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By Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur
I recently had the joy and privilege of visiting Forest Hills, Queens. I was headed to the last leg of the Universal Hip-Hop Museum Homecoming concert series featuring the impeccable talents of Mobb Deep, EPMD, DMC, Dres of Black Sheep (who lives in the area), Too Short, Yo-Yo- Sweet Tee, and an assortment of other legends. The whole event was capped off by a 2-hour performance of George Clinton and his P-Funk All-Stars. It was an amazing affair. I could not get over how clean, and nice this particular area of Queens was. Without knowing, it reminded me of places hostile to people of color with high property taxes, out-of-this-world real estate prices, and the quiet killer racism. But, that was not my experience as we were treated respectfully and there was somebody ever 10-20 feet making sure we did not stray from the path to the concert and fro..back to where we came from. It was all love on the surface.
Forest Hills, Queens gave birth to rapper-turned-actor Awkwafina even if Nora Lum, her government name, was born somewhere in Long Island. Awkwafina came to prominence in the early 2010s, as a rapper that was quickly able to leverage her unique traits, comedy, and freedom from Hip-Hop’s cultural norms. She didn’t have to “keep it real” and honestly, don’t think anybody cared if she did/didn’t. But she did represent her brand of New York unabashedly and without shame on songs like “NYC Bitche$.” As a rapper, she never gave a hint that she would make her comedic bones in Hollywood as an actor that employs a “blaccent.” Wiktionary calls this Black accent as one “that is “characteristic of African-Americans.” It is a form of cultural appropriation.
As Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters, the controversy swirls – once again – around another comic character -Awkwafina! First of all, Shang-Chi is so beloved to us comic nerds that I once crudely drew him in my youth. Yes, I have the receipts! So, I am concerned for the movie, because nothing degrading to Black people can exist within the MCU (Marvel Comics Universe). Stan Lee wouldn’t have it. And yet, here we are. Shang-Chi, the first Marvel movie starring an Asian, is partially marred by one of the actors’ penchant for mocking Black people. But, honestly and respectfully, there is nothing I can see that suggests that Awkwafina was ever Black-Adjacent or even “Hip-Hop.” Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like she just used rap to get ahead.
Black people and Asian people have a very unique relationship, historically and culturally. There are numerous parallels and intersections. There are so many, that I will not try to run them all down. But, I feel that Hip-Hop has been very respectful, by and large of Asians in the culture. Wu-Tang, as a movement, is largely rooted in Asian imagery, principles, and lifestyles. Folks like The RZA uplifted the culture even as Ice Cube wrote polarizing songs like “Black Korea.” Awkwafina, who is has a Chinese father and Korean mother, is no Sophia Chang, who used to manage the likes of Ol Dirty Bastard. She’s not like my Aquarian brother Bobby Yan or Aiko Tanaka, whom both have deep, respectful roots in African American culture. Hell, me and hardcore street rapper China Mac respectfully discussed his use of “the N-Word” in his rap songs. Respect slices in many directions.
Violence reared its despicable head last year, amid the ignorance and confusion around Covid-19, and we witnessed horrific acts of violence perpetrated against Asians. This spawned #StopAsianHate. Black people were often the media’s face of the heinous acts splashed across the various screens we watch. Then-President Donald J. Trump repeatedly, maliciously, and irresponsibly called it the “China Virus.” The accusations flew back and forth and Black and Asian communities clashed once again. To make matters worse (I’ll explain shortly) and better, Asian Americans saw both chambers of Congress and President Biden quickly passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. “My message to all of those who are hurting (Asian Americans) is: We see you and the Congress has said, we see you. And we are committed to stopping the hatred and the bias,” President Biden said.
I know you are thinking, “What does all of this overly thoughtful pontification have to do with an Asian American rapper-turned-comedian-turned superstar actor?” Bring it home, Chuck, connect the damn dots.
Awkwafina, you are hurting Black people. Awkwafina, you are offending Black people (at least the ones that know of you). Awkwafina, you are using Black people. I think you have an idea why folks feel so strongly about this.
“I refuse to do accents. I’m not OK with someone writing the Asian experience for an Asian character. I make it very clear, I don’t ever go out for auditions where I feel like I’m making a minstrel out of our people,” you reportedly told VICE. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is stuck in the political mud as a host of other pressing issues have taken precedence. Black folks: used and abused all over again.
I don’t know if you employ a “blaccent” in this movie since I have not seen it as if this writing. I suspect you won’t be so blatantly “ghetto” even though one review described you as a “street-smart hustler” and another, a “street-savvy sidekick.” The social media outrage has been pretty loud for years, but the conversation reignited over the refusal to feed stereotypical Asian accents. Why don’t you say something, even if you all have nixed the so-called African American intonation? I talk to my Asian friends in productive ways and the dialogue is beneficial to us all. I seek to understand and to be understood, mutually respected. To my knowledge, you’ve ever addressed the community or culture that breathed life into your now spectacular career. And this writing is not out of hate or in the spirit of cancel culture. I am only writing because I listened and heard – over and over – the cries of the people that simply want the minstrel you have perpetrated to stop. Maybe you’re just a tool of higher forces, but it is still your body of work that ultimately will bear a stain.
Like, why’d you go and use the word “minstrel,” when that term is a decidedly racist-descriptive word that specifically refers to white actors in blackface? The term quite literally has no relationship, historical or otherwise, to Asian culture. This does not suggest that American culture has not been racist or sold horribly bigoted images of Asians. You may not be white and you may not wear blackface, but you’ve closely resembled those actors peddling stereotypes forward with little regard for the ongoing harm it causes. Your shtick isn’t from kicking it with the whole 2% Black population of Forest Hills, Queens, is it? Or did you travel to Queensbridge, Hollis, or Lefrak to pick up the streetwise slanguage? So many questions.
Next time there is an amazing Hip-Hop event in your “hood” like the Universal Hip-Hop Museum’s concert, pull up. Our culture is incredibly inclusive and forgiving. As “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” goes in the book of Marvel history, similar to “Black Panther,” envision an African American character “acting stereotypically Asian” for comedic effect. Ew…I am disgusted already.
Be well, Awkwafina, but show a modicum of respect while you do it.
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writers: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Stars: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen