Monday, November 22, 2004

HE'S YOUR CHINAMAN


jin, jin everywhere


It's been nothing but Asian American hip-hop of late. I just returned from Philadelphia after doing two panels on the topic - big up to Chris & Co. at Arts Sanctuary, big up to Dennis & Co. at the Asian Arts Initiative. Alas, Jin flaked on both panels, presumably because rumors have it that he's joining the Jay-Z tour. Where Jin has been omnipresent is in print media with two pieces appearing over the weekend.

The first is Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece in the NY Times Magazine. The other is Kevin Kim's piece in Colorlines Magazine. I know both writers and have a good deal of respect for both Ta and Kevin and their writing instincts and abilities. In the interests of full-disclosure, I am quoted in Kevin's piece.

With Ta-Nehisi's article, I felt like it while it did a competent job as a profile, I wanted to see it do more in tackling some of the most pertinent issues that Jin's career has raised, especially race. Let's be very clear here: the "Jin story" boils down to this: he's an Asian rapper in a Black world. Period. That is the only reason that publications have taken interest in him to the level that he has. I'm not knocking his talent but most debut rappers are not profiled by the NY Times Magazine and NPR in addition to XXL and Vibe, etc. etc. Jin gets attention because everyone is focused on the issue of race and how Jin, as an Asian American, comes into contact and potential conflict with the dominant notions of Blackness that exist within hip-hop today.

It's not as if Ta avoids a discussion of race, indeed, race is all over the piece, but I guess I wanted to see it dealt with more directly and critically. For example, there's one intriguing set of paragraphes where he talks about anti-Asian sentiments held by blacks in Baltimore, but after quoting Hua Hsu about how Asians, "may feel a spiritual kinship with blacks and Latinos, but there's no real feeling back the other way," Ta moves on to talk about the challenges that Jin faces as a battle rapper rather than stay on the discussion of race.

What the piece does do well, however, is paint Jin as just another American kid (race regardless) who's just in love with hip-hop and while the article doesn't announce its intentions in doing so, the way it opens and closes seems to be making that subtle point. After all, race shouldn't be the issue when it comes to how people evaluate Jin's talents and potential as a rapper. It is, of course, inevitable that race be discussed but Ta-Nehisi seems to be trying to portray Jin as an interesting person rather than as an interesting Chinese American person.

That said, a friend of mine made the following critique:
    "I resent the description in the conclusion that Jin comes off as "a hip-hop nerd." I mean c'mon, it's hard not to find anyone trying to come up in hip-hop who can't rattle off their production trivia like it's the fucking Da Vinci Code -- so why is *Jin* more a nerd more than anyone else?"
The point here is provocative...I know of other white rappers who are described as nerds - Edan for example - but I can't think of too many black rappers described as nerds. Even MCs like Beans and Priest (from Antipop Consortium) tend to be described as "Afro-futurist" or "superscientifical" but not necessarily as nerds. The point being: it's easy enough to sell the idea of an Asian rapper as a nerd because we're so used to thinking of Asians as nerds but would we go so quick to assign that label to an African American rapper who exhibited the same tendencies as Jin did? Just putting it out there.

With Kevin Kim's piece, I say this with no exaggeration: it is not only the best piece I've seen written on Jin yet, it's also probably one of the best pieces I've ever seen written on Asian Americans and hip-hop. Not only does he deal with Jin's career particularities but he also efficiently summarizes the larger issues surrounding how Asian American artists have had to deal with the specter of racial authenticity. If anyone has ever needed a primer: not merely on Jin but on the larger issues surrounding Asian Americans within hip-hop, this is it. It's not a history but it does condense the major tensions and challenges at play.

For example, during the panel discussion in Philadelphia at the Asian Arts Initiative, one of the audience members, an African American man in his 30s, asked something along the lines of: "In talking about Asian Americans in hip-hop, don't we potentially threated to deracinate hip-hop from its roots in the African American tradition? After all, if you look at the history of black music, we've seen the blues, jazz, rock, etc. coopted and exploited by others outside our community, often times to the cultural and economic detriment of the Black community. Is it possible that Asian Americans are contributing to that process with hip-hop?"

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. This is a far bigger topic that I really want to get into here, but I want to make a point and then return to Kevin's piece since he addresses this too.

My point: 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.

The color line here is painted in green. You want to talk about cooptation? Talk about corporations - the ones that market hip-hop, who hold the power to define what is hip-hop and who is a "real" rapper to the mass public simply based on who they choose to support and promote. And believe me, Asian Americans aren't the ones profiteering off that. In fact, seems to me that many of those executives are African American, as well as White. Jin isn't a threat to hip-hop's future unless Universal decides to only sign and promote Asian American rappers from now on. And we all know that ain't happening.

Kevin's point: he brings in historian Robin Kelley (pretty much one of the smartest people I've ever met, author of Race Rebels, Yo Mama's Disfunktional! and other books) to comment on the issue of cultural ownership along race lines and as always, Kelley shines a light of brilliance into the darkness. I quote from Kevin's piece: "Black artists have always appropriated Asian-American, Chicano, heavy metal youth culturesóbut it doesnít get talked about that way. When non-black artists enter hip-hop, people look for the appropriation, assuming the core culture is African-American without realizing even if it is, itís always been a synthesis."

The only thing about Kevin's piece that I thought was a liability is that Kevin critiques Jin's music, hard, but filed this story back in July, long before he was able to hear the finished album. Had he been able to, I think he would have been a little less harsh in suggesting that Jin's invocation of ethnicity/race is purely self-serving, self-exploitative. Songs like "Love Song" and "Same Cry" would have gone a long way to show that Jin's "Learn Chinese" wasn't a template for the album. It's not that I disagree with most of Kevin's opinions but I think his tone is far more damning than it needs to be considering what Jin's full album is actually like. Oh well, that's early deadlines for you.

In any case, read both articles. Rub the Jin potion like Body Shop lotion. Or not.



GET WIRED

all smiles

Just because I need to say this: The Wire is so on fire right now. This season started off slow but it's gotten so incredibly baaaaadasssss, like Artest/O'Neal gangsta large, ym? Count it off:
  • Barksdale vs. Marlowe vs. Omar
  • The Redemption of Cutty/Dennis
  • Avon.
  • Stringer's power moves.
  • The illest chickenhead role since Macy Gray in Training Day
  • City Hall politricks
  • Hamsterdam
If you don't know, start knowing.

Big up too to Blake Leyh, the show's Music Supervisor, a Soul Sides fan. Loved the "Big Payback" in last week's eppy.