“Made in China,” a music video that’s been viewed 10 million times on YouTube, seems like the phrase “East meets West” come to life: The production is a blend of hi-hat beats found in American trap music and traditional Chinese drums, and the video explodes with the colors of mahjong tables, pagodas, bright red lanterns and sporty tracksuits.
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The Higher Brothers, the Chengdu-based rap group behind “Made in China,” has collaborated with up-and-comer Ski Mask the Slump God and embarked on a 12-city American tour that began in February. They’re not the only Asian artists to have hit it big Stateside these past few years. Indonesian rapper Rich Brian (Brian Imanuel, formerly known as Rich Chigga) went viral in 2016 at age 16 with the track “Dat $tick,” which has since racked up more than 90 million views on YouTube. He was certified gold and has worked on projects with the likes of Ghostface Killah and 21 Savage. Korean rapper Keith Ape, a standout on the 2015 hit “It G Ma,” has similarly clinched impressive Denzel Curry and A$AP Ferg features.
At Mochi, we celebrate Asian and Asian American work that captures attention beyond our own community. But upon a closer look, it’s clear that some fans and artists have exhibited problematic behavior or perpetuated stereotypes. At the same time, some have been quick to mock these rising Asian rappers and rely on racial stereotypes rather than seriously listening to them as artists.
This begs the question: To what degree are these “East meets West” successes, or are they “East steals from West and West exoticizes East” situations? As these artists make their way into Internet stardom and Spotify playlists, it’s worth asking if they’ll usher in a new era for Asian artists reaching U.S. fame—or if they’ll be pigeonholed as “foreign” rappers.
Pros and cons
With Imanuel, the Internet was taken aback that a lanky 16-year-old from Indonesia could deliver “shockingly hard rap flow,” especially while wearing a fanny pack and a pink polo shirt buttoned to the top, as Imanuel’s does in the “Dat $tick” music video. And that is the crux of his cultural significance: Imanuel is overturning people’s assumptions and proving that a skinny Asian kid wearing khaki shorts can be cool.
That’s precisely the mission of 88rising, a “hybrid management, record label, video production, and marketing company,” as founder Sean Miyashiro described. “Your typical person does not think an Asian guy is cool or aspirational or attractive,” Miyashiro told Forbes. “So we are these new generation rockstars…We’re inherently cool.”
Although heralded as fresh voices, these artists have at times blurred the line between taking inspiration from American rap and appropriating it. Regarding the creative process behind “Dat $tick,” Imanuel says he wanted to “recreate” the “scary shit” in trap music, even though he “didn’t live any of” the content he was talking about. He also uses the n-word, and essentially the song that netted him virality and a following is based on a stereotypical view of rap, one that’s about “bool” (even though he’s not Blood or gang affiliated) and Maseratis (even though he doesn’t care about cars and “drove a minivan”).
Similarly, the Higher Brothers have been accused of appropriating black culture. One of the members, MaSiWei, said he learned how to dress from watching rap videos, and perhaps that’s what is also behind the dreads worn by him and Psy.P, another member of the group. Some argue it isn’t okay for a non-black individual to wear this hairstyle. For example, when Jeremy Lin debuted his dreads, the Huffington Post argued that it was disrespectful for a non-black person to sport something “symbolic of blackness and black culture,” and something that can subject black people to derision and job loss. Additionally, in songs like November’s “Flo Rida” and January’s “Room Service,” the guys mention phrases more likely to be found in Migos or Future tracks than in Chinese culture: “broke-ass bitches,” “purple shit” (a reference to the codeine-laced drink called lean) and “white hoe,” to name a few.
It seems like these rappers have adopted the “imitation is a form of flattery” approach, without understanding the deeper implications of their actions. Artists have a huge influence on their audiences, and what’s to stop Higher Brothers fans in China from wearing dreads, grills and glorifying drug abuse?
Outside looking in
Acceptance of these rappers didn’t happen from the get-go either, for reasons beyond accusations of appropriation. The comment section of the “Dat $tick” music video is littered with offensive jokes like “I loved u in rush hour fam,” “I don’t speak sushi” and “when the asians are allowed to skip piano practice.” A lot of the commentary surrounding the song focused on the surprise factor of an Asian kid sounding like a grown adult, rather than serving as legitimate praise.
In a genre that’s been around since the late 1970s, there has never been an Asian artist who reached mainstream fame—and maintained it—in the United States. Far East Movement had a brief place in pop culture with “Like a G6” in 2010, but then faded in relevance; while Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became a worldwide sensation, but the song was treated as a catchy joke instead of sincere artistry. Even K-pop, which has become a massive machine in the U.S., is still viewed (perhaps unfairly) as the domain of young fan girls instead of “serious” music listeners. Contemporary Asian American rappers such as Awkwafina and Dumbfoundead get more credibility, but their music is still relegated to the niche and outside lanes of hip-hop.
This “outsider” ideology fits in with how Asians have historically been portrayed: no matter how favorably people see them, like as so-called “model minorities,” they will always be exotic or “other.”
What’s to come?
Asian rappers, especially those like the Higher Brothers who put their cultural heritage front and center, have a tough tightrope to walk. How do you highlight your roots without being pigeonholed into the niche category of “Asian rappers”? At the same time, how do you become popular—and, more importantly, taken seriously—in America without copying or appropriating existing rap music, a genre loaded with racial nuances and so tied to the black experience.
For one, cultural sensitivity is the most important issue to watch, and the public has called out problematic behavior more frequently than in the past. Azealia Banks’ offensive Twitter rants have essentially cost her a once-promising career, for example, and more and more people are disavowing XXXTentacion and R. Kelly for accusations of sexual misconduct. If Imanuel or the Higher Brothers cross the line of what’s culturally appropriate, it’ll become more likely they will face criticism and risk tanking their careers.
But the future seems hopeful. Public reception to Imanuel has gone from surprised to loyal, and following the release of his debut album “Amen” in February, he became the first Asian artist to reach No. 1 on the iTunes hip-hop charts. At the same time, Imanuel acknowledges it was a mistake to use the n-word and call himself “Rich Chigga,” a moniker that was borne from “picking the most controversial sh-t ever.”
“I was naive & I made a mistake. new year, new beginning,” Imanuel tweeted on January 1, referencing his former handle. Let’s see if he sticks to his word—and if artists in general can approach their work with thoughtfulness, sensitivity and self-awareness as they strive for mainstream popularity.