“Who said I was safe”: hip-hop as a form of counterhegemonic art

Emerging from the streets of post-industrial South Bronx, hip-hop culture gave marginalized Black and Latinx urban youth an outlet to share their narratives and express their frustrations—the political exclusion, urban poverty, police brutality, etc.—in a world of white hegemony. Over the years, the countercultural movement has gone global, inspiring everyone from U.K. Grime artists to J-hip-hop DJs. And while the booming popularity and commercial commoditization of hip-hop can be problematic at times (the issue of black minstrelsy warrants another separate blog post on all the Iggy’s and Miley’s of the music industry), hip-hop continues to act as a form of counterhegemonic art that transcends national, racial and cultural borders and connects marginalities across the world.

As a culture that does not privilege whiteness, hip-hop can be a means for Asian American artists to resist white hegemonic constructions of their identity. Korean American rapper Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park is doing exactly that. Growing up in Los Angeles during the “golden age” of hip-hop, Dumbfoundead began spitting his own bars at 15 years old and quickly grew a fan base in the underground rap battle scene before transitioning into the studio. In an interview with Fader, the artist admits that the initial reason he got into music making didn’t have much to do with Asian American representation. “If somebody asks me why I started rapping, I’d be bullshitting if I said, ‘Oh, it’s because I want to be the voice of my people.’ I wanted to start rapping because I wanted to get b**ches at first. [Laughs]” But looking at his most recent releases, it’s easy to see how Dumbfoundead’s racial identity and America’s political climate have gradually become a part of his core messages. “I realized that it was a powerful tool for me to talk about certain things and stories that weren’t being told.”

In his 2016 song “Safe”, Dumbfoundead tackles Asian stereotypes and the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in mainstream media. The title “Safe” is a direct reference to the model minority myth—a stereotype that generalizes Asians as obedient, hardworking and overall “safe” while simultaneously masking discrimination and reinforcing a racial hierarchy that places whiteness at the top. In the introduction, he raps, “You took me as safe, that was your first mistake, who said I was safe.” Dumbfoundead challenges assumptions of his political silence by raising his own voice in anger. He also addresses the ongoing problem of whitewashing and lack of diversity in Hollywood. The line, “The only yellow men are statues,” alludes to underrepresentation of people of color—in this case, Asian Americans—at the Oscars (#OscarSoWhite). Asian American actors rarely play leading roles—in fact according to this University of Southern California report, only 1.4 percent of lead characters in a sample of studio films released in 2014 were Asian). And the roles that they are offered are limited, shaped by Western hegemonic constructions of gender, race and sexuality. Dumbfoundead expresses his frustrations with this “bamboo ceiling,” where he’s “gotta play a villain.”

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The music video for “Safe” continues to upend stereotypes, inviting viewers to an alternate universe where Asian Americans dominate the movie screen. Flipping the script with a satirical take on whitewashing, the video “yellowwashes” famous film scenes— from Braveheart, Ghost, The Great Gatsby and more—with Dumbfoundead. It shouldn’t feel so peculiar, and sometimes even comical, to see an Asian American man playing these roles as the lead romantic interest or hero—and yet, it does. The impression is powerful and reveals to viewers the white, patriarchal ideologies that are reinforced by Hollywood.

Dumbfoundead covers a range of other issues and experiences in his other songs—“Are We There Yet?” tells the story of his family’s immigration across the Mexican border; “Harambe” focuses on the political unrest stemming from all-to-frequent cases of police brutality. And while Dumbfoundead isn’t perfect (for example, the misogynistic undertones of songs like “For You”), his music opens up a conversation for an audience across racial lines.

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