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Worrying About “Sounding Asian”

Last year, I discovered an old hip-hop group from the 90s made up of three Asian-American guys from Philadelphia called the Mountain Brothers. 

Back in 1996, Sprite ran a national competition – “Rhymes From the Mind” – where people sent in original songs about Sprite, and the contest winner’s song would get produced and broadcast in a Sprite radio commercial. The Mountain Brothers wrote an original rap song for this competition and sent it in. However, in the process of submitting all their materials for the contest, they sent no pictures of themselves for the press kit and had nothing at all that referred to their identities. When the Mountain Brothers ended up winning the competition, it came as a total surprise to everyone, Sprite and Coca-Cola executives included, that the group who made the winning rap song for the contest was actually made up of three Asian Americans. 

Learning about this story made me interested in investigating the ways hip-hop artists present ‒‒ or don’t present ‒- themselves racially in their sound. I’ve read before that listeners are generally able to identify the race of a speaker at above-chance rates from even very short samples of their voice. Musicological research in particular has demonstrated that listeners believe vocal timbre to be an easily identifiable indicator of the vocalist’s age, race, and gender. However, since vocal performances ‒ including timbre ‒ can be trained and developed through practice, many vocalists in various musical genres such as jazz and opera adopt significantly different vocal qualities when they are performing than when they are not. How does this show up in hip-hop performance?

I followed up on my curiosity with a small research project for one of my classes last winter quarter. I created a survey (with some admittedly suspect methodology) where participants were asked to listen to short clips of songs from ten different rappers, and then guess what race or ethnicity they believed the performer was. (You’re welcome to take the survey yourself, though it may be best to do so now before you keep reading.) Thinking about the Mountain Brothers, I was particularly interested in seeing what people thought of when they heard Asian American rappers, so amongst the ten artists represented in the survey I had six Asian American rap artists: Awkwafina, CHOPS (a member of the Mountain Brothers), Lyricks, Raja Kumari, Rekstizzy, and Ruby Ibarra. In lieu of some sort of multiple-choice or checkbox-style answer format, I gave free response boxes where people wrote in their guesses for the race of the rapper in each clip. 

In a few days, I had gotten around 80 responses from sharing the survey on my social media and through various mailing lists. I don’t think that my project was scientifically rigorous enough for me to say that any of my results were especially striking, but I did end up with results that I found interesting. The vast majority of the guesses I got for any of the ten rappers in the survey were either White or Black. Other racial identities, such as Asian or Hispanic/Latinx, made up a small fraction of guesses in comparison to White and Black guesses – and even for the six Asian-American rappers I had included in the survey, only about 9% of responses in total across all six of the rappers guessed any one of them as being Asian. 

Hip-hop is and has been through history primarily and fundamentally a Black American artform, which certainly influences the assumptions people make when listening to any hip-hop artist, so in a sense, I would have to say that these results are about as expected. Additionally, there is a whole discussion to be had about how some non-Black hip-hop artists, when performing, adopt or appropriate an accent or mode of delivery that includes AAVE and is meant, in some way, to signal Blackness as a means of performing “authenticity” or “realness.” But my results may just as well be reflective of the fact that most people don’t think of rap artists as being Asian or Asian American in general. Considering that I had offered up free-response boxes for their answers instead of some multiple-choice setup that might have introduced the possibility into their thought process, it could have just never come across some of my survey participant’s minds that any of the rappers in the survey were Asian to begin with.

So what does this mean for an Asian-American rapper (or, in the case of the Mountain Brothers, an Asian-American rap group)? In the case of the Sprite contest, this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened – the Mountain Brothers had tried to hide their Asian identity previously when sending out demos to record labels and executives. It’s clear to me that this was a very intentional strategy employed by the Mountain Brothers in order to pass as a race other than Asian, which they worried would make audiences take them less seriously were they to know. But nowadays, over twenty years after Rhymes From the Mind, we’re seeing record labels like 88rising very visibly platform and showcase Asian hip-hop artists like the Rich Brian or the Higher Brothers, and finding a lot of popularity and appeal through leaning into the fact that they are Asian instead of shying away from it. I certainly don’t believe that this survey project was really able to reveal the why behind any of these guesses or assumptions people make ‒ but what I am certain of is that there are so many amazing Asian American hip-hop artists putting in the work, and people need to be listening to them.

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