When the Academy announced its controversial nominations for best acting roles in 2015, its choices were instantly criticized with the trending hashtag #OscarsSoWhite for blatantly snubbing people of color. Shortly after the following Academy Awards ceremony, Korean American rapper Jonathan Park, known by his stage name Dumbfoundead, began writing his song “Safe.” He released the single three months later in May 2016, and the first verse opens with the lyrics, “The other night I watched the Oscars and the roster of the only yellow men were all statues.” The rest of the song carries a similar message and tone: He’s fed up with insufficient and weak, feminized media representation of Asian American men as being “safe.”
The music video, crafted by a predominantly Asian American creative staff, digitally manipulates Park’s face onto cinematic characters like Jack Sparrow, Jack Torrance and Jay Gatsby and was clearly inspired by the Internet trend #StarringJohnCho, which depicted Photoshopped images of the actor onto various iconic male leads. While Asian American film has been panned by critics like Daryl Chin, who deems it “noble and uplifting and boring as hell,” “Safe” is an Asian American story told in an entertaining, powerful way which cleverly avoids the pitfall of taking itself way too seriously.
For context, Jonathan Park is not your model minority. He dropped out of high school his sophomore year at the age of 15 to pursue rap and eventually found success as a battle rapper — he was even once lauded by Drake. He grew up in a lower-class family based in K-Town in Los Angeles, the son of undocumented Korean immigrants who crossed through the Mexican border when he was three years old.
Park spits irreverent bars about drugs, drinking and women. His lyricism strikes me as being quintessentially “hood” Asian American, striving for perceptions of Asians that are the polar opposite of the stereotypical narratives we’re used to seeing. His songs are almost so intentionally subversive that the truthfulness behind his various exploits seems questionable to casual listeners.
The danger of hailing this intentional portrayal of manly, thug Asian Americans as a positive influence is that it helps to sharply splinter Asian American narratives in two: the stereotypically studious, quiet type and his completely different counterpart, the one who’s always getting into legal troubles and popping pills, who flunks out of school, whose sexual exploits are the stuff of legend. The problem with these two narratives, one being unabashedly racist and ignorant, and the other being an extreme overcompensation of the former, is that Asian Americans are humans, and humans rarely conform to such extremes. This anti-nerd characterization still portrays Asian Americans as archetypes that lack depth beyond their actions, and their humanity is simply lost in the process.
The character Jason on the NBC sitcom “The Good Place” was first introduced to audiences as a silent Buddhist monk but was soon revealed to be an extremely and endearingly dumb DJ/fake drug dealer from Jacksonville, Florida. The juxtaposition here is simple: It’s funny to see a dumb Asian guy when you’d expect him to be smart. Watching him has made me tear up with laughter, but Jason lacks the depth and development which nuanced characters like Eleanor and Michael are given; he is nothing but an “anti-stereotype.” Even when subverting offensive tropes, Asian Americans are seen at a surface level. Jason feels like he was created for non-Asian audiences to see that not all Asians are math whizzes and piano prodigies; for me, however, it’s sad (and sadly understandable) that non-Asians need this blatant image at all. Asians have known for a frustratingly long time that we are not just defined by how intelligent, or unintelligent, we are, and while Jason is a progressive Asian American character, he is simply not human, or real, enough.
In the grand scheme of A/PIA history, Jonathan Park is also important because he’s signed to 88rising, the music label and multimedia conglomerate that’s calling for greater representation of Asian American and transcontinental Asian talent (think Joji, Rich Brian and Higher Brothers). It’s making cultural waves as the company behind the biggest Asian American musical artists to hit mainstream fame. Joji’s album BALLADS 1, for instance, peaked at No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums Billboard Hot 100 chart. Even 88rising’s founder and CEO Sean Miyashiro finds difficulty in describing exactly what they do, but he’s described 88 as a “hybrid management, record label, video production and marketing company.” Park, one of the label’s earliest signed artists, says the goal of 88 is to “push more Asian faces, as well as anybody coming from an immigrant background, more in that forefront of the music.” In the label’s beginning stages in 2015, he said, “These aren’t K-pop pretty-boy motherfuckers. These are all the outcast, weirdo dudes. I think that’s kinda refreshing, because I think every Asian’s kinda felt like that, especially in America, whether you’re an F.O.B. or a nerd, a weirdo, all these different things… Asian Americans are the last ones invited to the party as far as mainstream media goes” [sic].
“Safe” is ultimately a call for better representation of Asian American men in Hollywood; however, it does nothing to address the dichotomy between Asian American men’s and women’s experiences. Rather, it seems to deny that media representation of women is problematic at all. The video frequently cuts back to one Asian American family, in which Park is the father and a nameless Korean American woman is his wife. The end of the video includes a clever, self-aware scene in which a white director yells, “Cut!” and replaces just Park with a Caucasian man. The implication is clear: Asian American women have no problems whatsoever with representation in today’s media. However, sex appeal that lacks depth and is rooted in inaccurate, racialized stereotypes of “subservient” Asian women is just as problematic as a lack of desirability for weak, feminized Asian men. “Safe” insultingly implies that mere attraction or physical exposure is enough. But we should hold higher expectations for the ways both male and female Asian American characters are depicted. They deserve greater depth and humanity, instead of simply more screens flooded by hypermasculine “Captain Americas” that happen to be Asian American.
Park’s denial of the difficulties Asian American women face in getting their feet through the door is particularly distasteful when you consider the lack of A/PIA women in the music industry, especially in hip-hop. Asian women are fetishized through music video imagery and lyrics: In 2011, Childish Gambino rapped on his track “Freaks and Geeks,” “Are there Asian girls here? Minority report,” and Kanye West’s 2013 song “I’m In It” wittily declared, “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” Asian female dancers and models are visible in hip-hop culture, but when they’re voiceless tokens who contribute nothing but their bodies, it is arguably worse than having no exposure whatsoever.
In his 2013 song “New Chick,” Park raps, “Why we never have sex, yo? Can I get some head though? You know a man has needs, bullshitting about strep throat.” Asian American men, like Park, are trying to succeed in a musical genre dominated by the notion that a man’s strength is demonstrated by asserting his power over women, sexually and verbally. Park fights against notions of weak, emasculated Asian men in a hypermasculine environment the only way he knows how: by exploiting women and denying them a voice for their issues. This adherence to sexist hip hop norms is another problem Asian American rap presents.
“Safe” is an important, socially conscious banger asking for better representation of a racial minority; at its heart, it carries a positive message, its music video is entertaining, and it’s just a good song by an Asian dude. At the same time, it highlights Asian American heterogeneity and the various conflicts and misunderstandings which arise from it. A.A. experiences are vastly different across nationalities, generations, classes, colors, ages, sexualities, regions and genders. It is uplifting and important to have solidarity, but the “A/PIA” label simply doesn’t do justice to all the intersectional nuances within the community. “Safe” highlights, however unintentionally, this disconnect in a way that rings so true to me, a Korean American woman, who is also a hip-hop enthusiast that has a 3.95 GPA at a “good school” and attends church and speaks Korean with her parents (who she has a close, loving relationship with) and is a feminist who has played violin for 11 years but got a D- in AP Calculus and parties with her friends and watches Netflix comedy specials and has gone to a Nicki Minaj concert (which, by the way, was glorious). “Safe” is problematic, but so is the sexist world of hip-hop in which Park is entrenched and forced to operate. At first viewing of his music video, I appreciated his message and at the end of the day, I (cautiously) applaud his inclusionary efforts. Despite the mistakes of Park’s lyrics and videos, I feel proud to see the hip-hop that I love being represented by a “yellow” face which America does not perceive as being “safe.”