Anyone in the hip-hop dance world is familiar with the Kinjaz, a dance crew notable for their intricate and innovative choreography, popularized through their individual high-profile YouTube accounts. However, outside this niche community, most people will know the Kinjaz from their appearance in Season 8 of MTV’s series, America’s Best Dance Crew. While an Asian American dance crew is by no means novel in the context of the show, the Kinjaz performance on ABDC is a breakthrough in representing Asian American identity in televised media. Through a textual analysis of the Kinjaz’s performance in the finale of ABDC, I am going to demonstrate how their performance re-defines masculinity and negotiates with hegemonic representation of Asian heritage in popular culture. This is important because it highlights how dance can be a radical tool in shaping the Asian American experience but is often constrained within hegemonic structures.
In 2015, MTV did a one season revival of their show America’s Best Dance Crew and brought back previous winners of the show to compete again. Kinjaz was the only dance crew that had not been on the show before but like a true underdog story, made it all the way to the finale along with Quest Crew, also an Asian American dance crew, and Super Cr3w. The Kinjaz performance is set on a stage surrounded by cherry blossom trees and small lanterns. The camera pans through the dancers and we see them standing solemnly looking down and dressed in jackets inspired by Chinese traditional changshans with their Kinjaz logo on the back. They dance to the song “I See Fire” by Ed Sheeran and their intricate choreography mimics the musicality of the song to draw the audience’s attention to certain rhythms and sounds. As opposed to codified hip hop movement, the Kinjaz mostly makes use of more meditative movement that is almost reminiscent of Tai-chi. We can see the dancers making intentional choices about their energy, mostly keeping it continuously flowing and sometimes sharply stopping to hit certain movements.
Through their style of movement and dance, the Kinjaz were able to re-define masculinity in a TV show that rewards hyper-masculinity. Most of the past winners of the show were all male break dancers and their sets mostly focus on crazy tricks and showing physical dominance. However, with this final performance by the Kinjaz, we see an emotional vulnerability that had not been shown on ABDC, let alone on television, which sets them apart from the other crews. They did not put in any breaking tricks and their movements seemed to reflect an internal monologue. Furthermore, in the introduction of their performance, the dancers talk about how the song is about staying strong despite the difficult journey ahead and we see this visualized in their performance in which strength is not equated with physical dominance. Rather, we see strength in their precise hits and control of movements. This is important because it addresses the question of whether style can be radical. Using this performance as an example, we can see how through the Kinjaz’s style of dance, which goes beyond just appropriating black hip hop dance moves, an Asian American style of hip hop can be imagined. Additionally, this movement towards an Asian American style has the potential to re-define masculinity that breaks out of straightjacket masculinity.
Another radical aspect of their performance, was the direct invocation of an Asian American identity that is tied to an Asian cultural heritage. From the costumes and set, to their name, “Kinjaz”, it is clear that they are highlighting Asian culture and in fact, the Japanese manga series, Naruto, serves as their main inspiration. However, we also see potential issues of second-order Orientalism and appropriations of Japanese and Chinese culture. This brings us to the question of how Asian Americans accrue cultural capital and the parallels between Asian American representation on ABDC and on reality cooking shows. As Tasha Oren points out, there is an expectation of cultural essentialism from white audiences and one way in which Asian Americans can gain agency is through self-orientalization. However, one important difference is that cultural heritage on ABDC had not been present before the Kinjaz, despite the dominance of Asian American dance crews previously on the show. As a result, the Kinjaz were bringing directly to the attention of the American audience the Asian cultural heritage that is a part of the Asian American identity and more importantly, highlighting the problems of consuming the labor of Asian Americans, in this case in the form of entertainment, without recognition of the Asian American identity. While aspects of their performance may border on appropriation, we see how the Kinjaz use Asian cultural heritage to gain cultural capital within the hegemonic structure of media and also to foreground the Asian American identity in popular culture.
Although Quest Crew ultimately ends up winning the series, the performance by the Kinjaz remains radical in the way that their dancing re-imagined masculinity and an Asian American identity rooted in cultural heritage. Perhaps part of their ability to portray a radical alternative performance was because of their origins as a grassroots group of Youtube dancers who were passionate about creating new dance. I would also argue that it is significant that the Kinjaz did not win as it points to the inequality still evident in popular culture and the how the audience isn’t ready to fully accept a radical performance of Asian American hip hop dance.