Seoul Train: an Asian in Hip-Hop

My life and Hip-Hop are synonymous. We were both born in 1978 for instance. We both experienced a ‘Golden Era’ at the same time. We both found ways to remain relevant in the present. And so much more.

How does anyone relate to Hip-Hop? Through similar struggles as narrated by the artists? Through a similar lifestyle? Through these ‘mean’ streets? Or is it through similar cultural values, knowledge of the world and its many inhabitants and finding those with a similar vibe? A combination maybe?

For me it was instant love. The rhythm. The swag. The bravado, the pain, the hope, the narratives of universal struggle and overcoming. Especially the struggle and overcoming. Some things are meant to be related to literally, others are not so easy to define.

So my influences range wildly. From Rakim to KRS, NWA to UGK and Goodie Mob, from Jay-Z, Biggie, Jada and Nas to Pac, Snoop, Too Short and YG. From MC Lyte to Rapsody. And these are just some of the more well-known names.

Like Guru once said “It’s mostly the voice that gets you up” and this is very true for me. I was into G-Unit because they were very much about that voice. They all had different vocal tones that matched really well and this is no coincidence. Their members were chosen because of it, I’m sure of it.

When I started MC’ing myself I very much gravitated towards East Coast styles. People reacted strangely to my voice, with most of them saying it sounded like Eminem. No clue why, but that is what they felt like. But when they would actually see me, initially I would get reactions like “Yo, I thought you were black” and “What’s wrong with your eyes?” to people throwing things on stage when I was performing. This ended very quickly when it became apparent that I could actually do it (well) and that is when it all finally changed to respect.

When I started touring as a keyboardist I got very similar initial reactions that eventually changed to respect as well, but this still had me asking myself why. Why is it so strange that an Asian artist participates in and contributes to the culture?

Since the beginning Asians and Latinos have played a role in what is universally accepted as a Black culture. But we have often been accused of cultural appropriation. Even Bruno Mars of all people went through it, in my view for no good reason. Yet, when Nicki Minaj did it, we got flak for speaking up against it. That is unfair. Why? Because in many cases, like Bruno Mars, we pay homage to the culture that we owe our existence to as artists, like is common in many arts circles around the world.

I am aware of more recent instances where Asian artists have said and done questionable, ignorant and sometimes outright racist things (like the blackface images) that have nothing to do with cultural appropriation so I am obviously not talking about those. I will save that for another post. However, I will say this: I am mentioning these things to get them out of the way. So they will not cloud any judgments.

Back to what I was saying: Why is it that when Psy broke the internet with ‘Gangnam Style’ the so-called ‘Hip-Hop’ memes made fun of him and Asians as a whole? One might not consider the song a Hip-Hop song off the bat and it surely is far from my top 10 Hip-Hop songs of all time. However, think about this: the song is actually looking at society critically and it features an artist rapping (it’s definitely not singing!). Two critical ingredients that have defined Hip-Hop music through the decades. The music has always reflected certain vibes to go with the lyrics, going from sampled breaks to live instrumentation to the EDM-style arrangements and drops of today. So when Lil Jon decided to use his Nord Lead as his sound source it was ground breaking. But when Psy goes on an EDM / Pop track all of a sudden it’s a joke? Something is not right.

This is a subject that I wrote about during my studies at SOAS (an MMUS in Ethnomusicology) because in Jazz it is a very similar story. It is sad, really.

In the US, there is a binary culture where predominantly Black and White exist and, already at the fringes, Asians and Latinos are silenced, barred or both. Look at Jin for example. Highly skilled, signed by Ruff Ryders in their prime, but not as successful as he should have been. And more recently, Aziatix, a Korean group who were signed by YMCMB. Not many people even know about them outside of Korea and the Koreatowns around the world. Were they signed to keep them in line? So they could be sidetracked before they would blow up too much? I wonder…

Fortunately it is artists like Jay Park and Dok2 who are now at the point where they no longer have to depend on Western media and this binary culture to enjoy successes outside Asia. It is artists like this who propel global Hip-Hop culture forward. Because it is about time to show the world that outside of America, there is no longer a thing as binary culture.

Where does that leave me? I take pride in being one of Europe’s pioneers, being the first Asian artist in Europe to play B’estival, one of the biggest festivals. And I may be a veteran of the Hip-Hop scene, I still have many years of music ahead of me.

Watch this space.