Kim: Blurred lines in Asian, Asian American approaches to hip-hop prompt further thought, criticism

Yvonne Kim, Opinion Editor

Though I enjoyed every moment of the Korean American Student Association’s KASA show on Friday, I can confidently say that my personal highlight of the night was a brief moment that others may have easily overlooked.

In between songs, Lyricks — half of hip-hop duo Year of the Ox — told the audience he thought the show was amazing beyond the performances, dance or music. He said he felt a real, tangible sense of “Korean pride” among students. For me, and many of my fellow exec members in the crowd, this statement made our countless hours of hard work and planning feel worth it. But upon further reflection, it was also a thought-provoking statement in its reflection of YOX’s two intersecting identities as Korean Americans and hip-hop artists.

With the rise of Korean hip-hop, its racial politics are becoming more of a hot topic — if not on the Korean mainland itself, then surely overseas in the United States, where race is a constant and salient issue underlying conversations about music. While capitalizing off of music that is historically and fundamentally a black art form, Korean rappers most often fail to be aware of or address the implications that come with this practice. While KASA chose not to invite other potential headliners from Korea — due to issues like culturally appropriative hairstyles or lack of Korean American themes in their music — we found ourselves excited to invite YOX as artists who suited our student group’s goal of representing our identities. Yet the lines of what is acceptable still remain blurred when it comes to the genre.

After KASA hosted R&B sensation DEAN last year, expectations were high for this year’s show. Though much of our campus seemed to be anticipating another huge Korean star to perform at NU, I constantly reminded myself that the purpose of a group like KASA is to represent and celebrate Korean Americanness. Our outgoing outreach chair, Justine Kim, said though Korean artists — perhaps due to the relative lack of race-centered conversations in Asia — often simply equate blackness to being “cool,” American artists often represent a stronger connection to the cultural context of hip-hop’s origins as a black art.

There is certainly a different kind of history with the way Korean American hip-hop artists — such as YOX, or previous KASA show headliners Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina — interact with the genre when compared to Korean artists. And rapper JL, the other half of YOX, seemed to relate to this when I asked him about the subject before the show. He said it comes down to being aware of the art’s culture, and using it as a genuine form of expression instead of appropriating or imitating black rappers. He said the duo has done its part to earn respect within the hip-hop community. They have taken the music seriously and consistently proven to create quality work, which makes their hip-hop more credible in the music scene, he said.

YOX’s music and lyrics are explicitly representative of their racial identity. In their hit song “Seven Rings,” Lyricks responds to doubts or criticisms about his identity: “F— do you mean I really rap?” And in the timely music video for “Jet Lag,” he re-enacts the viral video of Vietnamese American doctor David Dao being violently dragged across the aisle of a United Airlines airplane in April.

In contrast, much of Korean hip-hop has treated the genre almost as a commodity, exoticizing what they call “black music” with foreign models, black slang and gaudy music videos with expensive cars and jewelry. In fact, this is practically the brand of music companies like Illionaire Records, whose artists are well-known for their flashy lifestyles, and hip-hop based television shows. These flood the mainstream media with rap music, and have gained prominence throughout Asia and worldwide; but there is little to no awareness, both by creators and audience, that they are disrespectfully appropriating and stripping the genre of its value by simplifying it into an easily digestible entertainment form.

This is not to say that Asian American hip-hop is inherently acceptable; in fact, that’s far from it. Anti-blackness is real and prevalent in the very Asian and Asian American communities that celebrate this music. Further, it is rare to find artists who understand the spaces they take up, or that they are privileged to be able to perform hip-hop without the same racial repercussions faced by black artists. As hip-hop continues to gain popularity both in Korean and Korean American spheres, it is only logical that we continue to question what it means for us to enjoy and benefit from a genre that was not originally meant for us.

Artists like YOX pose questions about how art is to be consumed. Justine said while Korean rappers only compete against one another, with minimal consideration of black media or art, artists like YOX are aware that they are influenced by and can “take up space from (the black) community.” In this sense, YOX was able to bring to KASA show what domestic Korean hip-hop artists could not: both a cognizant performance of hip-hop music, and a simultaneous exploration of Korean Americanness. And just as I felt more affirmed in our decision to host YOX while watching their performance, I can only hope that continuing to internally critique Korean and Korean American creators’ work as Koreans and Korean Americans will lead us to more rich, sensitive and empowering music.

Yvonne Kim is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members at The Daily Northwestern.