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What do we mean when we talk about ‘Asian rap’?

What do we mean when we talk about ‘Asian rap’?

Asia has a sprawling hip hop culture, but its nuances risk being flattened by a narrative that ignores cultural specificities

On Rich Brian’s “Kids”, the uproarious boom bap anthem from his new album The Sailor, the 19-year-old rapper declares that he’ll “tell these Asian kids they could do what they want”. It serves as a kind of mission statement, not only for Brian, who has risen from goofy Vine comedian to international hip hop stardom in just a few years, but also for his label, 88rising, which since its foundation in 2015 has promoted an ever-growing collective of Asian rappers and R&B singers, providing representation to a group which has long been rendered invisible in the western pop culture landscape.

88rising’s success among its large Asian-American fanbase is all the more surprising considering most of the artists on the label’s roster are not Asian-American themselves. Rich Brian is Chinese-Indonesian, while Joji grew up in Japan, Higher Brothers in China, and Keith Ape in South Korea. Sean Miyashiro, 88rising’s founder and CEO, has Korean-American and Japanese-American roots, but despite all of their radically different backgrounds, the individuals who make up 88rising nonetheless feel a sense of affinity with one another because of this shared Asianness. It’s this aspect – the fact that a global musical community can be built around a shared identity, or that a 16-year-old kid can upload a viral rap video in Indonesia and end up being an icon to Asian kids all around the world – that most English language coverage of the collective has focused on. 

But does the focus on these artists’ Asianness as a unifying characteristic erase the true diversity that exists within Asian rap? The aforementioned Higher Brothers are a Chengdu-based quartet who brag about their flows being “Made in China”, and rap in Mandarin and Sichuanese about specifically Chinese phenomenon, like the messaging app WeChatKeith Ape’s breakout hit, “잊지마” (“It G Ma”), was unique for being a multilingual collaboration between Korean and Japanese rappers. These cultural specificities are integral to understanding these artists’ work – but in most English-language coverage, they have been flattened into a reductive, homogenised version of Asianness, where distinct cultural contexts are treated as if they’re fundamentally the same. A Rolling Stone article on 88rising describes Miyashiro’s goal as “teas(ing) out the cool in Asian culture”, without ever stopping to wonder if a cohesive ‘Asian culture’ actually exists. The New Yorker uncritically echoes this simplistic definition of “Asian cool”, while Forbes declares the existence of a singular “Asian rap scene”. At best, this erases what should be an opportunity to celebrate cultural diversity; at worst, it reinforces a racist stereotype where ‘all Asians look the same’.

This kind of cultural myopia does an enormous disservice to the rich variety of hip hop cultures to be found throughout Asia. There’s a huge difference between the explosive pop rap featured on hugely popular talent shows like The Rap of China and South Korea’s Show Me the Money, the neurotic digital bangers of Vietnamese MC Suboi, the surreal avant-rap of underground Taiwanese artist and Grimes collaborator Aristophanes, and the West Coast swagger of Cambodian-American $tupid Young. Likewise, you’d struggle to find any sonic similarities between these artists and Japanese instrumental hip hop producers like Nujabes, or the fiercely political bars of the coalition of anti-government Thai rappers known as Rap Against Dictatorship, or Japanese anti-war rapper ECD. The laziness of these comparisons becomes obvious when you apply them to non-Asian rappers – it would be absurd to conflate the styles of Logic and Migos, for example.

“There is potential for Asian hip hop to be a powerful movement based on radical, pan-Asian unity... but that potential can’t be realised if these cultures are defanged and diluted into a neatly-packaged, marketable version of Asianness”

There is no room for this kind of plurality in the western discourses surrounding Asian hip hop. The idea of Asian hip hop promoted by most media outlets has no context, no nuance, no history. In fact, look at most coverage and you’d think that no Asian rappers even existed before 2015, the year 88rising was founded: almost every article or documentary on the subject, from Bloomberg to The Guardian, is at least partly a profile of the label or one of its artists. There is no space in this narrative for the Japanese DJs like DJ Krush, who brought hip hop turntablism to Tokyo in the 80s, or Asian-American pioneers like 90s Philadelphia trio Mountain Brothers, who released their first album before Rich Brian was even born. To tastemakers, Asian hip hop is a fashionable new trend – Spotify and Apple Music playlists describe it as a “New Era” and “The New Asia” respectively – which can be capitalised on without being truly understood.

The way we talk about Asian hip hop does not have to be essentialist. There is potential for Asian hip hop to be a powerful movement based on radical, pan-Asian unity, a rallying cry of self-determination and cross-cultural solidarity – but that potential can’t be realised if these cultures are defanged and diluted into a neatly-packaged, marketable version of Asianness. This is an understanding of Asianness that cares only about surfaces, that cares about what you look like but not about where you’re from and what you’ve been through.

This oversimplified definition of what it means to be Asian is everywhere in pop culture. The film Crazy Rich Asians, for example, was heralded as a victory for Asian representation. For Asian-Americans, who made up 38 per cent of US ticket sales, it meant the world to see themselves on screen. But in actual Asian countries, filmgoers have seen themselves represented by their own national film industries for the better part of a century. Anxieties about underrepresentation which are specific to Asian-Americans were instead attributed to all Asians, as if the storied cinematic cultures of Japan, South Korea, and a half dozen other Asian countries simply didn’t exist (note, also, that the film flopped in China). Like the totalising narrative of Asian hip hop, Crazy Rich Asians presents a single version of being Asian that leaves out most actual Asian people. Although it was set in Singapore, it effectively erased the city’s Malay and Indian minorities, instead exclusively depicting its dominant Chinese majority. Whether in film, music or elsewhere, the pop cultural moment that Asians are experiencing right now exists only in the form of a palatable, sanitised version of Asianness which perpetuates inequality rather than combating it.

Artists are resisting this, though. In “Kids”, the aforementioned Rich Brian track, Brian doesn’t just shout out Asians in general; he also shouts out Indonesians specifically, in both the lyrics (“Victorious tropical flow coming straight from Indo”) and in the song’s gorgeous music video. Filmed in Brian’s home city of Jakarta, it’s rich with the signifiers of Indonesian culture: Sundanese music cassettes, for example, or the martial art pencak silat. None of this is diluted or orientalised to pander to a western audience, nor does it kowtow to a narrative of Asian homogeneity – but it also doesn’t turn its back on Asians outside of Brian’s home country. Instead, he stands alongside them: recognising the struggle he shares with them, without effacing the nuances that make his own culture unique. When we talk about Asian hip hop, we should learn to take his cue.