Hip hop dreams: Asian Americans artists on the difficulties they face breaking out into mainstream rap
By Steven Cong
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Gordon Tsai, a rapper, is also known by his stage name, Gifted on West East, or G.O.W.E. (Photo by Jen Au)
“Right now, we’re at a time when we’re just bubbling. When all Asian artists come together and start to realize each other’s work ethics, it’s going to be great,” said Sonny Thongoulay, a local Laotian American rapper. Thongoulay goes by the stage name “Sonny Bonoho.”
Thongoulay was born in Ubon, Thailand, but is ethnically Laotian. He has served as the opening act for rappers like Snoop Dogg and Twista. His most recent album, Phone Phreak, was released on April 10.
Thongoulay, along with Gordon Tsai, a Chinese American rapper with the stage name “Gifted On West East,” or G.O.W.E., are concerned with the current state of Asian Americans and hip hop. To them, there are certain challenges that arose from Asian American stereotypes.
“The first thing people think of when it comes to Asian emcees is that it’s almost like an oxymoron,” said Tsai. “Hip hop was created out of poverty, and this whole idea that Asian Americans are the model minorities leads to the belief that they can’t possibly have struggles to talk about.”
Tsai is a Beacon Hill native who draws inspiration from his Christian faith. He says he does not believe in conforming to the stereotypes associated with hip hop artists and that he finds value in networking with other rappers, especially those in the Asian American community.
“In America, when you think of hip hop, you think of African Americans. So when an Asian American person tries to make it big, they get shut down because they don’t fit the image of what a hip hop artist should be,” said Giovonni Bruno, a Korean American fan of the music.
The artists also view the lack of media attention as an obstacle to mainstream success, as well as the reinforcement of conventional hip hop stereotypes.
“A lot of Asian artists out there are real creative in the mind,” said Thongoulay, “but it’s not like the media wants to look for an Asian rapper that’s real cool. I’m trying to figure out when a company is willing to put a million dollars or two behind an Asian rapper.”
Tsai points out that too many people perceive rappers to be individuals who live with limited economic resources. As a result, many Asian American artists are pretending to fit the archetype and produce music that address issues they are not actually familiar with and could not personally relate to.
“A lot of Asian Americans feel like, if they want to rap, they have to put on a certain gangster image and go all the way, or else they won’t be believable,” said Tsai. “I really wish more rappers would just be themselves, honestly.”
Despite the difficulties of establishing an image, both rappers agreed that there are limits to how culture should be stressed.
“I don’t think you should use your ethnicity as some kind of a gimmick to draw attention to yourself. If that’s your only crutch, you’re screwed,” said Tsai. “But please do not neglect who you are. You’re Asian for a reason. You should be proud of that; you should represent that, but you shouldn’t exploit that.”
An fact often overlooked is the fact that Asian Americans have been involved in the hip hop community for decades. The Mountain Brothers in Philadelphia and the Asiatic Apostles in California were pioneers of Asian American hip hop during the 1990s. Newer groups include the Far East Movement in Los Angeles and the Blue Scholars in Seattle. However, the only mainstream breakthrough in Asian American hip hop was Chinese American rapper Jin Au–Yeung, who found success in 2001.
Au–Yeung was the first Asian American rapper to enter the mainstream music industry after he retired undefeated on the Black Entertainment Television program “106 & Park,” a music video show. He was signed to the Ruff Ryders record label following his stint on the show. His debut album, “The Rest Is History,” was released in October 2004 and earned him a spot on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.
Dr. Oliver Wang, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, attributes hip hop’s popularity with Asian Americans to the fact that it was the “dominant youth culture” of the 1980s and 1990s.
Language of youth
“[Hip hop’s] more energetic and fun than everything else,” said Bruno.
“Hip hop is a language that a lot of youth today can understand, and when they do understand it, it’s therapeutic to them,” said Thongoulay.
“If you’re stressed out with a bunch of different things, and there’s a bunch of stuff in your life, you write it down, you record it, you transform it into a dance. It’s literally your way of expressing yourself and getting that off of your chest in a positive way that influences others and builds community,” said Tsai.
Artists of the Northwest
Tsai and Thongoulay compared the Northwest to the rest of the nation by citing responses local Asian American rappers have received.
“In the Seattle area, I think everyone respects the Blue Scholars, but on a national level, people are still too scared to really support them because they are different,” said Tsai. “In the whole West Coast, there’s a really good Asian community. But the West Coast? Man, that’s only 20 percent of the whole nation. If you look at the rest of America, the majority is white people. They only understand Asian Americans from what they see on TV. All of a sudden, you’ve got this rapper, and on top of that, he’s Asian. You know, it’s completely foreign to them.”
Thongoulay elaborated on the need for Asian American artists to branch out. He described how Asian American rappers should not depend on their local communities for a fan base.
“It is the Asian American artist’s responsibility to go out. Do they have a faith factor of going to Portland, to California, or wherever? I went on tour in Germany, and came back and made money. The sky is the limit,” said Thongoulay.
The rappers hope for greater success in the future of Asian American hip hop artists. The current status of Asian American hip hop will set the stage for what’s to come. ♦
Steven Cong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.