Their Time to Shine?: Asian-American artists are gradually making their mark in hip-hop. But mainstream success is still out of reach. Now, the task seems to be resting on one man’s shoulders.
It’s two o’ clock in the afternoon on a relatively quiet Saturday along the shores of Venice Beach, CA. A couple of rollerbladers whiz by. A handful of street artists line the sidewalk, hawking their own oils on canvas. But in the distance, a rather large crowd is gathered around a huge crane and a plethora of bright lights. Upon closer inspection, it appears the passer-bys are gawking at a camera crew and a group of actors. A middle-aged man and his seven or eight year old son walk by and watch in amusement. "What’s going on?" he asks. Someone shoots back, "They’re making a rap video!" "Oh yeah? Where’s the rapper?" Unbeknownst to him, the star of the video is standing right in front of him: A 5’6" Chinese kid named Jin Au-Yeung.
Heads are more familiar with this twenty two-year-old’s alter-ego, Jin Tha MC. He’s been reppin’ the Double-R for a minute now. The video being shot is for his lead-off single, "Senorita", an ode to the mamacitas of Miami. But leave it up to a hurricane named Jeanne to force a shoot relocation from the Sunshine State to the Golden State.
Father and son soon realize that the kid with the slanted eyes is why everyone’s here. After a brief look of genuine surprise, he and his kid get back to the task of getting to Point B. Apparently, heads ain’t ready for this. But you can bet that a lot of folks who look like Jin are ready.
Mumblings within the Asian hip hop community: Is this cat going to blow the doors open for Asian-American rappers? Is he going to break through the glass ceiling they call the mainstream hip-hop industry? With Jin’s video just dropping and his album set to drop on October 19, many are wondering that very thing…including Jin, "It’s not a position that I chose to be in, but by natural order…by me doing what I’m doing, it put me in that position and I just got to deal with it," he tells AllHipHop. "It’s a lot of weight on my shoulders. Imagine waking up and dealing with a whole race, a whole culture looking at you and analyzing every move that you make, every word that you say."
But anxious fans and haters alike have been wondering about some particular words: The ones he spits on his upcoming album, The Rest Is History. When asked about the "few" pushbacks, Jin retorts, "Let’s not beat around the bush. It’s been pushed back a lot of times, not a few. The pushbacks obviously happened for a reason, but the pushbacks help and hurt."
So why is so much riding on Jin’s success? There’s no doubt that talented Asian-American emcees have indelibly made their mark in hip hop. You can’t deny the originality and innovation of cats like Lyrics Born of Quannum Projects or the Mountain Brothers, a trio of emcees who were once regarded as Asian hip hop artists on the cusp of blowing . As talented as they are, mainstream success has eluded them; not that they were particularly looking for it.
Chops of the MB’s says it goes deeper than race. "To me, it’s not about being an Asian American artist, but an artist, period. End of the day, I’d rather be lumped in the ‘people with bangin’ s**t’ category than any other category."
But in the case of Jin, people are going to take notice of his distinctive features. Some have attributed the focus on his ethnicity to what they consider gimmicky music and exploitive characterizations of Asian-American culture. It’s not exactly the case according to Jin. "I respect everybody’s opinion and that’s cool, but you’re not gonna stop me from representing…from putting that movement out there. I’m just doing Jin."
Despite a lot of hateration from fellow Asian-American emcees, many up and coming Asian artists from Snacky Chan in Boston to Far-East Movement in LA have Jin’s back. Chan, whose style is more identifiable with underground, even wrote a message to his fans on his website. He encouraged them to support the great yellow hope. "Some of you may be wondering why I should cop this album, you might not even like him or his sound. But the fact of the matter is, the success of his album is extremely important for the Asian-American breakthrough into the music world, and all media in general", Chan writes.
"[Jin's] in a funny spot right now because folks get way too focused on the race thing, and want to dissect and over-analyze the situation", says Chops. He adds, "But it’s not that complicated. It’s music. Artists make music, put it out there, and either you dig it or you don’t. That’s it. Once you start expecting somebody to ‘represent’ for you or for your whole people, you’re expecting too much. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment".
Kevnish of Far-East Movement says Asians rappers have got to represent. But he says it needs to be done the right way. "William Hung is a prime example of (something) they’re still thinking about. They still laugh about that kind of stuff…about Asian stereotypes. I got mad love for [Hung] because he’s enjoying his life and he’s rich now, but we struggle. We grind too. People think Asian people got it made. It’s been one of my inspirations lately: trying to tell people that we’re just like you, plain and simple".
Marketing VP of Doggystyle Records, Ted Chung points out, "To really knock the door down and punch the hole in the paper, Asian-Americans have to have a film or an artist that authentically tells a story of struggle and how Asian-Americans are part of the American dream. It needs to tell how we come from the same cloth and how we’re here to do the same thing as Americans. You really have to have Middle America understand where you’re coming from". As a respected emcee named "Slant" from the original Project Blowed camp, dude knows what he’s talking about.
"Hip Hop is American. I mean we’re Asians, but the problem is we got to look at ourselves as American before we look at ourselves as Asians. Just because you’re doing hip hop doesn’t mean you’re doing a black thing. You’re doing an American thing", says Chung.
And what’s more American than good ol’ fashioned competition? At the recent Mixshow Power Summit in Puerto Rico, Jin ate the competition at the Rumble in the Jungle MC Battle. He walked away with 50 grand and a new whip. "The Champ" also walked away with something a true emcee covets the most: respect. But only time will tell if Jin will also walk away with big numbers and ultimately mainstream success when his album drops.
"There’s no way [to predict] sure shot record sales. None of that is concrete. It’s up to the fans. All you can do as an artist is do your best to make good music and making sure you’re content with it. And I feel good about it."
We’ll see if everyone else feels the same way. The jury’s still out til’ drop date.