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What Sounds Like Home: On Creating Black and Asian American Identity Through Music

As Asian Americans, we too can lose sight of music as a border-defying site of home-making. Too often, Asian American artists and musicians are embroiled in Black cultural appropriation just to shed these ornamentations later in favor of another aesthetic. So how do we make a better home for each other in our music?

In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, RM of Korean musical phenomenon BTS sat down with artist and producer Pharell Williams to discuss creativity, fame, and collaboration. RM mentioned that many Korean artists, especially rappers, refer to America as the “본토,” or “homeland,” of their music. Curious about this new word, I found the original Chinese characters (kanji, or hanja in Korean) for the word, 本土, followed by the corresponding Japanese hiragana. ほんど, read Jisho.org. Hondo. Definitions: Pure land. Mainland. Homeland. 

Kim Namjoon (RM) of BTS and Pharrell Williams for Rolling Stone (2022).

As Japanese Americans, many of us have struggled with the concept of “home” on a national and international scale. So many of us have felt, regardless of our address, that our traditions and culture are not “American.” On the other hand, being “from” Japan doesn’t mean being of Japan, especially for those of us without connection points like family connections or language ability. Instead, many of us “outsiders” have made a home in music, traditions, and institutions that, like us, are the blurred and muddied “both” of Japanese American. Instead of answering “yes/yes” or “no/no,” we pledge allegiance to the band Hiroshima, to the bounce of a basketball at a Hollywood Dodgers tournament, to heads bowed on Sundays at JA church or temple. The main hall of a temple, in Japanese, is also called a hondo (本堂). We create homelands (本土) in our temples, a hondo in our hondo. 

Black Americans too, have struggled with the concept of homeland. There is no way to describe the eternal silence that comes with being the descendant of enslaved African people, the pain of probably never knowing where my ancestors called home or what language was sliced from their tongues when we were forced across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s why Black music and culture is so important to us; it’s all we have. Our music is our archive of protest, our planner of rebellion, our affirmation of joy when racism would rather see us dead. Our music is our testimony, as Janis Mirikitani wrote, and it is this testimony that kills the silence of being ripped away from our homelands and makes new ones.  

It is no wonder that Asian Americans, and indeed colonized people all over the world, gravitated towards Black rap and hip hop when it emerged in the 80’s and 90’s. Japanese American historian Gary Okihiro writes that African and Asian Americans are “kindred people, forged in the fire of white supremacy and struggle,” and one needs to look no further than our soundtracks for proof. You’ll find artists like Ruby Ibarra rapping about revolutionary Filipina women and G Yamazawa proudly proclaiming that he can’t read Japanese but he’ll diss you in it just the same. Internationally, tracks like j-hope’s STOP/세상에 나쁜 사람은 없다 (There Are No Bad People) discuss structural oppression using Asian Buddhist themes to an old school hip-hop beat, Asian stories aligned with a Black musical form and history. 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee on the set of Game of Death. Concord Productions Inc. / Corbis via Getty Images

Solidarity through music and art isn’t a one-way street either; just listen for Kendrick Lamar’s signature “Kung Fu Kenny!” at the beginning of a Pulitzer Prize-winning track like Element. Just as Asian Americans have found our voices in Nas and Lauryn Hill, an entire generation of Black Americans grew up watching Bruce Lee movies that pitted “one man” against an “unjust state.” Movies like The Last Dragon capitalized upon this new audience and brought Black folks into the fold, including Don Cheadle’s Kenny in Rush Hour 2. Several decades later, Kendrick Lamar dons a kung fu outfit in the music video for DNA to rap about white critics who blame violence in Black communities on hip-hop instead of structural racism. 

As Asian Americans, we too can lose sight of music as a border-defying site of home-making. Too often, Asian American artists and musicians are embroiled in Black cultural appropriation, donning traditional Black hairstyles and language to rap and sing R&B ballads just to shed these ornamentations later in favor of another aesthetic (think Awkwafina, K-Pop company SM, or even Bruno Mars). The appropriation of Black popular culture allows non-Black people to make money and gain social capital through developing a “tough” and “edgy” identity without experiencing any lived experiences of Blackness, particularly the inescapable violence that many face everyday for looking, talking, and acting “Black.” It’s the “ghetto until proven fashionable” complex, and it needs to stop. On the flip side, we’ve seen stereotypical “exotic” Asian clothing, scenery, and women in all kinds of music videos, which isn’t ideal either.

Kendrick Lamar and Don Cheadle (the original "Kenny" in Rush Hour 2) during a police interrogation scene in Lamar's video for "DNA" (2017). Photo Credit Esquire.  

So how do we make a better home for each other in our music? How do we stop listening to Black and Asian stories through white ears? Even if we simply love hip-hop because “it’s hip-hop,” there are three easy things we can ask ourselves to ensure we’re supporting Black folks when we consume new art: 

  1.  If the artist is not Black, are they calling upon Black musical traditions and aesthetics respectfully, contextually, and thoughtfully? When it comes to hair, clothes, language, and sound, are they respecting the wishes and boundaries of the Black community? 
  2.  Are artists and creators publicly acknowledging and supporting Black forebears and contemporaries? A good example: j-hope actually putting the Wu Tang Clan’s Dirty Ol’ Bastard on screen for an audience of over 10000 during Lollapalooza last year because Shimmy Shimmy Ya was sampled during his set, and thanking original artists DJ Webstar and Young B before performing his remake of their song “Chicken Noodle Soup.” This happened three years after BTS fans trended #ThankYouBianca upon the song’s release in 2018 to celebrate original rapper Bianca Bonnie.  
  3. Where is the money going? Often, conversations about cultural appropriation in music end before we talk about the material consequences of racism. One of the biggest reasons people keep exploiting Black culture (and Asian culture, and every other non-white culture) is because it is profitable for the appropriator and takes money and ownership away from the appropriated (think Charli D’Amelio creating an entire empire out of Jalaiah Harmon’s “Renegade” dance on TikTok). Use your power as a consumer to ensure creators pay Black artists for their work. 
  4. Are we making space for the Black members of our Asian American communities? Some of the world’s most successful and talented Black musicians and performers are also Asian American, including Saweetie, H.E.R., and Anderson Paak. While not all mixed race people identify with all heritages equally, folks like these three have consistently connected their Asian identity to their music. Of course, Black-presenting mixed Asians have different experiences being racialized on an everyday basis, in large part due to anti-Black specific violence, but shouldn’t that give us even more of a stake in supporting the Black community?
Five-time Grammy-winning Black-Filipina singer and songwriter H.E.R (2020). Photo Credit BMI.

I first listened to RM and Pharell’s Rolling Stone conversation while living on a tiny Spanish island off the northern coast of Africa, surrounded by piles of waves, sun-warmed black rocks, and my own loneliness. I don’t know if I felt less lonely afterwards, but I was reminded that our voices always have the power to carve out a home, if we are just willing to listen. 

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