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Asian American Rap: Expression Through Alternative Forms, Part 3 PDF Print E-mail

III.  Analysis

Almost all of the Asian American rappers interviewed grew up in areas with few Asian Americans. The experiences of being an ethnic minority facing hostility and discrimination pervades all of their stories, resulting in a heightened sense of ethnic identity(24) and the development of an affinity with African American rap music.

A.  Increased Racial Awareness

Hana Choi immigrated from Korea when she was eleven years old and attended a high school in New York City which was about one-third Asian American. Still, the relatively greater number of Asian Americans did not shelter her from the realities of racism. "I was influenced by Public Enemy and it was a perfect form for expressing anger. I wanted to stir shit up," Choi says of those days.(25)

The other rappers grew up in areas where Asian faces were few and far between. Darow Han immigrated to the United States from Korea at the age of one. He grew up in northwest Pennsylvania, and then in the Washington, DC suburban area, both middle-class, white communities. Kevin Sakoda, a fourth-generation Japanese American, was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Huntington Beach, which was predominately white middle-class.

"I felt a little bit of racism, not a lot," Sakoda, who now works in marketing, says. "I wasn't beat up or anything, but I felt like I didn't fit in."(26)

Sakoda treated school as a duty and made his friends through the Buddhist church. The ethnic church provided him a means of "escape."(27) That was where he met the friends who formed in-cite. The group performed in 1990-91 at many Asian American clubs in Los Angeles, with the help of promoter Doug Kangawa. They also traveled to perform at the Cherry Blossom Festival and Cow Palace in San Francisco, Stanford University, University of Oregon, and Oberlin College, always receiving positive responses from their Asian American audiences.

Other rap groups emerged out of marginalized childhoods. Steve Wei was born in Madison, Wisconsin and grew up in Philadelphia's suburbs, "where there were few Asians."(28) Bert Wang was born in New York City and lived in New Jersey, the Virgin Islands, and Austin, Texas as a child. As he grew up in mostly white, working-class neighborhoods, there were also few Asians around. "[I] grew up in the face of many a confrontation, some of which turned into fights," Wang says.(29)

Wang described his childhood in the rap "Yellow":

When I was growin up it was hard to find a smile
In a snow white world I was just a yellow child
Hey chinky boy what's wrong with your eyes
Your face is flat I listened to the lies
Hated me berated me it slowly took effect
I didn't understand my self respect was wrecked ...

On Halloween night those suckers went too far
The next day we found gook written on our car
We went to the cops they didn't wanna hear it
Because they were blue they didn't give a shit
Now I understand this childhood event
Racist bullshit we just couldn't prevent ...(30)

Known together as Yellow Peril, Wang and John Stewart performed mostly for Asian American student organizations from Florida to Wisconsin and all over the northeast. They performed at New York City's Asian Pacific American Heritage Festival and concluded with a final show at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in November of 1995.

Like Bert Wang, the Seoul Brothers also experienced their share of racial incidents involving taunts and police conflicts, common themes in African American raps. Michael and Raphael Park immigrated to the United States from Korea when Raphael was less than a year old and Michael was two-and-a-half years old. Their father was a graduate student at the University of Washington, and the family lived near the university's fraternity and sorority houses. The fraternity and sorority members called the Park children "chinks" and "boaters," even chasing them down the streets.(31)

An episode of police harassment during college, culminating in legal wrangles and a feeling of community abandonment, stands out vividly in the Parks' memories. One evening in 1991, University of Washington police arrested them for making an illegal turn out of an alley, obstruction of justice, and trumped up charges that they were later acquitted of. The Parks had been on their way with some African American friends to an Alpha (African American fraternity) party.

"I guess they automatically assumed we were gang members and basically started roughing us up and arrested us. They found out after we were arrested that several of us were U.W. students, Mike wrote a column in the [university's] paper, and of course they had to trump up these charges because they didn't want to get sued," says Raphael Park. "The real bullshit was that it cost us $10,000 in litigation."(32)

To add insult to injury, none of Michael Park's cohorts from the Asian and Pacific Islander Student Union attended the five-day jury trial to show their support. The feelings of abandonment by and disillusionment with Asian Americans were expressed through the Seoul Brother's rap, "I Got Your Back":

Yellow brothers and sisters I see
Are fakin' perpetrating like Barbie and Ken
Then, pointin' their fingers at fellas like me
Saying yo, he's an F.O.B.

But what does this mean, fresh off the boat,
Read what history wrote
And note, the white man came from across the sea,
Just like you and me(33)

With this rap, the Seoul Brothers acknowledged friction between Asian Americans and drew awareness to greater oppression from biased history books. At about the same time, further south on the west coast, Fists of Fury and in-cite also addressed the same issues. In their rap "Overstand," in-cite urged unity and the formation of a historical memory:

when you elevate your mind, you alleviate hard times
and realize we should be coming together for banks
not fighting for nickels and dimes hating for no reason ...
where do you spend your money
whose history do you study
i'm working on the railroad, now my hands are bloody(34)

With other raps about Asian male sexuality, stereotypes, and social commentary, mixed in with some braggadocio, from 1988 to 1991, the Seoul Brothers educated audiences at grade schools, community colleges, University of Washington talent shows, a Black Festival, and an Asian American music festival. They also opened for Attallah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, when she was a guest speaker at the University of Washington.

The Seoul Brothers and other Asian American rappers thereby continued the tradition of rap as a way of educating the masses, establishing fan bases through colleges and ethnic venues where young adults were eager to hear their vibrant messages. Rap music, particularly for the members of Fists of Fury, Yellow Peril, and the Seoul Brothers, allowed Asian Americans to reveal personal experiences of racism and break the image that Asian Americans faced few problems in assimilating.

B. Challenging the Model Minority Myth

In 1987, roughly the time when Asian American rappers became attracted to rap music, Time magazine published its now-infamous article "The New Whiz Kids; Why Asian-Americans Are Doing So Well, And What It Costs Them." The article painted an overall rosy picture of the lives of Asian Americans and popularized the term "model minority."(35)

Further propelling the model minority myth, Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, an interpretation of 1980 census statistics, praised Japanese Americans because "they most resemble whites socially and demographically," and repeatedly chastised Vietnamese Americans as being "least like whites" and more like "'castelike' minorities-- blacks, American Indians, and Hispanics."(36) The report went on to state that the "longer immigrants had resided in the United States, the more they resembled white Americans socially. Or outdid white Americans."(37) The authors perpetuated the idea that white America is the central group to emulate, and that in order to succeed, Asian Americans must shun "castelike minorities" and their culture.

The model minority myth dislocated Asian American students as co-dependent on the white authority structure and its values and ideals.(38) A recent study of Asian American high school students found the pernicious effects of internalized racism:

[S]tudents ... revealed an almost obsessive concern with what whites thought of them. In their efforts to gain white acceptance, Korean-identified students looked down on other Asian groups as being less "white-like," while the Asian New Wavers resisted becoming engaged in school in order to distance themselves from the "nerd" stereotype, an offshoot of the model minority image. Asian-identified students were willing to tolerate rather than challenge prejudice, hoping this would earn them respect from their white peers.(39)

Instead of tolerating prejudice, distancing themselves from African American culture, and entertaining hopes of assimilation, Asian American rappers resisted the racialized placing of Asian Americans as part of the buffer zone between whites and blacks, and they attacked the stereotypes of being passive and weak. Drs. Woo Sik Chung and John Pardeck, professors of social work, noted that Asian American youths "have exhibited a greater sense of isolation, anxiety, and alienation than did their Anglo-American counterparts" and promoted empowerment as the remedy.(40) Forming their music groups and joining the hip hop culture allowed the rappers to cope with feelings of powerlessness and alienation.(41)

C. The Rappers' Historical Context

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a surge in Asian American activism. There were nationwide movements for Japanese American redress and reparations, and student calls for Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies at colleges and universities.(42) Soon after the 1987 model minority article in Time magazine, Asian Americans noticed the disparities in Asian Americans' college admittance rates and demanded investigations into college admissions policies.(43) The highly publicized tenure denials of Marcy Li Wang at the University of California at Berkeley and Don Nakanishi at UCLA also spurred student and community activism.(44)

Yellow Peril, the only Asian American rap group to form in response to a specific racial incident, emerged in New Jersey in an environment of racial hostility. Beginning in 1986, Asian Americans in New Jersey were targetted for violence by teenagers known as the "Dotbusters." In 1987, Latino teens beat Navroz Mody, a young businessman, to death with bricks. Hudson County Prosecutor Paul DePascale refused to label it as a racially-motivated crime though even he admitted there was no other motive for Mody's beating death.(45) In 1989, Jersey City police officer John Chisulo beat and kicked Rodin and Minerva Rodriguez when he showed up to investigate an explosion outside the couple's store. The city did nothing, Filipino community leaders did nothing, and Chisulo was promoted.(46)

Yellow Peril members Bert Wang and John Stewart broke through the New Jersey Asian American community's pattern of silence when they spoke out against the offensive "yellow-face" satire in the Rutgers University student newspaper. At their school talent show, Yellow Peril rapped:

they should be beaten on
and thrown in jail
I'd beat em all myself but I can't afford the bail
dumb ass racists always cryin
we were just kiddin
motherfucker stop lyin(47)

With these lyrics, the rappers exposed the falseness of the white student journalists' claim of neutrality in determining that their satire was humorous and inoffensive.

"It was lotsa fun and we got to vent a lotta anger. HA! . . . We talked a lotta shit about [the newspaper writers]," said Wang, whose new band SuperChink has themes similar to those of Yellow Peril and will release an album by year's end. "We chose rap because neither of us could sing. But also because rap was a modern voice of political dissent and anger at the establishment." (continued in Part 4)

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