[MUSIC] A Black Man's (Kenyon Farrow) Perspective on Hip-Hop & Asian Americans
- We Real Cool?
On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and Appropriation
By Kenyon Farrow
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
(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 /
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
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 wellbut 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
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-
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
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 itof 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 universitywhich is also a
corporationand 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 politicallyas
Wang likes to point out in his example of the Black executivebut
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
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?