The murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others has sparked a watershed moment for issues of oppression, systemic racism, and police brutality. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to encourage protests and discussion, Asian Americans and Asian Canadians have been rightfully asked to confront their role in society during the movement.
At Cold Tea Collective, we’ve been asking ourselves questions on what ally-ship looks like and how the model minority myth has shielded the Asian community from the type of systematic racism faced by the Black community. In light of current events, we’ve been discussing what our role is in the discussion of Black Lives Matter considering our position.
One group stands at an intersection of the Black community and the Asian community: Asian hip hop artists. Whether raised in Asia or North America, Asian hip hop artists engage within and contribute to a music form and culture created by the Black community. This connection to the Black community has put more scrutiny onto the Asian hip hop community’s response to current events.
The responses from the Asian hip hop community have been different. To understand the differences, it’s important to look at the history of hip hop and Asia.
Asians and hip hop
The four pillars of hip hop (deejaying, rapping, graffiti painting, and break dancing) were being developed as early as the 1920’s. Hip hop as a movement and culture started in the 1970s in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City, a diverse neighborhood with a community of African Americans, Latino Carribean, and Afro Carribean immigrants.
Since the beginning, hip hop has been tied to immigrants. DJ Kool Herc, widely credited as one of the founders of hip hop, was a Jamaican immigrant himself.
By the 1980s, the popularity of hip hop expanded beyond New York and started making waves elsewhere in the United States. In 1984, the first Asian American rap group, 2 Live Crew, was formed, marking the beginning of Asian Americans in hip hop. Fresh Kid Ice, one of the 2 Live Crew, has even said in a Vice article that, “Asians were there in the beginning of hip hop—but as DJs.”
In the 1990s, the Mountain Brothers were formed and credited with being cultural pioneers of Asian Americans in hip hop as they were among the first to create their own beats. Then the early 2000s saw the rise of rapper MC Jin who was born in Miami to Hong Kong immigrant parents. Notably he incorporated his Chinese identity into his battle verses while on BET’s Freestyle Friday, occasionally even rapping in Cantonese.
Shortly after, Jin became the first Asian American to be signed to a major record label under Ruff Ryders, with his first single, appropriately titled Learn Chinese.
Currently there are more Asian American rappers gaining national attention including Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, Lyricks, JL, and Dumbfoundead. In particular, Dumbfounded is one of the more prominent artists as Peacock is developing a sitcom inspired by him. Additionally, he has used his platform to discuss Asian representation with his song ‘Safe’.
Hip hop also gradually made its way across to Asia. The most recent country to get swept up in hip hop is China, due to a popular reality show called Rap of China. This sudden burst in popularity has created a new generation of Asian hip hop artists who grew up in China rather than North America.
What is Chinese hip hop?
Higher Brothers are arguably one of the most successful Chinese rap groups, garnering collaborations with mainstream American artists like Lil Yachty and Migos. They are also representative of the mainstream popularity of rap in China where the popular reality show, The Rap of China, last reported 2.68 billion views when it debuted in 2017.
Hip hop has always been a cultural expression of the struggle of the African American community. A criticism leveled against rap in China is that its artists are far removed from these roots.
China-based hip hop artists have been criticized for their silence on the Black Lives Matter movement. Most notably, New York-based Chinese American rapper Bohan Phoenix called on the prominent China-based Higher Brothers to respect the culture that it has based its success on through an article on Variety. Phoenix challenged Higher Brothers to “lead by example and stop spreading ‘hip hop culture’ without showing the proper respect and acknowledgement for the communities that suffered to create it.”
In an article by the South China Morning Post, the dividing line between the perspectives of Asian North American artists with their China-based counterparts is illustrated by comments by Sun Bayi, a Beijing-based rapper and former contestant on Rap of China.
“I know racism in theory, but it’s hard to empathize with it,” he said. “I’m not Black. I have never lived in America. What can I say about it?”
Researchers Yupei Zhao and Zhongxuan Lin writes that these artists are, “a cultural product that modifies the originally African American genre of hip hop with distinctly Chinese notions of authenticity.” This has resulted in Chinese hip hop to evolve as a subculture that plays safe to not clash with authoritarianism and nationalism, even as individual rappers claim to be keeping it ‘real’.
At the end of the day, Higher Brothers are part of a business machine and have to report to sponsors as well as the government. By this arrangement, freedom of speech is inherently muted.
Malasung, a Taiwanese Canadian hip hop artist, goes further to argue that groups like the Higher Brothers aren’t hip hop. Malasung was a participant of Rap of China and was also a judge during the show’s Vancouver auditions. He said, “Hip hop is all about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. If you don’t have that, then it’s propagation.”
Chinese Canadian: closer to the source
For Asian Canadian artists like Malasung and Scope G, ties to Black culture are far closer than it is for their Chinese counterparts.
Hip hop came to Chinese Canadian Scope G through basketball in high school. Growing up in North Vancouver, hip hop was not commonly discussed or shared within the predominantly white community. Scope G learned of hip hop through NBA culture and AND1 mixtapes. Hip hop gave him a way to express the thoughts and feelings he was internalizing as someone who was quiet and often the only Asian person in his circles.
As for Taiwanese Chinese artist Malasung, he absorbed hip hop from his East Vancouver neighborhood. Malasung was born in Taipei and in Taiwan listened mostly to classical music and Jay Chou. When he immigrated to Canada, he was transplanted to an East Vancouver neighbourhood surrounded by hip hop.
“I remember in Grade Seven, kids were doing back and forths and rhymes. It was Filipino kids and Black kids,” he said. Snoop Dogg was popular at his school and he took to his environment quickly. His first rhyme was a diss track to another classmate.
Both artists grew up significantly closer to the cultural origins of hip hop due to being raised in North America. Still, both artists acknowledge the complexity of responding to the current injustices to the Black community as Asian Canadian hip hop artists.
A sense of responsibility
Scope G and Malasung both agree that the current times are uncharted territories. There is uncertainty in what they can authentically speak as allies who haven’t felt the same injustices as their Black counterparts. Although the specific way to move forward is uncertain, the underlying feeling of empathy for the Black Lives Matter movement is clear.
Both artists feel a moral responsibility to educate themselves and to educate others. They make a distinction that this sense of responsibility exists beyond their role as hip hop artists and is rather a responsibility as human beings.
“I carry this responsibility to educate myself first and then it’s just empathy,” Scope G said. “It’s an automatic empathy for other people that are being oppressed. It’s important for anybody to speak up for other people.”
Malasung recalls that he first came to know of the injustices faced by Black Americans by being a student of hip hop and listening to lyrics carefully. Likewise, Scope G developed his love of hip hop at the same time as his love for English and poetry. For both artists, being able to directly understand lyrics while also witnessing injustice towards the Black community affected their hip hop journey.
Malasung also added that in his eyes, the Black and Asian community has always been connected as being the “others“. Scope G agreed and acknowledged that though the struggles of each group are different, both Asian and Black communities are minorities facing discrimination and racism.
Education and advocacy
Historically, the Asian and Black communities have intersected in regards to civil rights. The 1960’s Black Civil Rights movement in America served as the inspiration for Asian American civil rights. Likewise, the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement has propelled Asian Canadian artists like Malasung and Scope G to address issues in their own communities where the same structures of prejudice and oppression are in play.
For Taiwanese Canadian Malasung, he’s become more aware of the prejudice faced by his ethnic group, the indigenous Taiwanese people. As he educated himself on the oppressions faced by the Black community, he has been finding that it parallels the oppressions faced by his people.
As Asian North America evaluates and questions its position to Black Lives Matter, Asian Canadian hip hop artists carry on the spirit of hip hop as they advocate for the Black community and examine the systems of oppression within their own.
Making Asian American media
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