Hip-hop as a dance form has been used by African Americans since the 1970s to counter their racialized representation in hegemonic society. Permeating into American pop culture, it provides an expressive platform for the marginalized community to rally under the unifying experience of oppression. More recently however, the face of American hip-hop culture has changed, focusing on Asian Americans as the frontrunner in the hip-hop dance scene. Currently, dance crews dominating the competitive circuit, both professional and collegiate, are mainly composed of and led by Asian Americans. However, they are participating in an expressive medium built by the struggles of another minority. As such, is this a matter of cultural hybridity, where marginalized people blend and combine cultural elements to survive dominant powers, or rather a more nuanced form of appropriation?
Hip hop was created by during the 1970s when block parties became popular among the Black youth of South Bronx in New York City. These local block parties were the site of dance battles between crews of street dancers and served as a space of artistic expression. Originating from the streets of the ghetto, no studio would provide space for hip-hop since it was not recognized as a legitimate art form. Through social dances, being a part of a crew was virtually the only way to engage in hip-hop cultural exchange. Entire communities were shaped by hip-hop as participating in a dance crew was how these minoritized groups formed friendships and other meaningful interpersonal relationships. While hip-hop did not start as a political movement, the youths of South Bronx were fighting back against a system that did not care about them. By going to the streets, they engage in agency through the visible social body. Despite being forced into disparaged neighborhoods with little resources, hip-hop allowed them a means of expression against the norm. Meanwhile on the west coast, California was becoming the birthplace of funk, which would evolve to later become a part of hip-hop. Sharing aspects of east coast hip-hop culture, namely the phenomenon of social dance and street cyphers, this was what started Asian American involvement in hip-hop dance.
Up until the early 1990s, there was no such thing as an Asian American urban dance culture. Then, came the founding of Kaba Modern by Arnel Calvario at University of California-Irvine. Calvario grew up in the 70s exposed to hip-hop social dance in Southern California and later went onto form the first Asian American hip-hop dance group in 1992. Soon after, other Asian American groups like the Chinese and Vietnamese picked up the art form, and then other college campuses later followed suit. Despite its popularity, Asian American hip-hop culture was still underground and contained within ethnic student groups of college campuses. For years onwards, their role in hip-hop was invisible. At the turn of the century, the development of this burgeoning community was bolstered with the advent of the Internet. The underground scene gained foothold through video-sharing sites and forums that propelled their network forward in a global scale. Network television caught wind of such movements and capitalized on consumer demands of urban dance culture. Eventually, competitive shows like America’s Best Dance Crew became an opportunity for young Asian Americans to debut as contributors to hip-hop — and thus American — culture. Kaba Modern successfully utilized that platform to land itself in the top three, beaten by The Jabbawockeez which is comprised of Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese Americans.
Their success begs the question: Why are Asian American dancers having such mainstream appeal now, especially in the urban dance scene? Calvario’s friend and fellow choreographer for KINJAZ Mike Song cites that dance is connected to music. “Asians, we don’t have gospel or funk or salsa, but I feel like there are so many Asians who are forced to play instruments, so many, it’s so common, so [it has become] a part of our culture.” Song proposes that this intimate relationship subtly influences how Asians dance. “It ties into our style … I feel Asians are so precise, and it goes along with the music training … it subliminally affects the way we approach dance.” This precision allows for greater execution and performance, inducing the mainstream appeal of Asian hip-hop dancers. Unfortunately, the basis of his argument falls into orientalism. Song’s argument calls for Asian hip-hop dance to be considered an orientalist performance as he essentializes the Asian American experience of musical mastery. This allows the rhetoric to play into the racial mundane as performances of Asian Americans are racialized. What Song is saying then, is that Asian Americans are only good at dancing and warrant mainstream appeal because of their Asian upbringing rather than merit.
With the growth of dance competition shows like America’s Best Dance Crew and So Do You Think You Can Dance?, hip-hop dance became a visible art form with distinctive techniques and history, likening its regard to other more classical forms of dance. With that came the dismantling of negative stereotypes that associate with the brand of hip-hop, as the commercialization of this dance form through network television allowed it to be consumed as entertainment by the American public. Song explains that “the highest thing you could get as a choreographer before ABDC is to be the choreographer for a big artist. After ABDC, Jabbawockeez became the most famous dancers, so now dancers become the celebrities.” Much of their success can be tied to the visibility granted by these dance competition shows, but credit must be given to their Asian-ness.
Why is hip-hop accepted as a legitimate art form now instead of before, when African Americans were the face of the hip-hop culture? The idea of property and ownership of a culture has to be construed through the lens of a racialized America. Capitalism has diminished the politics of hip-hop and Asian Americans are somewhat responsible as active participants in televised shows and sponsored dance competitions across the country. It seems that Asian Americans have accrued higher cultural capital in hip-hop than African Americans themselves. They have lost something that they have created due to the conditions of how it got started: in the slums of a failing economic urban jungle by a group of undesired and impoverished Black youth. The ascension of hip-hop played intimately with Asian Americans and their relationship with race, class, and cultural capital. Hip-hop in part does glorify undesired ideals of violence. However, it is a reflection of its environment. Hip-hop was born from a specific place through a specific group of marginalized people. The stigma that came with the brand stemmed from the grievances of those in control of its message, calling out the hegemonic oppressions that gave rise to hip-hop to begin with. It was this systemic violence against African Americans that birthed hip-hop, and it is this violence that is completely foreign to capitalist consumers of hip-hop.
If this violence is attributed to hip-hop, there must a reason why hip-hop is so attractive to Asian Americans. The reason is violence itself. By participating in it, they express agency through rejecting the structural expectations of the model minority. Participating in something rooted in violence brings forth the dialogue of the “good” v. “bad” dichotomy of Asian Americans. Also, violence is the symbol of hegemonic masculinity. The hypermasculinity of hip-hop expressed as drugs, gangs, and sex bypasses the passiveness of the (in)visible Asian body. Participating in hip-hop allows Asian Americans to partake in cultural citizenship. Living as the forever-foreigner, hip-hop separates them from the homogenizing role of the model minority. For Asian Americans, hip-hop ties them to their American identity. As such, they owe much to the African American community for creating a platform through which marginalized people can utilize in racial discourse. However, it should be known and respected that hip-hop was born out of marginalization itself. To deny its roots and base it off of orientalist notions trivializes the power that hip-hop grants to those who really need it.