Can an Asian woman be taken seriously in rap?

Image via The Hairpin.

Image via The Hairpin.

Answer: This is a stupid question.

New York magazine’s profile of Nora Lum, aka Awkwafina, details the Korean-Chinese-American rapper’s rise from her hilarious “My Vag” track last year to the harder “NYC Bitche$,” which was released in March. The article’s headline asks: “Can an Asian Woman Be Taken Seriously in Rap?”

The piece dabbles in gender identity politics in hip hop. Can women rap? Well, sure. Will it be hard? Duh. Lum says:

“If women dabble in rap but they’re not rappers, to get from dabbling to doing it is really difficult, confidence-wise. There’s a degree of having to prove yourself, also, and that’s really hard: I’m not trying to ruin your institution, I’m trying to be a part of it.”

The article also dabbles in racial identity politics in hip hop. Can Asian women rap? Well…maybe.

“I grew up thinking Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu were my idols because that’s it,” she says. “I think that if I could contribute anything, it would be to say that it’s not that weird,” to be doing what she’s doing as an Asian woman. Even as her lyrics stay light, for now, there’s a subtext here: Changing the face of rap will change the future for Asian women, too.

I say dabble, of course, because the profile only tips its hat to women in rap and offers only a cursory glance at the history of Asian-Americans in hip-hop culture (for more, read Eddie Huang and Jay Caspian Kang). What the article really is asking, and what the headline should really ask, is “Can A Woman with an Asian Face Be Taken Seriously in Rap?” 

Because Lum is as much American as she is Asian. She grew up in Queens. She went to high school and college in New York. Her cultural references include Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, yes, (who, by the way, is deeply influenced by Western artists) but also Joan Didion, Alanis Morissette, and Cheers. Her childhood idols were Asian-American artists Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu, both of whom embrace their Americanness as much as their Korean and Chinese heritages. The article mentions all this without ever once acknowledging that perhaps growing up in New York City had as much influence in Lum’s interest in hip hop as her skin color and eye shape may have in influencing how she is received in hip hop.

Because in writing about Asian America, that is what matters in mainstream media: how different “Asians” are — not how much is shared and unexplored about another side of America, albeit one that looks different than the dominant culture.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted April 3, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    She’s very talented. Would be nicer without the transphobic slurs though.

    • Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:38 am | Permalink

      I can see how her use of the word “tranny” can appear offensive, of course – I am a black lesbian who has many trans friends. BUT, BUT, BUT -

      As a native New Yorker who is from the Bronx, from very close to Hunts Point (which is the location that Awkwafina is talking about in the Bronx), it is more or less known that it has always been a spot for transsexual prostitutes to work the streets. This is something that has been going on ten fold over the past 40 years or so. Yes, the word seems a little hard to the ear, but I am still amazed at her accuracy of the situation. Hunts Point is literally THE spot for transsexual hookers. I don’t think she means to say this in a bad way.

  2. Posted April 4, 2013 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    I really loved this article. I came here because I really needed a good response to what was being said in NYMAG article, not at all on the part of Awkwafina, but definitely on the part of the writer herself. I think the headline was framed in that way as “click-bait,” and the writer definitely did not do adequate research on the substantial amount of Asian American rappers that already existed.

    You are completely write, Amy S. Choi, the focus of Awkwafina is being paid too much on the fact that she is Asian, and not that she is an American girl like every other non-Ethnic person. I know for a fact that growing-up in NY influences her identity, then music, then sound, as much as “looking Asian” does.

    Thank you for this write-up.

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