Critical Questions: Cultural appropriation

Monday, February 19, 2018 - 8:32pm

Rich Brian

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My relatives like to joke that Asians and Asian-Americans shouldn’t do hip-hop because we haven’t faced the same tribulations as other races. They especially ridicule certain rappers from their native Japan, who never suffered from racism, abject poverty, street violence or drug dealing but don expensive sneakers and talk about swag.

I wonder what they would think of Rich Chigga.

“And you don’t wanna f--k with a chigga like me / When I pull up in that Maserati / Better duck ’fore ya brain splatter on the concrete / I’ma hit you with that .45, bullet hit yo neck round the bow tie”

In 2016, hip-hop artist Rich Brian (born Brian Imanuel) became a sensation online after his viral hit, “Dat $tick” racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube and scored approval by established rappers like Desiigner and Ghostface Killah, the latter of which recorded an official remix of the song with him.

The song also became a target for heavy criticism for the supposed sin of cultural appropriation.

That’s because Rich Chigga, as Imanuel was known professionally before 2018, was a homeschooled Chinese-Indonesian teenager whose father was a lawyer. And though for sure he saw plenty of ugly things growing up in a middle-to-low class neighborhood in West Jakarta, it was questionable whether it was appropriate for him to borrow the language and style of Black street culture.

Even his stage name was controversial. “Chigga,” a portmanteau of “Chinese” and a racial slur, was a ploy to attract attention by naming himself “the most controversial s--t ever,” hardly a good reason to offend numerous people.

Musicians like Rich Brian (as he now prefers to go by) become a flashpoint around cultural appropriation, or the adoption of elements of a minority culture by a member of the dominant culture. A blatant example would be fetishizing a minority culture by wearing an Arab thawb or a fake Fu Manchu for Halloween.

But, the common counter-argument goes, every present-day culture is the result of appropriations other cultures have developed by adopting aspects of other cultures. Indeed, most of the time it’s difficult to determine whether a song or dance is cultural appropriation, appreciation or exchange.

“Hip-hop is for everyone,” they say. “It transcends race.”

I believe cultural appropriation no doubt exists; weeaboos, for instance, offend my Japanese heritage when they reduce my culture to cute anime girls. But the question is where the limit is, and in cases like Rich Chigga, the line is so hard to draw.

The debate about non-Black people doing hip-hop reminds me of another form of Black music picked up by another race: Rock ‘n’ roll. When Elvis Presley shocked white America in the 50s, it wasn’t because rock ‘n’ roll was an inherently “degenerate”  genre for young people; it was because Presley’s singing style and hip gyrations reminded parents of African-American musicians.

So were The Rolling Stones, lifelong adherents and promoters of Black R&B music, Jack Hamilton writes in “How Rock and Roll Became White.” “The world’s greatest rock-and-roll band” (to some) truly respected and focused on covers of blues and R&B musicians like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and were annoyed that their fans were more obsessed with them than the American originals.

When the group first arrived on U.S. soil, the press vilified them with attacks against their physical appearance and dehumanizing comparisons to animals. It was a dog-whistle tactic to convince white adults that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of these Englishmen were subversive beings who adored Black music; the press even played on the fear of miscegenation when they asked, “Would you let your sister go out with a Rolling Stone?” But the Stones didn’t counter these claims; in fact, they adopted it as part of their dangerous image.

I see a similar phenomenon happening in hip-hop. Hip-hop, which developed in New York City as the music of African-Americans, immigrants and children of immigrants from the Caribbean, contains lyrics borne out of that community’s culture and struggles. “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the first prominent hip-hop song to provide social commentary, talks of difficulties of living in inner cities, which is a common theme in hip-hop today.

The problem with non-Black musicians rapping these days is that hip-hop has become a cheap shortcut to evoke a thuggish and criminal cool that doesn’t belong in a white or Asian middle-class suburb. It fetishizes the real struggles some of these artists have gone through on a daily basis.

Hamilton writes that the Stones were guilty of this too; “Brown Sugar” is an upbeat song that casually talks about slave rape as part of Jagger’s discussion on interracial sex.

We shouldn’t pretend, especially in Asian hip-hop, there is absolutely no power dynamic between Asians and African-Americans in the U.S. Asians on a whole definitely yield more privilege, so “hip-hop is for everyone” rings hollow when the phrase equates Black struggles with Asian struggles.

Rich Brian is then indeed guilty of appropriating aspects of Black culture. And though in “Dat $tick” he provides insights from the streets of Jakarta, I believe there is a way to do that without so overtly featuring cliché hip-hop tropes.

That isn’t to say non-Black people shouldn’t listen, appreciate or perform hip-hop on their own. With due respect to the original and staying within one’s boundaries, non-Black rappers like Eminem can create an art that is rightfully their own.

We also shouldn’t cast cultural appropriation in popular music as some capitalist and colonialist scheme to dominate minority cultures. The irony of genres like hip-hop and rock is they’re rebellious in content, yet at the same time they line the pockets of rich executives in record companies that promote these tracks to mass audiences; this irony is what makes hip-hop and rock reach mass audiences.

In the end, sometimes whether culture is appropriated or appreciated is determined by whether a work is tasteful and artistic. As Rivka Galchen points out, nobody accuses the Wu-Tang Clan of appropriating Chinese culture; we as a culture bestowed the rap group artistic license because they gave back with good music that goes beyond the inspiration borrowed from their Chinese neighbors.