Let’s be real, we do not live in a post-racial world. And to fool yourself into thinking we do is to embrace myopia at its most debilitating – not to mention the quickest – way to exempt yourself from experiencing beautiful and obscure cultures. It underlines everything we do, and gives us a sense of identity and history, a springboard in which to launch ourselves from.
In rap’s formative years it was a big deal, but now that hip-hop has globalized, expanding into a multibillion dollar industry, the question is – how important is it?
Salima Koroma (former writer for Hip-Hop DX) and Jaeki Cho (former Senior Online Editor for XXL) are attempting to broach the subject in their documentary Bad Rap, a chronicle of four Asian-American lyricists (Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, Lyricks) and their experiences in the rap game. In the trailers you get a good idea of the role race plays, and the type of stereotypes Asians have to overcome in order to be heard. Whether or not it’ll equate into anything of significance is still yet to be determined, because quite frankly it’s still very much a put up or shut up game. After all, Jackie Robinson wouldn’t have been as important to the cause had he not been able to smack a ball clear across the cosmos.
But what is it about lyricists like Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina that fail to capture America’s attention? The answer is in the lyrics. Rappers like Dumbfoundead fail to penetrate the wall of rap cliches. He’s got charisma and style, but lyrically he’s just too redundant to conjure up any sort of real excitement, “Field Trip” reiterating the same old song and dance verbatim: [LISTEN]
Lyrics like that do very little in terms of adding to the dialogue, rather merely parroting back what has already been said a thousand times over. So in that sense race matters, but only because it becomes a novelty meant to try and mask mediocre lyrics.
Jackie Chain is another good example. The name really says it all, but listen to his rhymes and you’ll see why he’ll never live beyond his 15 minutes of fame, “Johnny Depp” being one of the most creatively inept songs written in the past decade: [LISTEN]
In contrast there are those who have been incredibly successful. Take Lyrics Born (part Japanese) and Cool Calm Pete (Korean). Both stand out because they add to the conversation like no one else had before. Cool Calm Pete with his unwavering, never in a hurry flow, and lyrical acumen that goes miles beyond novel punchlines and quick one hitters. On “Dinner and a Movie” he takes us through an entire date from beginning to end with interludes and all, punctuating it with a nice slab of Bukowski insight: [LISTEN]
Unlike Pete, Lyrics Born rhymes like a hummingbird – quick and precise – leaving no room for fluff or mindless banter. He’s a juggernaut whose skill on the mic says more about his commitment to craft than his race. You don’t’ have time to think about him being Japanese, you’re too busy trying to keep up with the freshness, “Callin’ Out” telling you just how hard he had to work to get there: [LISTEN]
What Koroma and Cho are doing is important, but it’s a venture that’ll draw more interest from academia than anyone else. But to answer the question on whether or not race should matter in rap is a moot point. Of course it matters, but the more important question is why and to what extent. Guys like Cool Calm Pete and Lyrics Born are the next evolutionary step in terms of Asians making noise in hip-hop. They aren’t running away from their heritage, but they’re certainly not falling into the trap of letting it define them.
Hip-hop is a global phenomenon extending to places that the forefathers would have never imagined. And for those looking to play up the racial element there is place for them in rap too. Just don’t expect there to be a universally based audience ready to help support that cause.