Meet Asian American Emcee Grand Master Chu

I can count on one hand the Asian American pop music artists that I know—Far East Movement, Bruno Mars and Jin. And I wouldn’t have known about Jin and his rap song, “Learn Chinese,” had I not taken a course called the History of Hip-Hop. We read an article from Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar’s book “Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap,” where he details that “part of the invisibility of Asian Americans in U.S. popular culture can be attributed to the dominant expression of ‘permanent foreigner’ status ascribed to the larger Asian American community.” But he says that Jin is successful because he uses the conventional style of hip-hop as a platform to directly address these stereotypes.

Enter Grand Master Chu, a Yale graduate in philosophy who lives in Beijing and is part of an Asian American rap project, the aptly-named Model Minority. The L.A. Times says the group “shuttles between racially colored humor and politics.” The self-described “activists” mix Mandarin with English and have recorded culturally relevant songs such as “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Sons.”

Chu recently released a solo mixtape, “The Yung Munk.” I corresponded with him about his experiences as an Asian American hip-hop artist.

As a second-generation Asian American and an emcee, how have you been influenced by your parents?

On History, from our first mixtape The Model Minority Report, I said, "When they arrived, I wonder if they knew... Did they ever fear that they could wind up in a noose? Oughta ask them bout the 70s and what's the truth...", and that line came from looking at myself and saying, wow, I'm now older than my parents were when they immigrated, they left everything and came halfway around the world—I don't know if I could have that same strength and determination.

So I look back at the '70s and '80s, the racism that they undoubtedly faced as immigrants in a new country, and I feel like that's a story that deserves to be told, that generation needs someone to chronicle and share their lives, their emotions, the fruits of their labors.

How has your intensive education affected your work?

It's kind of an Asian cliche, but... my work is so molded by that magnet school/Ivy League concept of just always being productive, and not being satisfied with mediocrity. If I have the choice to throw on a DVD, or put on a beat and write a song, I'm just used to not taking it easy, but writing on that difficult topic, or laying down that new verse, and so on. There are dichotomies: leader/follower, producer/consumer, performer/audience, and I always want myself, and my crew, to be the former.

I believe that thoughts are conveyed in both form and content—so it's not just about what you say, it's also how you say it. So, activism, it's not just being academic and talking about identity, oppression, social dynamics, etc., but it's also about giving people who aren't interested in reading a sociological treatise a piece of work—a song, an EP, a music video—that introduces these concepts to them in a relatable way.

And of course, we have those songs that more explicitly deal with our beliefs or social commentary - History, I Need a Savior. I'm real excited about this new single/music video we're dropping off the new Tiger Sons mixtape called Invisible People that deals with the lack of acknowledgment that Asian-American history receives in high school and university courses.

Given that hip-hop is not a predominantly Asian American musical genre, what do you think Asian artists bring to the table? Do you think the issue of "authenticity" in your work ever surfaces? As in, do you ever feel the pressure to prove your legitimacy as an artist to others both within the Asian community and outside of it?

I will freely admit that hip-hop in no way belongs to Asian-Americans; its roots are in the Black and Latin urban communities, and I have to pay homage and respect to the originators of the culture.

With that said, though, I do think that hip-hop has grown from its nascent stage, into a truly worldwide and diverse culture. And I have been blessed to be co-signed and affirmed by some super, genuine, street rappers. Shout out to my man SK from Brooklyn, my boys Sheemo and Cash from New Haven - hip-hop has this saying, "real recognize real," and they saw my work ethic, the way I have been refining and polishing my craft, and they basically told me, "What you're doing, keep it up, we respect that." In the end, what does it mean to be "authentic?" Does it mean recording all these street raps, about illegal activities, illicit substances, and so on?

It's a mistake to think that what makes, say, Nas, the Clipse, Eminem, or whoever "authentic" will make me "authentic" if it comes from my lips. But spitting about my family, about coming up as the only Chinese, only Asian, face in an all-White neighborhood, church, school, whatever, people resonate with that even if they didn't live that life.

And I think that Asians... what we bring to the table is as unique as each individual. Far East Movement, right now, has that super glossy superstar club vibe, there's underground lyricists like Gowe, Bambu, etc. absolutely killing it with their passion and vibe and consciousness, and there's dudes who are authentically representing that street life, like 454 Entertainment. We all bring our own stories, lifestyles, background, ambition, and dreams - and of course, being Asian-American is part of the background, whether obvious or nigh-indiscernible.

For a taste of Grand Master Chu’s work, check out his song “Overachiever.” What does this title refer to? You do the math.