Monday, April 15, 2013

Word To Your Mother.

Asians And Hip-Hop Machismo.

I came across this article written back in 2005 by African-American activist/writer, Kenyon Farrow, in which he explores the (to him and others, probably) irritating appropriation of rap music and culture by wannabe Asians.

I won't go into great depth about Farrow's charge of appropriation of culture simply because most culture is appropriated in some way or another (and is not an implicitly bad thing), often with the result that those who have appropriated a style, art form, or belief system, have taken it to new heights it may not have reached otherwise. For example, the "hand-gun machismo" present in hip-hop culture wouldn't be possible without the anonymous Chinese alchemists whose culture produced both the gunpowder and the first guns. What we would be left with, instead, is the more absurd notion of "popping arrows", or "slingshot" in opponents' asses instead of "caps".

Facetiousness aside, short of authoritarian legislation enforcing strict cultural segregation of those deemed unworthy to participate in a particular form, the idea of "illegal" or "unfair" cultural appropriation is too vague, and simply, silly, to foster any meaningful discussion. Unless you are stealing specific works or limiting opportunities, then trying to limit the transaction of cultural ideas or structures is little more than petty posturing.

But what most interested me about the article, is the idea that young Asian men are looking to the hyper-masculinity of black hip-hop as a potential model for their own burgeoning masculine identities. This would make sense; a group that is culturally emasculated would logically be attracted to the most opposite extreme of the hyper-masculinity of hip-hop. Yet, strange as it may sound, despite what may seem to be obvious displays of masculine power, I think that "hip-hop masculinity" is actually nothing of the sort, and, in fact, is too limited in scope to offer Asian boys (and perhaps any boy) a meaningful masculine identity that can foster their maturity into manhood.

Ostensibly, this sounds odd - ghetto-spawned hip-hop evolved out of a culture of want, discrimination, toughness, and rebellion, producing men who were confrontational, aggressive, sexualized, tough, and uncompromising. These men would rip your head off if you so much as looked at them the wrong way. And if we look at the present-day ghettos of the US, we might see that this type of masculinity seems dominant; confrontational, aggressive, and uncompromising. Of course, hip-hop - especially in the popular perception of it - reflects these characteristics.

Yet, my sense is that what is portrayed or perceived as hyper-masculine is not really as masculine as we think. In the course of my internet travels I happened across an article called "Myth Of The Ghetto Alpha Male" I believe written by a black blogger. The gist of the post is that ghetto hyper-masculinity is largely over-rated. The reasoning is that due to the circumstances of the ghetto, young African-American males are largely raised in environments controlled by women because most of the older men are either dead or imprisoned. Men - importantly older men - are largely absent in the fostering of young black male identities, leaving young African-American boys to scavenge their masculinity from their innate testosterone, and a masculinity learned from women. He describes the consequences thus.......
Supermacho, obnoxious, fearless to the point of knuckleheaded, overaggressive…basically the parody of manhood we see in gangster rap. It’s overcompensation to the worst degree.....But even though they are doing their best to be superthug, they still end up doing things in a subtly feminine (not effeminate) way because feminine influences are most of what they know....

.....Most of their role models and involved family members are women, and the few men in their lives were likely raised by only women too. And it shows in how they handle conflict: grudges are held forever, they never know how to let anything slide, they think primarily with emotion and are prone to outbursts, drama and confrontation and most importantly, they don’t know how to choose their battles. True male behavior isn’t being a drama queen, emotional outbursts and holding onto grudges...
A chick in the hood can get away with all the drama queen meltdowns and public displays of emotion and confrontation....When guys are the ones getting overly emotional and confrontational, it’s a lot scarier and it invites a much more serious retaliation, because now the behavior’s coming from a man, which means possible escalation into serious, possibly fatal, violence.
Although I agree that lacking older male role models and guides wreaks havoc with masculinity, I don't necessarily agree that what the author has described above can truly be said to be feminine. Yes, the emotionalism is feminine, but whereas what is being described above is emotionally confrontational, women tend not to use their emotional skills in that way. I think it is more accurate to say that this kind of behaviour is juvenile, or even childish, and childlike, as opposed to feminine. Boys who who come into manhood without the input of older, wiser, mature, men, remain childish adults.

Children and juveniles are impulsive, sometimes unreasonably aggressive, overly emotional, seldom utilize rational thinking to choose reasonable actions, poor at compromise, argumentative, and are poor at managing their emotions. This corresponds more closely with the type of behaviour described in the quoted piece, as well as more closely resembles the kind of affect and attitude present in much popular hip-hop; ostensibly masculine posturing, but if we were to be honest we would admit that it is actually juvenile (and to be fair, I tend to see all popular culture as juvenile in some ways). It would seem obvious then, that hip-hop's childishly aggressive posturing parading as pseudo-masculinity is a poor basis upon which to build a genuine masculine identity for Asian boys and probably even for young black boys. You cannot learn masculinity from juveniles.

Strangely enough, Asian-Americans also have a similar process of femininizing and infantilizing how Asian men interact with mainstream America. Because it is the voices of Asian females that have reached the mainstream consciousness, Asian men have adopted the feminine manner of commentary. As I have pointed out in several previous posts, our tendency to continually frame our commentary of race issues through the framework of our passive emotional responses - notably by being "offended" - illustrates just how profoundly we have adopted the passive and unthreatening feminine voice as the voice of our masculinity. It may be that the hyper-aggression of hip-hop is speaking to an aspect of Asian youths' innate masculinity that our own Asian-American culture may not cater to.

So, although I can see why hip-hop's charismatic pseudo-masculinity would appeal to young Asian boys who notice their cultural invisibility in mainstream America, it seems to be little more than the immature parody of true manhood. This is not to say that Asian-American boys should reject hip-hop as a means to explore their cultural voice - culture can sometimes be utilized as a tool for self-exploration. Plus, despite the prickly negativity of Farrow's article, Asians exploring the culture of African-Americans - particularly in light of black/Asian racial tensions - can only lead to good things. Farrow has this to say....... 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?
By referring to the historical exploitative appropriation of black culture by white people Farrow paints an  understandably bleak, yet, incomplete picture of the phenomenon. Yes, white people stole black artists' songs, styles, and adopted their culture, but it was also a small minority of whites who brought black music to the public consciousness in genuine ways that could be said to have led to the explosion of mainstream black artists into the mainstream charts in the 1960's. It was white British musicians of the late 1950's and early 1960's  who were fans of obscure black blues and R&B musicians that brought these styles and their black originators to the public attention and which might be said to have contributed to the softening of attitudes such that it fostered opportunities for black artists where they didn't exist previously.

So as uncomfortable as it might be to admit, the white "presence" in black culture has been both mostly extremely negative but also positive - and who can say whether, overall, the white presence won't turn out to have been resulted in something that was ultimately positive? I see no reason to see why the Asian "presence" in black culture would not or should not be a positive thing - just don't take the hyper-masculinity too seriously!


  1. Also, don't forget how a lot of Kpop is influenced by black "hiphop/rap" music from the states. Which is of course from Blacks. I also find it funny how many Kpop fans and those in the industry are noticeably mute in admitting to this fact.

    Racist much?

    1. I honestly don't know much about KPop, but I wouldn't be surprised that it is influenced by black American music - all modern popular music is black derived. The question is; how much deference is enough? And what does it look like?

      Does there need to be a disclaimer with every I-Tunes purchase or CD that points out the black roots of pop music? Should there be a special tax on Asian musicians who enjoy playing black music? And who would be the beneficiaries? Black musicians specifically or the black community in general?

      I don't think that it is feasible to trademark "culture" so that a culture receives some kind of royalties. The sentiments that the Farrow post seems to be voicing are little more than petty insinuation wrapped up in sweepingly vague - but, to me unconvincing - rhetoric about black liberation. Obviously, the guy doesn't appreciate Asians adopting rap culture, but my sense is that it is not so much about black liberation, but that he just doesn't like Asians being in rap culture.

    2. Due to my capacity of empathy, I have just to say:

      Ever culture/society on Earth has borrowed/stolen/adopted/copied someone from another culture/society at various times of its existence. A group of people are going to borrow/copy/steal/adopt something from someone else because one of their own thought it was a "fad" - for better or for worse.

      Kenyon Farrow has a point, but he didn't accept the point that I just stated here. Now some people might wonder if this is happening today? Of course it is - on many levels. Take for example cars: you have car companies from different parts of the globe who just 100 years ago hated/competed against each other who are now copying each others designs. This is to the point that most cars look a like cosmetically. As one Italian car designer (from Ferrari I think) said during the Shanghai Auto Show (I think in 2011): "Everyone is copying from each other. Now it all depends on how good the copies are."

    3. I think that Farrow didn't really make his point very well - although I completely agree that black culture has been exploited by whites whilst simultaneously excluding blacks.

      Yet there is absolutely no way that Asian-Americans have anywhere near the kind of power that whites have and had, there is no way that the social/political position of blacks relative to Asians is anywhere near that of black and white, and when you consider that more African-Americans have more control over their own music than at the time of white appropriations of black culture, then it becomes apparent that Farrow is calling a cow a pig, and expressing a sentiment that is barely different from nativism.

      But you have made a good point that culture cannot be frozen and clearly defined because there are usually myriad influences but specific details that might identify it as unique to a group.

    4. Asian americans should draw on their own home-grown traditions of musical composition and instrumentation but as the story goes, too lazy/embarrassed of their own culture/busy being whitewashed to take any interest to do so.

  2. Rap is an artform and just as much owned by blacks as black artists such as Wu Tang clan who popularised their dance moves from Chinese gung fu movies

  3. ' Because it is the voices of Asian females that have reached the mainstream consciousness, Asian men have adopted the feminine manner of commentary. '

    Because we are cornered on all sides - if we express against IR, we look like we are whinging, if we complain about racism, we are oversensitive in contrast to asian women who are choosing to eradicate racism by breeding out the asian gene, asian men are stuck with blogging.

    Unfortunately, as a passive form of expression, it does little to create a community, although has the safety of influencing other individuals thoughts 'in the hope' that others will listen. But again because it has no structure, even if the blogging world knows it, unless it is openly said disapprovingly in the manner that deserves justice, it will be a challenge for asian men to establish their male identity in the western world, regardless of the amount of manny pacquios, asian men need to create a structure that we can establish to rely on each other to voice what each other is thinking, not so much of this individualist stance that speaks out, then everyone agrees, then someone else speaks out, then another agrees, then we all forget what we said. this is not structure, its ...a mess.

    1. Anon

      Thanks for your comment and some interesting points.

      I think that blogging has huge potential to shape the way that people think and interact with mainstream America. It could be a great platform for intra-Asian dialogue and debate, but most people aren't using to delve too deeply into our experiences, which is sad.

      As for IR I think that Asian men approach the subject with too much emotionalism and not enough reason - that is why any discussion on IR degrades into slugfests.

    2. My point was Ben that instead of remaining anonymous online, issues are spooned around like someone wants someone else to fix it, whilst open discussion offline creates public recognition.

      I guess the issue, for me, is when will asians decide that these matters are enough to warrant public discussion. You cannot create a real sense of community without open discussion. Blogging about it will only create an artificial reality, and keep one in ones comfort zone.

      Regarding IR, by discussing offline in reality as opposed to on blogs, maybe a practical solution can be found. But even in Chinese culture, the common question is to ask whether the father or mother is white. And it probably is the biggest issue that affects the community. But its one that some people seem embarrassed to talk about because they may think its okay for the other person. And this is partly why there is never any real progress, the rhetoric regardless of emotional attachment perpetuates.

      Asians need to know theres a place that we can discuss issues. regardless of whether some agree, some dont care, etc. Debate is debate. If you cant debate ideas in the western world or show to have any opinion on the matter, that makes you a shallow person. I dont think the majority of asians are shallow, they just dont have somewhere to discuss such issues to create a sense of community, but blogging about it repeatedly doesnt solve things either.