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[MUSIC] A Black Man's (Kenyon Farrow) Perspective on Hip-Hop & Asian Americans

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  • madchinaman
    We Real Cool? On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and Appropriation By Kenyon Farrow http://www.nathanielturner.com/werealcoolkenyon.htm / I went to an
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 12, 2005
      We Real Cool?
      On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and Appropriation
      By Kenyon Farrow
      http://www.nathanielturner.com/werealcoolkenyon.htm /

      I went to an event in Philly on Friday, November 19 at the Asian
      Arts Initiative, an Asian American "community arts" space,
      entitled "Changing the Face of the Game: Asian Americans in Hip-
      Hop." I cannot pretend I didn't already know what I was getting
      myself into. The title of the event itself expresses a level of
      hostility to Black people – Since Black people are the current face
      of the game, and for whatever reason, that needs to be changed. But
      anyhow, I went, ready to see what was gonna go down...

      The Main Event

      Oliver Wang, Asian American writer, cultural critic and graduate
      student at UC Berkeley (where he teaches courses on pop culture),
      the opening speaker and panel moderator, gave an opening talk about
      the historical presence of Asians in hip-hop. Mr. Wang's research
      into the annals of hip-hop history unearthed an emcee (who claims to
      have cut a record before "Rapper's Delight") from the South Bronx,
      whom Wang declares as the "first Asian in hip-hop." He then
      describes him as "half Filipino and half Black." I couldn't help but
      wonder how this emcee identified himself and how he physically
      looked, and why his Blackness was now a footnote in Wang's
      historical re-write.


      (Kenyon Farrow is a radical community organizer and writer, at the
      forefront of the struggle against anti-Black racism. In such
      provocative articles as "Is Gay Marriage anti-Black," and "We Real
      Cool? On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks and Appropriation,"
      Farrow has explored the ways in which white, and non-Black
      communities of color have gentrified Black space – both the physical
      space of neighborhoods, and the symbolic the space of political
      struggle and hip hop culture -

      Kenyon Farrow, a Black queer community organizer from New York.
      Kenyon Farrow is a 30-year-old Black Gay man, writing and organizing
      in Brooklyn, NY. He recently served as the Southern Regional
      Coordinator for Critical Resistance, a prison abolition
      organization, and continues to work in the New York City chapter. He
      has also served as an adult ally for FIERCE!, a queer youth of color
      community organizing project in New York City.

      Kenyon has written several articles and essays, the most widely
      circulated of which have been "Is Gay Marriage Anti-Black?",
      and "Connecting the Dots: Michael Moore, White Nationalism and the
      Multi-racial Left" with writer Kil Ja Kim, and most recently, ?We
      Real Cool?: On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and

      Kenyon has also appeared on radio including Pacifica Stations in New
      York and Houston and Free Speech Radio, given many public lectures
      and served on many panels dealing with race and prison issues, and
      race and queer issues as well, including at Temple University,
      University of Wisconsin/Madison, and The University of New Orleans.
      He is currently co-editing his first book project entitled "Letters
      from Young Activists" with Dan Berger and Chesa Boudin, due out in
      Fall 2005 with Nation Books.

      Comments/Replies on some thoughts that this article is anti-Asian
      American / http://unreasonables.org/node/view/127 /
      http://www.anzidesign.com/archives/000418.html /


      As Wang continued on, he painted hip-hop music and culture as this
      multi-culti "American" artform that everyone's had a hand in
      developing. By doing so, Wang very skillfully ignored the reality
      that Rap was in fact created by Black youth (and Latinos from the
      Caribbean – many of whom are also of African descent and certainly
      ghettoized as "Black" in the NYC socio-economic landscape) in the
      South Bronx (or in Queens, depending on whom you ask). Wang went on
      to say that the only reason why Asians were drawn to hip-hop was
      because of the music. He also said that "hip-hop is the most
      democratic music because it doesn't take the same skill as playing
      classical music."

      Wang then asked a follow-up question to the panelists. Uh-oh! The
      panel included spoken word duo Yellow Rage, DJ Phillie Blunt, Chops
      of the Mountain Brothers, a Cambodian-American rapper named Jim, and
      his friend, the lone Black panelist who is an MC from Philly.
      Borrowing from the hip-hop romantic comedy Brown Sugar, Wang asked
      each panelist to talk about when they "first fell in love with hip-
      hop." All of the panelists, save the Black man, talked about hearing
      some rap song on the radio and falling in love, because it
      expressed "who they were" and "their experience."

      Jim admitted he grew up in the burbs and came to hip-hop out of his
      isolation. At least that was honest. Michelle, from Yellow Rage,
      anointed herself the hip-hop historian (or shall I shay griot?) for
      the evening. Making jokes about her age, Michelle reminded the
      audience to pay respect to hip-hop's roots and remember "the old
      school." The panel was asked another question by Wang and then he
      opened the floor for questions from the audience.

      After squirming in my third-row seat for the duration of the talk, I
      had my opportunity. Quickly raising my hand, I was passed the mic.
      My question/statement was: In all of the talk thus far, we have
      conveniently skirted around the issue of race. But let's be real,
      when we're talking about hip-hop and hip-hop culture, we mean Black
      people, which you de-emphasized and de-historicized in your intro
      talk, Mr Wang . . . Now, we know about the history of Black popular
      culture being appropriated and stolen by whites, as in the case of
      Blues, Jazz, and Rock & Roll.

      And now there's hip-hop, and since we live in this multi-racial
      state which still positions Blackness socio-economically and
      politically at the bottom, how does the presence of Asian Americans
      in hip-hop, this black cultural artform, look any different than
      that of white folks in Jazz, Blues, and Rock & Roll?

      The jig was up. I was the rain that ended the parade (or shall I say
      charade?). The room quickly turned to palpable hostility and anger.
      Since they were already clearly pissed, I decided to throw out a
      follow-up question: Mr. Wang, you said that Asian people are
      attracted to hip-hop because they just like the music, which I find
      hard to believe since hip-hop also came into prominence in the day
      and age of music video – where image and representation are as
      important (if not more) than the music itself.

      That being the case, what is it about Black people (and especially
      Black masculinity in the case of hip-hop), and what they represent
      to others, that is so attractive to other people, including non-
      white people of color?

      The Body Slam

      Well, that did it. They were mad as hell. I mean, how dare I bring
      up Black people and appropriation, as if Asians can't possibly
      appropriate Blackness in the same manner that white folks do! It
      couldn't be, not while I'm in a standing-room only crowd
      of "conscious" Asian youth with locks and hair teased out (and often
      chemically treated) to look like afros!

      Well, that panel couldn't get that mic around fast enough! Some of
      the responses were too asinine to even bother with a critique. But I
      will tackle the main points. The first to respond was the lone Black
      man on the panel. Responding to my second question, he spoke in a
      condescending, yet gentle tone (you know, "brother to brother")
      about us "being a soulful people" and that's why everyone wants to
      get with our shit and how I should see it as a "compliment."

      Well, I am fine with you getting with it – on the radio or video or
      whatever – but does that mean you get to have it? Better yet, take
      it, and then use it against Black people to promote the image of us
      as intimidating and politically and culturally selfish? This is
      exactly the narrative that was used to promote Eminem and is being
      used now for Jin: both of them are framed as real "artists"
      and "lyricists" who stand dignified in the face of Black "reverse
      racism" and hostility (watch 8 Mile, read much of the press written
      about Jin's appearances on 106th & Park)—as if Nas, Bahamadia, or
      Andre 3000 & Big Boi aren't really artists but, as Black people are
      expected to do, just use "the race card" to get ahead.

      And to treat Blacks as "soulful people" is the same as seeing us as
      primitives (with some genetic code programming us to gleefully wail
      and shout, shake and shimmy) who make this lovely music yet are too
      docile to be really intelligent, ingenious and artistic.

      Several of the panelists at this event went on to critique
      commercial rap artists for being materialistic, etc. For example,
      after putting his arm on his Black friend's shoulder and telling me
      that we need to "recognize that Blacks are on the bottom," Jim
      concluded by telling me that "it's about class, not race" and how he
      tries his hardest to be "conscientious."

      This is the same guy who earlier emphasized how capitalism diluted
      the politics of hip-hop without talking about Asian Americans' role
      in the capitalist structure. Instead of dealing with this very
      important issue, the Asian-American panelists acted as if they
      were "more real" than Black commercial artists. So, because they get
      to be "underground" (which loosely means someone without a record
      deal), they get to be "real" and "authentic" over Black artists who
      have been commercially successful.

      I have my own critiques of commercially successful Black hip-hop
      artists and their materialism, misogyny, violence and homophobia –
      which I have written and spoken about as well—but I was not about to
      give that over to some hostile non-Black people to use to make
      themselves more "down."

      Michelle of Yellow Rage flat out screamed on me, in an effort, I
      guess, to "keep it real" with her duo's namesake. Starting several
      of her sentences with the phrase, "You need to acknowledge…" she
      went on and on about how she is sick of people (I guess Black
      people) saying that hip-hop is a Black thing.

      This Ph.D. candidate (who specializes in both Asian and African
      American Literature) went on to tell me that I need to "stop being
      so divisive" and "read my history" via the likes of cultural critics
      Tricia Rose and Nelson George so that I can learn and
      ultimately "acknowledge" that "nobody has a monopoly on culture."

      And least of all Black people. As the descendants of slaves, the
      property of others, nothing belongs to us. Everything we do,
      including hip-hop and spoken word, can be done by anyone else. And
      yet, Yellow Rage made a name for itself by critiquing appropriation
      of Asian culture by non-Asians, including Black people (specifically
      hip-hop artists).

      So, to the author of Ancestor Worship (a phrase generally referring
      to Black African traditional religious practice) and member of
      Asians Misbehavin' (which appropriates the name from the Black
      musical revue of Fats Waller's music, Ain't Misbehavin'), I say to
      you, Michelle, if Asians have certain cultural boundaries that need
      to be respected (e.g. Chinese/Japanese tattoos, chopsticks in the
      hair, etc.), then why does that not apply to Black people? Maybe
      this is something Michelle can ponder as she works on her
      dissertation called "Untying Tongues" (which appropriates the title
      of the late Black Gay filmmaker Marlon Rigg's work, Tongues Untied).

      So I asked the first, and apparently last question of the Q&A. Not
      caring to see the "performance" part of the evening (though I'd have
      to call the panel a performance as much as the concert), I left the
      event, dealing with the angry glares on my way out. I thought it was
      over. But then a friend sent me a link to a commentary on the
      cultural possessiveness of Blacks over hip-hop on Oliver "aka O-Dub"
      Wang's site written by Mr. Wang himself (http://www.o-
      dub.com/weblog/2004/11/hes-your-chinaman-jin-jin-everywhere.html ).

      The Aftermath

      So, in a larger blog about Jin and Asians in hip-hop, Wang writes
      about the Asian Arts Initiative event. Describing how I raised the
      question I did, Wang responds:

      "I'm constantly frustrated by these kinds of defensive attitudes
      around cultural ownership though I am quite aware of how they arise.
      The gentleman in this case was correct in noting that African
      American culture has suffered through a long history of being
      exploited to the gains of others and there is great concern that hip-
      hop is simply next on the list…Communities may think they `own' a
      culture but that's not how culture works. It's not an object you can
      chain up. Culture doesn't care about borders - it spreads as fast
      and as far as the people who consume it will take it.

      I agree, yes, culture can also be misappropriated and exploited. But
      if people are really worrying about hip-hop becoming the latest
      example of Black culture being emptied of content and turned into a
      deracinated commodity, the problem doesn't lie with Asian American
      youth. Or Latino youth. Or even white youth really."

      It's interesting – or more accurately, disturbing – that Wang uses
      the metaphor of culture being "chained up" in relation to African
      Americans. Wang, like Michelle from Yellow Rage, refuses to deal
      with what the legacy of being property (always owned, and never
      owners) means in the case of Black people and claims of ownership
      over culture. So, where Black people are concerned, both
      historically and contemporarily, it's all good. We make everything
      for everybody.

      Wang goes on assert that the "The color line here is painted in
      green. You want to talk about cooptation? Talk about corporations…"
      (right now W.E.B. Du Bois is rolling over in his grave). So I guess,
      as Wang puts it, the real (and I guess only) problem is corporations
      who promote hip-hop and make money off of it—of which some
      executives are Black, Wang is eager to point out.

      That's almost slick, Ollie. But not quite. People who don't want to
      deal with their own complicity in the reproduction of anti-Black
      racism are very quick to point out corporations as the culprit.
      Interestingly, while emphasizing corporations, Wang doesn't talk
      about his own relationship to them or that he makes a living writing
      for such corporations about a music that allegedly doesn't require
      much skill or that he works for a university—which is also a
      corporation—and gets to have some control over the production of
      knowledge about hip-hop.

      Instead of addressing this, Wang goes out of his way to point out
      that there are one or two Black people in some level of decision
      making capacity in the music industry. But why doesn't he talk about
      how virtually none of them actually own the labels, and fewer are in
      control of any means of production and distribution?

      The narrative of blame the corporation, but not me (or any living
      breathing person), and don't talk about the bodies it oppresses in
      the meantime is such a mirror of the white nationalist narrative.
      It, to me, is the same as the white person saying, "Don't blame me
      for slavery. My grandparents didn't own any slaves. They came from
      Russia in 1902. And didn't Africans sell their own people into
      slavery? And didn't some Blacks own slaves?"

      Well, maybe your "immigrant" ancestor did not own slaves, but they
      certainly benefited from a nation that valued whiteness above all
      else. And they got jobs in industry (that Black people clearly
      needed and couldn't get easy or any access to) and amass wealth in a
      way Black people have been prevented from doing collectively.

      A handful of rappers, athletes, and talk-show hosts doesn't change
      the fact that a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center deemed that
      Black families are the only racial group in the United States who
      saw their wealth decrease in recent years. And your grandparents
      didn't end up here by accident, no more than mine accidentally left
      the shores of Africa – "chained up." They came because the US wanted
      to balance a growing Black non-enslaved population with more white
      people. So the US took who they could get.

      By the 1960's the US again decided to balance a "mad and organized-
      as-all-hell" Black population by relaxing immigration to bring in
      more non-Black people of color. So, in many cases, the non-Black
      presence in the US was specifically set up in relationship against
      Black people. Even if your family was here before the 1960s, look at
      the history of every contiguous state formed between the American
      Revolution and the Civil War. The question of slavery is at the
      heart of the founding of every single one. The "slave,"
      the "nigger," and the "criminal" are historical and contemporary
      positions that Blackness occupies. This reality is something
      everyone is forced to deal with, and yet nobody wants to be one of

      So, what Asian Americans and Asian American politics (and I
      think "People of Color" politics as well) has yet to fully deal with
      is that we can't talk about capitalism and corporations in some
      abstract sense. If we do then we ignore how one's positionality
      against Blackness and Black people in a white supremacist context
      helps to define the issues of ownership, property and parameters and
      how they are racialized. Just because you aren't phenotypically
      white doesn't mean you can't uphold white interests politically—as
      Wang likes to point out in his example of the Black executive—but
      Black people as a whole cannot function politically in the same way
      that non-Black people of color can in the current global paradigm
      (Yes! Global. Let's talk about sub-Saharan Africa in relation to
      South America, the Middle East or Asia, if you must).

      So, NOT being Black is what seems to matter more under capitalism
      than being white.

      The Final Round

      So, corporations are but one manifestation of the American project.
      But history and culture are also an equally important part of that
      project. History and culture inform narratives that form people's
      logic and assumptions, which root themselves in the subconscious. We
      could overthrow all corporations tomorrow, and if our narratives
      stay the same, or simply shift shape without being utterly
      transformed, some other new and oppressive shit (aimed at Black
      people!) will take it's place. And take the prison's place. So,
      don't put all your focus on corporations, or laws, or cages without
      dealing with the logic that makes us assume we need them in the
      first place.

      There's an old saying my grandmother has: "I'm not dealing with the
      form, I'm dealing with the essence!"

      The essence is exactly this: Let's un-assume that because we're all
      up in hip-hop that we're all on the same page. Let's un-assume that
      because you might try to look like me or sound like me (or how you
      think I do both), that we are working towards the same goal, or that
      we even have the same enemy. I don't think, despite efforts to think
      otherwise, that this was really ever Black people's assumption.

      To close, let me share a story that I think is very telling and
      illustrates everything I've been getting at here. I was living in
      New Orleans last year, and had just arrived for 2003 Satchmo
      Festival celebrating the life of Louie Armstrong. The event takes
      place in the gentrified Fabourg Marigny, and over that August
      weekend, cafes and restaurants fill with Brass Bands, Jazz and Blues

      I sat outside a coffee shop one day listening to an incredible
      quartet with a group of Black people I had just met, while the cafe
      was filled with folks from all over, including whites, Japanese
      tourists and Asian-American college students. One Black woman said
      to her friend, "Girl let's go in!" The other replied, "No, I'd
      rather stay out here. I can't experience it the way I would if it
      was just us. I always feel like part of the minstrel show when they
      be up in it. And there ain't no place in New Orleans where they
      don't go now..."

      I turned to her, and gave an "Uh-huh," wanting her to know I was
      there to bear witness to what she'd said, and glad she'd said it. I,
      too, chose to stay on the outside for the very same reason. Asian
      Americans in hip-hop need to consider this Black woman's concern, as
      well as this question: If first-generation white European immigrants
      like Al Jolson could use minstrelsy (wearing blackface, singing
      black popular music and mimicking their idea of Black people) to not
      only ensure their status as white people, but also to distance
      themselves from Black people, can Asian Americans use hip-hop (the
      music, clothing, language and gestures, sans charcoal makeup), and
      everything it signifies to also assert their dominance over Black
      bodies, rather than their allegiance to Black liberation?

      People who now think that jazz is for everybody never think about
      what the process was to get jazz to that place, nor what that means
      for the people who invented it. This thought leaves me with one
      last – albeit very frightening – question: Will my niece and nephews
      be at a festival for Lauryn Hill fifty years from now, also standing
      on the outside looking in?
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