That dope Chinese rapper.
MC Jin remembers immediately being labeled by his ethnicity when he got his big break over a decade ago. He recalls the experience in Bad Rap, a documentary about Asian Americans in hip-hop that recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
For Jin, perhaps it made sense: he was the first Asian American rapper to score a major record deal, so in many circles, he was the Chinese rapper—the only one.
Now more than ever, Asian Americans in that arena reach both domestic and international audiences with their music. At the same time, they wrestle with the kinds of complex questions that gospel rappers and others who straddle two identities—whether ethnic or cultural—must navigate. How do I present myself? What brand is most effective for both marketing and ministry?
“I would like to just be known as a rapper, but I guess that’s really not up to me,” said Heesun Lee, a 32-year-old Korean American artist whose latest album is titled Stereotypes. “It’s more for the audience to decide. Do they see me first as a female, an Asian, or a Christian?”
As a minority in the US and in hip-hop culture, Asian Americans can feel the pressure to represent their entire ethnicity. In an interview with YouTube hosts The Fung Bros, MC Jin admitted when he became famous, he felt “an uncountable amount of people … looking at me [and saying] ‘Yo, everything you do better make us look good!’”
Together and fearless
But Asian American identity also serves as a rallying point for fellow artists and fans; there’s no longer “only one” to follow. MC Jin—who came to faith a few years into his career—now performs with several others who share his background and beliefs. That’s what he did as part of the historic Fearless Tour, which traveled to four cities on both coasts of the United States in 2014.
“This many Asian American Christian hip-hop artists have never—never ever in time—shared the same stage together,” said Sam Ock, one of the tour’s featured acts. Ock’s record label, Good Fruit Co., has become a home for Asian American artists.
In addition to Ock’s group, AMP—a melodic hip-hop trio he formed with fellow rappers J. Han and CL—the Fearless lineup included MC Jin; HeeSun Lee; Seattle-based storytelling rapper Gowe; freestyling wordsmith Mickey Cho; and jazz rapper NAK.
For HeeSun Lee, who typically tours with black and Hispanic artists, Fearless represented the largest Asian crowds she’d ever seen at her shows. “It was just a bunch of yellow people everywhere,” she joked. “I was proud to see there were others like me that had the same goals and visions, and they weren’t scared to live out their dreams and be unashamed [of the gospel].”
HeeSun noted that she and her tourmates felt pressure from their parents to pursue higher education and careers in fields like medicine or engineering instead of the arts. “Even my own mom gave me a hard time about it,” she said.
Many of today’s Asian hip-hop acts also share a kinship as second or third-generation Americans. Some, like CL, grew up with immigrant parents who did not speak English until years after their arrival on US soil. Others, like HeeSun, were adopted by parents whose heritage differed from their birthplace. Yet in both cases, these artists were raised on one of America’s most popular exports: The culture and music of hip-hop.