What does Asian rap mean?

Asian rappers (counterclockwise from top left): Rich Chigga, Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Higher Brothers, and Jay Park (center)

It’s been a breakout year of sorts for Asian and Asian-American rappers alike. New York City rapper and television personality, Awkwafina, née Nora Lum, is co-starring in the all-female Ocean’s Eight remake alongside marquee names such as Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. In the spring, a group of Chinese rappers dropped a diss track against America’s antimissile system in South Korea, which, despite the laughter it triggered, was a win for the propaganda apparatus simply by being noticed. And earlier this week, Korean-American rapper Jay Park signed with Roc Nation, the label founded by Jay-Z and home to artists including Rihanna. “This is a win for Korea,” he wrote on Instagram. “This is a win for Asian Americans. This is a win for the overlooked and underappreciated.”

Rap has long since transcended its 1970s Bronx house party origins and is now embraced and remixed as their own in French banlieues, Latin clubs, and Asian streets. In America, the pathos of rap has all but subsumed pop and even parts of country music (it’s an open secret that its largest listening demographic is white males). American rappers remain largely oblivious to the globalization of their genre, perhaps best captured by the continuing fascination with Drake’s Canadian origins.

The rise of Asian rap raises interesting artistic questions about the evolution of the genre and, abroad, about American soft power. Closer to home, the embrace of a genre traditionally rooted in expressions of social malcontent signals a new generation of Asian Americans willing to challenge the model minority myth and enter the realm of identity politics. As the fastest growing minority group in America, it’s more than music aficionados who should be listening.

So, what exactly is Asian rap saying and to who? The documentary, Bad Rap, which debuted last year at the Tribeca Film Festival elevated the conversation to a new level of awareness for many. While the videos, beats, and nominal themes of some Asian-American rap may be superficially indistinguishable from anything the hip-hop establishment is putting out, the lyrics are often advancing a distinctly Asian-American message.

Generational independence is an implicit theme in many songs. “Tryna find answers just like you / Just like you, yeah I’m just like you / But I got a whip and a chick plus two / We’re the role models that you look up to / Fuck high school let’s get mushrooms,” raps Korean-American artist Dumbfoundead. In mocking the stereotypes of Asians as the model minority, one hears just as much a second-generation immigrant asserting their distance from their parents’ conservatism. But there are some strains of their parents’ social criticism, such as when Awkwafina mocks New Jersey poseurs for wearing too little in the cold.

Off the mic, the restaurateur and author, Eddie Huang, is not alone when he says that hip-hop helped him understand America. “Rap music raised me, despite the haters that have questioned its ability to inform me in an authentic manner because of my skin color,” he wrote in memoriam of the rapper Prodigy earlier this year. “Hip-hop was the most honest lens I found in the American wilderness outside my Taiwanese-Chinese home.” Nielsen reports that 17% of Asian-Americans report hip-hop and R&B as their favorite genre, second only to pop.

It wouldn’t be rap without sex, although Asian-American rap has a different take. For men, it is an assertion of coolness and sexual desirability in a culture that largely dismisses the prospect. (Studies of online dating habits show that Asian men experience a penalty as severe as black men.) In the video for Dumbfoundead’s “Cellphone,” the artist alternates roles between  harassed interracial boyfriend and disapproving parent. Mostly, however, it is Asian women who are portrayed as the object of their desire, inhabiting the same blurry border of objectification and independence of the broader genre. Their presence is nonetheless an assertion of agency that often goes unacknowledged in both minority and mainstream culture.

On the whole, Asian-American women seem to be carving out more of a space for themselves in indie rock. Against this sonic backdrop race seems to recede in prominence, seemingly a sonic metaphor for Asian women’s higher rates of intermarriage. An exception is biracial Japanese-American Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl,” a searching, searing take on self-acceptance. (After acknowledging that “your mother wouldn’t approve how my mother raised me,” by the final verse she sings hesitantly, “But I do / I think I do.”) The video for Japanese Breakfast’s “Everybody Wants To Love You,” the solo project of Korean-American Michelle Zauner, captures a wild night in a traditional hanbok. Otherwise, her album is shaped by the sudden loss of her mother.

Back to rap, the simple use of the word “Asian” is telling, a pan-national construct invented in America that exists despite polling that most Asian-Americans would prefer to be known separately as Chinese- or Vietnamese-Americans. Its use may signal an increased willingness to engage in the politics of identity and beyond. (While Asian-American affiliation with the Democratic party has increased since 2012, they vie with Hispanic voters for the lowest turnout, a consequence of language and culture in a population that is still mostly foreign born.)

Asian-American rap often returns to rebuke the question “Where are you from?” and is, in its own way, a powerful assertion of Americanism. When Dumbfoundead unironically raps about grabbing Pho as a hangover cure he is normalizing the Asian-American experience.  Some of this is at the expense of other Asian immigrants, such as when Awkwafina declares, “New York City bitch, that’s where I come from / Not where I moved to on Mom and Dad’s trust fund.” (Incidentally, in April it was announced that she will co-star in the film adaptation of the movie Crazy Rich Asians.) As Hollywood races to diversify, she likely won’t be the last of a wave of Asian-American actors who are first discovered via music, where it is easier to breakout.

Many of the white rappers who have sought a home in rap have succeeded with lyrics that recognized that blacks and whites harbor many of the same resentments and insecurities. This was something that Saturday Night Live’s Black Jeopardy skit this past fall with Tom Hanks belatedly captured. By contrast, Asian-American rap doesn’t seem to be making as overt of a reference to racial solidarity. Asian-Americans have expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, even while increased activism about other issues, such as affirmative action may divide the two communities.

Outside the US, rap is closely linked to the presence of the US military. The genre has made the most dramatic inroads in South Korea, with the first and only notice on many American’s radars was Psy’s 2012 viral hit, “Gangnam Style.” Jay Park and Dumbfoundeaded are both Korean-Americans who have found success in the country, which boasts enough local talent to earn a feature in the hip-hop magazine of record, XXL. Its subject matter does not depart much from the universal themes of conspicuous consumption and girls. Japanese rap, well into its third decade, is generally lower tempo and, like the country, tends toward the insular, often without the English hooks that define the Korean variety.

The hip hop establishment is taking notice and even beginning to actively cultivate an Asian fanbase. Ghostface Killah was one of several to sit for a reaction video responding positively to Indonesian rapper Rich Chigga’s “Dat $tick.” (His name is a play on Chinese, his ethnicity, and the obvious; he apologized for using the real word in the song.) Rich Chigga is the flagship artist of 88rising, a transnational media company founded by Californian Sean Miyashiro. “Now a lot of American artists that we grew up liking are collaborating with us to learn how to get over there,” Miyashiro told Pitchfork. The group seems to promote songs that speak to multiple audiences, balancing regional authenticity with translated lyrics that can cross over to court Western attention with songs like “Made in China.” The implicit Western endorsement in turn attracts more local attention.

The rise of rap in the region speaks to the surge of individualism in cultures traditionally defined by their collectivism. This in itself is a political act, even if most lyrics stay clear from protest or social disaffection. The group Higher Brothers is an exception when they rap in Chinese, “I don’t have time for CCTV, Durant vs. Lebron,” a simultaneous declaration of independence from any debts to black culture and a government that is seeking to erase Western influences.

What does rap’s Asian breakout mean for the genre – and how the country of its origin is perceived? One possibility is that it may play a small part in recoloring how Asians see the West. For many in the region the West remains closely linked to whiteness. If rap can penetrate the cultural consciousness and diversify who represents the West, it may undercut conservatives, particularly in China, who are using race-based rhetoric to push back against Western (read: “white imperialist”) values.

In exporting the American concept of an Asianness that makes no distinction between borders, rap may even be a force for pan-Asian identity. This would be no small thing in a region still defined by intense nationalism. A world of freestylers is one of the more colorful assertions of the right to free expression. When Asians pick up the mic, rap achieves more than the one-sided transmission of a Hollywood film. Its effect is subtle, but all the more powerful.