Meet the new generation of Asian Americans who are challenging long-established ideas of what it means to be a creator. Asians in America have grown used to hearing the same outdated stereotypes: meek, submissive, nerdy, bad drivers, unattractive. The danger in stereotypes is that when society relies on lazy interpretations of an entire race, it perpetuates false notions of identity and harms the ability to make distinctions between groups of people. The casual discourse of stereotypes may seem innocuous but it’s what creates lines of division and illusions of otherness.
Whether the world knows it or not, there are a wide range of Asians, and with that comes a wide range of experiences and narratives and one thing is certain, we’re not one dimensional beings that think, react, and create in the same way. We sat down with three Asian American artists to discuss what their heritage means to them and their art, and how societal stereotypes aren’t holding them back from anything.
You started HBK with Iamsu! and have become a go-to producer for Wiz Khalifa, Yo Gotti and more - tell us about that journey.
I was doing a lot of the production for HBK and once Iamsu! became bigger other artists wanted to dabble in the sound we were creating. Learning the actual business part of the industry was an obstacle, but that's something everyone has to go through. Although coming from the Bay Area, our industry isn't as big as the LA or New York markets. A lot of my journey was working twice as hard and getting to those places [larger markets] and making connections to further what I was doing.
As an Asian American rapper, what is your role in hip-hop?
I feel a big responsibility because there hasn't been anyone to really step out and be that guy for Asian Americans. Growing up I didn't have anyone I associated myself with as a reference for my career, so for me it's about way more than just making music. I'm setting the example and being the reference point for future Asian Americans in hip-hop.
Did you ever experience resentment from other hip-hop artists for being Asian?
Where I'm from [the Bay Area], no. I've never acted different than how I was raised or what I've always been around. Coming from the Bay, your card will get pulled if you're not being solid or not being you, that's just how shit is here. I've been blessed to grow up in the Bay Area because being from here, it doesn't matter. People here just respect the music and what I bring to the culture.
Have you felt restricted by emasculating stereotypes of Asian American men?
To be honest, I never thought about those emasculating stereotypes. Obviously they exist and are something that Asian American males have to deal with, but, I don’t pay attention. I don't even like to acknowledge stereotypes because I look at my situation as something that hasn't been seen or done before, so that's how I treat it. People are going to say whatever they want but that's not going girls from liking me. In reality, girls know what's up when they see me and feel my energy.
How important is it that your heritage come through in your music?
I do feel it's important but it’s not something that I actively think about when writing. I think what I’m doing is being the most genuine version of myself that I can aurally express. That innately includes my heritage, race, gender, preference, and culture amongst many other things. It comes effortlessly rather than me trying to pronounce it in one way or another.
What inspired the decision to sing in English and Korean?
Singing in Korean was less of a decision and more of a necessity. When I first started producing music and recording vocals, I was too shy to sing about anything personal that others could understand. As a way to hide meaning and act as an instrument, I chose to sing in Korean. I later realized that the way Korean phonetically sounds is beautiful; the Yaeji EP was a product of that.
What inspired the EP?
The EP writing process was a very organic one. It was less of a centrally planned idea and more of a concoction of different experiences. I wrote down different thoughts, stories, and memories during my daily commutes and made music slowly, whenever I felt like it was right. In hindsight, Yaeji is mostly about memories.
How do you navigate the music industry as an Asian American but also as a woman?
Being Asian and a woman is inevitably a hinderance in life, not just music. In the music world, I've surrounding myself with people who don’t see me as only my race or gender. I feel safe in the community that I’m in and I feel extremely lucky to have that.
Tell us about Bad Rap and why you decided to make it
Bad Rap is a documentary about four Asian American artists – Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Lyricks, and Rekstizzy– that are at different points in their careers. It explores the characters as well as Asian-American identity as a whole. We cover topics about sex, race, parents, faith, double standards in hip-hop and more.
As an Asian American participant in hip-hop, I’ve always wondered: “Why hasn’t there been an Asian American rap star?” So the urge to create Bad Rap stemmed from that desire. Discussions about Asian American racial identity doesn’t get much light in the national discourse. When I was 11, infatuated with rap, I didn’t have access to a film like Bad Rap. But now, an Asian American junior-high school kid obsessed with hip-hop has a film he could watch and learn.Bad Rap is for the children, B.
Do you think Bad Rap impacted or changed society's perceptions of Asian Americans?
I’d need to see the sales figures to know if it impacted the larger society. So if you’re reading this, make sure you to download it now. As a writer who has covered K-Pop and Asian Americans in hip hop for publications like Complex and Billboard, I know from first-hand experience it’s crucial to have influencers behind the scenes–editors, producers, directors, marketers–to attain balanced representation in all forms of media.
That said, because of Bad Rap, discussions about Asian American identity were brought up in select circles. Whether it was through the vast press coverage we’ve garnered, or attendees at our sold-out screenings (just saying), the existence of this film shed light on a topic that wasn’t examined prior. Who knows? Some non-Asian person who had no issue saying “chink” might reconsider using the term. Each one, teach one. That’s what Bad Rap is.
Do Asian Americans have more trouble carving out a space in rap music?
Yes, and you’d need to watch Bad Rap to know why. Here are two examples that aren’t mentioned in the film.
If you’re rapper A from Brooklyn and the A&R at Interscope is from the same neighborhood as you, and his cousin played your song off Soundcloud, and he keeps hearing your name in different circles, he’s going to be more inclined to check you out, right? Compared to Asian American rapper B from Queens that has no plug in the industry. It’s not always about what you know, but who you know.
Here’s the second example: I was casted as an extra for a TV series. The producers of the show were looking for actors to play Asian gangsters. The casting director’s email stated: “Are you ready to K-pop?” At the audition, my colleague said, “Yeah, I can be like G-Dragon to which the producers asked: “Who?”
I did the gig and during the shoot I didn’t see a single Asian person behind the camera. That made me realize: Not only do we need more Asian Americans in front of the camera, but we need more Asian American writers, directors and producers green lighting the projects.
It’s not that these mostly white people making the decisions are malicious, they’re just ignorant and indifferent to minority voices. The only way to improve that is to make our own content. Hopefully Bad Rap will stand the test of time and get remembered as an example of that cause.
Also see why China may just be the next great exporter of underground hip-hop here.