• Chelsea Macasaet

Trap(ped): Asian Identity, its Niche in Mainstream Hip-hop, and Brian

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

In February of 2016, rapper Brian Imanuel, known to popular media as Rich Brian, released his debut single, titled “Dat $tick,” in response to the corrupt Indonesian government. Wearing a pink polo and a fanny pack, the then 16-year-old rapper spouted lyrics about the imminent wage gap, police brutality, and drug use. In retrospect, it contained themes prevalent in American music, while garnering the attention of the AAPI community at-large. Overnight, he grew into a viral hit.

Today, young people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds indulge in the songs released by Imanuel’s record label, 88Rising, which aims to promote AAPI artists of various genres. However, the AAPI identity still struggles with breaking into mainstream music while also retaining its heritage and originality.

88Rising. (First row: Don Krez, Dzknow and MaSiWei of Higher Brothers, Bottom row from left: founder Sean Miyashiro, NIKI, Rich Brian, Joji)

Either get diplomas or a tool

Hip-hop roots itself in the African-American community, the bustling culture of 1970's New York, and the artistic presence of b-boying and graffiti. Turntable manipulation (pioneered by emcees such as Grandmaster Flash) and music sampling in the 90’s created a creative outlet for new and emerging artists. However, rappers shifted from old school rhymes and wordplay to more raw and graphic lyricism to comment on injustices in their communities.

On the other side of the country, the West Coast began to make its mark on the nationwide hip-hop movement. Filipino deejays and break dancers were among the first to pioneer the Asian “voice of the underdog.” However, other AAPI performers struggled to fit into this niche at a time when Asians were not the mainstream audience’s idea of a rapper. At times, the authenticity of their music was limited because ordinary viewers saw AAPI musicians as “gimmicks.”

In a time when this genre of music became a commodity, so did the AAPI identity. The ethnic stereotypes surrounding Asian men and women prevented prospective artists from making an early mark on rap music. This is due to the branding of AAPI citizens as “model minorities”, in which Asians embody success, as well as efficiency, due to their devotion to education and discipline. The ideology that these communities were proper and “book-smart” halted effective distribution of Asian music. Therefore, the “model minority” concept built a racial wedge between Asians and other minority groups; what kind of struggles could musicians of this heritage speak of?

These conflicts had nothing to do with AAPI musicians' individual styles or skills, and instead with a lack of Asian-American stories in popular culture. Gangsta rap and stories of crime and redemption were common themes expressed by new-age rappers such as 50 Cent and The N.W.A.. People were accustomed to hearing a style that expressed and honored a specific type of heritage. This included rapping on marginalization. For example, South Korean rapper Changmo attempted to rap on the difficulties of growing up in his hometown of Deoksori, but off the mic, failed to trace back his privilege. (He had grown up going to piano lessons, as well as after school supplementary classes.) Thus, AAPI attempts to emulate this style of lyricism did not perform well, instead, this lessened the authenticity of their music by portraying a lifestyle that was not relatable to the Asian community.

Nothing but my name

Perhaps the best examples of Asian hip-hop’s rise to prominence are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Born Jin Au-Yeung, MC Jin rose to fame in the 90’s for becoming the first AAPI rapper to sign with a major label, Ruff Ryders. His image and style were cultivated through his witty lyricism as a battle rapper, and his professional music rooted in the Asian identity. However, his first full studio album bombed, with its lead single “Learn Chinese” peaking at #74 on the Billboard Chart. “I didn’t have a creative mindset of my own,” Jin admitted. “Everybody [around me] had the best intentions. I can’t