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Hip-hop: a musical bridge between cultures

Justin Lai from Sydney Boys High School is the NSW winner of the Plain English Speaking Award. Here is his winning speech.

Justin Lai with the Plain English Speaking award

Justin Lai will now compete at the national final of the Plain English Speaking Award.

Asian hip-hop has typically struggled to break into the Western mainstream. The closest anyone came previously was MC Jin and his song ‘Learn Chinese’ in 2004 – a rather one-dimensional view of Asian-American identity in a genre that, at the time, was still growing.

However, concepts of Asian-ness have expanded since then – becoming more complex, and true to life. With the increasing globalisation of the world, China - one of the most traditional and conservative cultures - has opened its borders to a consumable mass media, and its influences have been very apparent.

Sonically, Asian hip-hop draws influence from trap (an offshoot of hip-hop that originated in the south of the US particularly around Atlanta), and notably American sounds – but often incorporates the traditional sounds of Oriental music such as plucking of the mandolin, or the harmonising of voices in Chinese opera.

Culture is something that’s now no longer a tradeoff, but an inexorable part of this musical identity.

I love this music because it’s bold.

Whether it's flexing fashion brands or simply conversing about the everyday, it is music that is challenging, conspicuous, and most of all creative. It is music that breaks the lines we draw in the sand. It is music that, most importantly, by its very nature, confronts our entrenched perceptions of Asian people. The very fact people find the idea of an Asian rapper so confusing speaks to that.

While that in itself is important, there are many issues with being Asian in hip-hop.

That’s because hip-hop is seen as the music of the underdog, the voice of the marginalised. And as a result of this, we've distilled our perception of these artists into two categories: Black and male. To speak out on certain issues and to glorify a certain lifestyle, there has to be an aggression, an anger, a hyper-masculinity. Everything people perceive Asians to not be.

Writing for NBC News in February 2018, Christina Lee observed that no matter how close to mainstream success Asian rappers come, they must confront the idea that they don’t belong in hip-hop.

This is a concept that speaks volumes about the issues of representation, and of cultural stereotypes facing Asian people today. Because the world views Asians as the silent majority. Passive, unassuming, and often effeminate.

Take a look at the previous Asian hits in Western music: you've got the dandy-like Psy galloping along to Gangnam Style, and more recently the emergence of Korean music groups like BTS, or Red Velvet. The complete antithesis of what hip-hop is believed to be.

It's often thought Asian rappers are simply trying too hard to fit in. That their extravagant lifestyles, larger than life bravura and all-around demeanor are just an attempt to mimic the maximalist successes of more visible hip-hop stars. That they’ve been foregoing racial and cultural authenticity in exchange for a quick dose of fame. There's a hypocrisy that emerges here - Asian hip-hop deemed too Asian is rejected by Western audiences, but when it parrots black culture, and traditional rap influences, then cries of cultural appropriation come to the fore.

It's kind of concerning that the problems Asians face have a degree of universality to them. Society is happy to box us into certain identities that Westerners are comfortable with; and it’s certainly not been the first time that that's been the case.

Just think about your stereotypical Asian career paths; your doctors, lawyers, scientists. Think about how less than 5% of leadership positions in government, universities, and top companies are held by people of non-European background. Think about how Pauline Hanson warned about how the honest suburbs of Australia were being “swamped by Asians”. It’s a familiar tight-rope to walk. The thin, yellow line between standing out too much, and not standing out at all.

And that's the problem with a music world all too unreceptive to contemporary Asian hip-hop. We often forget the universality of the genre in its ability to provide a voice where there often is none.

For the African American community, it was an opportunity to speak out against trenchant social injustices. For Asians, it has become a fight against the stereotype, against the hegemonic perceptions that deem us quiet and weak.

When was the last time you saw an Asian guy with coloured hair and tattoos? When was the last time you saw an Asian artist of any sort on Sunrise, or Today, instead of the typical doctors and mathematicians?

The dialogue needs to extend beyond simple representation - we need to rethink the way we perceive Asians in not only music, but in society as a whole. This sort of music isn’t some cheap and tokenistic method to turn to the spotlight, but instead a way to involve ourselves within the global race dynamic, within cultural relativism and mainstream media representation.

At a time where the lines between culture and race are beginning to blur, and break down, why should we segregate and enforce stereotype?

Popular constructions of blackness and Asian-ness only continue to hold us back from negotiating a truly multicultural society. Hip-hop has become the bridge between cultures that has transcended continents - the flag under which two vastly different cultures can exist. It's led to a fascinating convergence, a melting pot of different ideas and sounds all mixing to create a definitively contemporary music.

So maybe the next time you see a new single by an Asian hip-hop artist, give it a listen. Understand that it's borne from a respect and reverence of hip-hop, and a desire to break the mould. And who knows? Maybe you’ll discover something you haven’t before, something that you’ll like. Because in a world that reckons all Asians look the same, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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