectations rap music video and lyrics, Jin’s presence as an Asian American rapper introduces a distinct new perspective in hip hop, albeit a monolithic one. The emasculation of Asian American men constrains their heteromasculinity and leaves Asian American men resorting to 3 behavior types: the model minority man, bad boy and a whitewashed American. (CHOU, 2012) Jin in his popular “Learn Chinese” music video characterizes similar feelings as he expresses the distaste of his poor lifestyle and treatment by non-Asians. The music video follows a misunderstood punk who gets in trouble with the mafia that controls all of Chinatown. The adoption of the “gangsta” or “bad boy” image by Jin who plays both the main character and the mafia boss is a response by Asian American youth trying to reclaim their lost masculinity. He denounces his oppressors by saying they need to “Learn Chinese!” These depictions are an attempt at gaining recognition for his heritage, but they only glorify a bad boy image of Chinese men. The reference to Chinatown and “pork fried rice” in the music video and song serve at most to token the Chinese as a service workers who are at the whims of illegal business in a segregated part of the city. A female feature artist sings praise, “Mr. Jin, you are the sexiest man,” while Jin frees his woman from the mafia boss exemplifying the straight jacket masculinity that requires men to prove their worth to the women who they dominate. (Shimizu, 2012) Despite Jin’s attempt to appreciate his culture and voice his Chinese background, the characteristics of this song are very similar to rap popularized by African Americans. At the same time, Jin may never have gained attention as an Asian American rapper had he not employed these commodifying methods despite its appearances as assimilating to white heteronormative standards.
MC Jin’s more recent works, such as “Comin’ Up”, prove that the evolution of Asian American rappers can result in a reflection of an individual voice and multiplicity of Asian American experiences. Rap is particular form of expression that is a “reflection of the environment that artist had to endure before he made it to where he was”(T.I., 2016) The need to convey one’s feelings and emotions can be demonstrated in many ways, but Asian American and many minority must walk a fine line when vocalizing their cultural identity without commodifying it. Rap has developed historically by Black americans who are portrayed as hypermasculine in contrast to Asian Americans (Chou, 2012). Thus, the utilization of rap by Asian American’s may still be criticized as both a cultural appropriation and an attempt at reclaiming their lost masculinity. However, I believe the content and method by which Jin expresses himself in his album XIV:LIX overcomes those accusations. The song Comin’ Up details his journey as an Asian American rapper. Jin does not isolate his identity as a Chinese monolith, but describes his personal experiences in way unique to his situation. Jin’s identification as a Christian and a father are particular identities that can relate to listener beyond race, and they build an image unlike that of his previous “bad boy.” His lyrics do not betray violence or aggression often justified by white heteromasculinity (Brandzel and Desai, 2008). The salience of his experiences as an Asian American, a straight male, a father and a Christian conveys the multiplicities to Jin that were hidden in his earlier song “Learn Chinese” (Lecture, 2016). Through the careful expression of identity, the Jin of today pursues a strategic essentialism resisting the American hegemonic representations of Asian American Men. MC Jin may not be the most ideal Asian American rapper, but his development has been necessary as a leading Asian american paving a way for others in the industry.
I may not know MC Jin, but even I can see that there is a lack of representation in a subculture that has the potential to change the discourse of many minorities. With the growth of hip hop in American culture, I have unknowingly become accustomed to rap in the media and through my friends. MC Jin may receive a lot of attention as “the single most well-known, written-about, revered, disrespected, loved and hated Asian-American rapper ever (Tang, 2010).” However, Asian americans have yet to break through the national scene with as strong a following as Black and White rap artists. When that happens, I hope I will be more acquainted with those artists than I am with MC Jin. In the mean time, I will be listening to XIV:LIX on repeat for at least the next week.