The exhibition “Don't Believe the Hype: L.A. Asian Americans in Hip Hop” runs through November 4, 2018 at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles.
Growing up, Chinese-American rapper Jason Chu’s choices for role models were pretty limited. “It was only Martin Yan on “Yan Can Cook” and Yo-Yo Ma and that one tennis player (Michael Chang). Those were the only Asian faces ever that I saw” in popular culture, Chu recalled.
But instead of cooking or classical music, Chu found community and connection in a genre once dominated by African-American and Latinx artists. “The aesthetic of hip-hop… is freedom and authenticity,” he said. “It’s a powerful force. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Chu is one of several Asian-Pacific American artists sharing their stories in the exhibition “Don't Believe the Hype: L.A. Asian Americans in Hip Hop,” which opened in May and runs through November 2018 at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles.
Curated by Justin Charles Hoover and Ninochka “Nosh” McTaggart, the show examines hip-hop as a tool for “resistance, refuge and reinvention” through the perspectives of Asian-Pacific American iconoclasts such as Filipino-American DJ Babu, known for his work with World Famous Beat Junkies; Indian-American artist Nisha Sethi, whose henna-inspired works quote A Tribe Called Quest; and Japanese-American painter Gajin Fujita, whose gilded pieces blend graffiti, pop culture and centuries-old art.
Hip-hop offers “this safe space where people can express themselves (freely) and unify under this love of this culture,” said McTaggart, whose doctoral dissertation — “Don't Believe the Hype: Gender and Interracial Relations Between Asian Americans and Blacks in Hip-Hop" — inspired the exhibition.
“Don’t Believe the Hype” represents the full range of hip-hop culture, from breakdancing and graffiti to DJs and MCs.
The show also explores some of the institutions that have helped hip-hop flourish in the greater Los Angeles area, such as the dance troupe Culture Shock, the DJ school Beat Junkie Institute of Sound, and Firecracker!, the multicultural Chinatown music series that co-creator Daryl Chou described as “a party with a conscience.” We were able to maintain a very diverse and inclusive gathering for over a decade” starting in the late-1990s, Chou said. “It was really a flashpoint for every community to meet, to gather, to exchange ideas.”
“Don’t Believe the Hype” is about “racial identity in hip-hop — but, in a way hip-hop allowed people to get beyond their racial identity,” Hoover said, creating “communities of affinity that came together to support each other” through music. “It wasn’t about being Filipino-American or being Chinese-American or being Japanese-American. It was about being a musician.”
“We are not just our racial background… We’re not just our race or our gender,” McTaggart added. “We take influence and inspiration from our community, our environment, our city.”
To find the germ of Southern California’s hip-hop scene, you’d have to journey to Los Angeles in the early 1980s. It was then that b-boys practiced popping and locking on the streets, graffiti artists tagged L.A. freeways in broad daylight, and radio stations like KDAY and 1580 AM mixed rap music with R&B and soul. “Beat Street” and “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” packed movie theaters; “Style Wars” thrilled as a produced-for-television movie. “Those were the days when I started seeing the influence of this wave of hip-hop coming out of the East Coast,” Fujita recalled. “It took L.A. by storm.”
The son of two immigrant artists — his father specialized in abstract landscape paintings, while his mother restored Japanese antiquities — Fujita grew up in Boyle Heights. He recalled how at his predominantly Latinx elementary school “literally, you could count all the Asian kids on one hand. There’s a little bit of prejudgment,” he acknowledged. “Because you’re Asian, they think you’re instantly smart, and they try to cheat off your tests.”
He met future friend and collaborator Alex Kizu, aka Defer, while bussing to the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies in Mid-City. The experience “really broadened my horizons and opened my eyes to take in a bigger part of the city,” Fujita recalled, as well as the possibilities it provided for renegade artists with a prankster streak. As early members of influential graffiti crews KGB and K2S, he and Defer made their marks on L.A., flaunting the law and each other’s ambitions. “The competition among the graffiti artists really drew me to get better at this craft,” Fujita said.
But it wasn’t until he was a graduate student at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, listening to art critic Dave Hickey, that his culture-clash style crystallized. “My development materialized when he said the words, ‘Art should be a violation of expectations,’” Fujita recalled. “That was like a slap on my face to wake up.”
Blending traditional Japanese techniques and imagery such as samurai, dragons and demons with cartoon characters, skate graphics and sports logos, each gold leaf-and-spray paint piece is an act of defiance aimed at “violating people’s eyes … and people’s minds.”
As Filipino-Americans DJs following in the footsteps of Mix Master Mike and DJ Qbert, Beat Junkies bandmates DJ Babu (aka Chris Oroc) and DJ Rhettmatic (aka Nazareth Nirza) fought to defy cultural expectations as well as artistic ones. Some of the greatest challenges have come from within their own community, said Babu, who said he needed to make “noise on an international level to get acceptance here at home.”
“We had to work against the system on both sides,” recalled Rhettmatic, who grew up in Cerritos. “My parents hella frowned on (my profession): ‘What, you’re going to dee-jay scratch-scratch for the rest of your life?’” His parents, also first-generation immigrants from the Philippines, often told him: “You should be a doctor, be a lawyer, be an architect, be an engineer.” Babu, who spent his formative years in Oxnard, reflected, “I felt alone when I was at my mom and dad’s house. Nobody knew what I was doing.”
“When I found the Beat Junkies — or they found me — I really felt like I had people to talk to,” added Babu, who co-founded the crew in 1992 with Rhettmatic and J.Rocc. The diverse lineup of Beat Junkies includes D-Styles, Melo-D and Mr. Choc. As members of SoCal’s first turntable band, Babu and Rhettmatic have won individual and team titles, including International Turntablist Federation World Team Champions. They’ve appeared in the documentaries “Scratch” and “Keepintime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl.” They’ve also found success as members of other groups; Babu with Dilated Peoples and Rhettmatic with Visionaries.
“Hip-hop has taken me around the world at least 10 times. How many people can say that? How many people can say, ‘All the heroes I grew up listening to I became friends with?’” Rhettmatic said. “You couldn’t tell me, a young Rhett, that 10, 20 years ago. I’d be like, ‘Huh?’”
Hip-hop has also helped the DJ reclaim his heritage. Listening to Public Enemy proclaim “Power to the People” and Kid Frost rap for “La Raza” it helped him to realize that he, too, could speak about his own culture from a point of pride. “I’m hearing these guys talking about being proud of their culture,” he said. “Hip-hop helped me become the person I am and helped me appreciate who I am and my culture.” Echoed Babu: “I’m more proud than ever to be a Filipino-American doing what I’m doing.”
Still, the pair said, they’ve had to fight in the face of competitors who do a better job at fitting the image of a stereotypical hip-hop star. “We had to work 10 times harder to get respect,” Rhettmatic said. “Me, being Filipino American, I felt like I had to prove myself at a higher level” than other DJs, Babu said. “It always put a fire under me to improve myself.” “At the end of the day,” added Rhettmatic, “you had to have the skills. If you were dope — if you were really good — they’d respect you.”
Chu, the rapper, identifies with that kind of drive. “You can never stagnate. You can never get comfortable. When you’re comfortable in your art, that’s when you’re dead.” Chu, who grew up in Delaware but who now calls Los Angeles home, was 13 when a friend introduced him to rap music. “We would sit together in Latin class, he said,” and swap burned CDs — Jay-Z, Eminem, Ruff Ryders. “Listening to these stories from black and brown voices, it unleashed something in me,” Chu recalled. “You see something that’s beautiful, and naturally you want to participate. The question is, 'How do you participate with authenticity, compared to mimicry?’” Chu said. “The question is, ‘Do I wear a do-rag?’ and the answer is ‘No.’”
He decided, “I’m not going to be an iconic artist by mimicking black people. I’m going to be an artist by showing people what’s going on in the hearts of Asian people, of Chinese people.”
He’s dedicated his career to spreading a message of hope, healing and justice, speaking directly to those trapped, like himself, between the two stereotypes of the mild-mannered “model minority” and the thuggish “hood Asian.” “You can be smart and tame, or you can be hood or wild,” he was told. “My life up to today can't be characterized that way.” Neither can the lives of the young men in his current crew, Beijing Boiz. “Now we have this critical mass of people who grew up in both cultures,” and identify as both Asian and American, he said.
Chu said he’s heartened to see a shift in the status quo. “Right now, hip-hop culture, Asian pop culture, urban culture, is definitely finding its moment,” he said. “I see this tipping point where young Asians see people who look like them (being heard) and that’s immense. It just opens up the possibilities much wider.”
Top Image: SWANK in "Don't Believe the Hype" | CAM and FStop/Farah Sosa