Hip hop originated as a method to cope with struggles faced by African American youth back in the 1970s, and from that time period, it assumed a black image and persona. In the current time period, artists from different racial backgrounds have entered into this musical genre, and have contributed to the art in ways that many would argue is corrupting the intent of the music and the message it is trying to relay to the audiences it targets. With artists such as Blue Scholars speaking about issues that minorities are confronted with, a bridge is established that enables people of color to create a stronger bond, and connect on a level of solidarity and similarity in the oppression and discrimination faced. Asian Americans in hip hop have thus opened up a music genre to symbolize a combined force against the hegemony experienced in society, presenting it in a manner that reaches a broader audience and reaches people that are able to relate to the movement.
The issue of authenticity often pops up when examining Asian American hip hop artists, such as Blue Scholars. However, this presents an interesting debate about authenticity. What is considered authentic? Is it staying true to the roots of a certain movement or culture? Is it fueled by a genuine interest in the art? Is someone more authentic if they look the part or if their art presents itself to be fitting? Many of these questions make “authenticity” a vague area to tackle, but in this post, the term authenticity will be dealt with in terms of how well the art is utilized in the manner it was intended to be used.
In Blue Scholars’ piece titled “Yuri Kochiyama,” the idea of banding together for solidarity and justice against a hegemonic societal structure is evidenced through the lyrics that are used. The song, about a famous Japanese American human rights activist who later became an integral part of Malcolm X’s Afro-American Unity movement, carries a hip hop beat and familiar tune, one that seems to resonate with the hip hop genre. In this song, MC Geologic raps the following lines in the second verse:
“I see the picture up in Life magazine
You were sittin’ front seat for Malcolm’s last speech
Saw the first man with the shotgun (Boom)
Two more came to get the job done
Now who would’ve thought that it’d be you holding him?
I wonder what you felt when his eyes were going dim
And if he never died, would we know that he exists?
Or would he have been the leader that we always seem to miss?
Now there’s no taking back whatever happens in our midst
You remind me that it’s more than just a martyr and a myth
You could’ve said it quits many times ever since and you find
There will always be a reason for the fist
The last one to hold him could’ve been somebody else
You’d still be remembered for the people that you helped
They said to keep trying but never losing hope
Revolutionaries die, but the revolution don’t”
The full song is below:
The majority of this verse speaks a powerful message about the intent of hip hop and how an iconic death symbolizes what the relationship between minorities should be. Yuri Kochiyama, the woman to hold Malcolm X after he had been shot, represents Asian Americans holding up African Americans and vice versa. Minorities should provide each other support rather than pitting ourselves against one another. This song does an incredible job of bringing two groups together in a political framework, but also caters to a broad audience by using the medium of hip hop to relay this message. If this song had been in a different genre, the effect it intends would not have been as powerful as it is, considering the nature of the music and the message. DJ Sabzi and MC Geologic are possibly sending an even bigger message about the role of Asian Americans in hip hop through the sentiment the song portrays. Perhaps this is their response to doubts of authenticity they have encountered by others, and the meaning behind the lyrics speaks about the way in which these individuals feel about being told they are misplaced in this musical genre. Along the same lines as what is said in Yuri Kochiyama, DJ Sabzi and MC Geologic feel that Asian Americans in a historically black musical genre denote an attempt at forming a stronger foundation upon which stronger bonds and connections can be established between the groups to create an unshakeable barrier to the hegemony hip hop is attempting to dismantle.
Although the genre originated from an attempt to find light in a period of struggle, having it embrace those that do not fit its racial limits will enhance the ability of hip hop to become a form of music that breaks boundaries.