The pressure to refrain from “selling out” one’s dignity or originality to a dominant culture, is an age-old theme in hip-hop. As shown in the movie “Compton”, even the pioneers of black hip-hop in Los Angeles had to resist the white capitalist machine and fight for their right to perform the radical and authentic form of their music. As the subordinate class in both society and hip-hop, Asian American rappers must resist and negotiate pressures from both in order to create and maintain an authenticity in the industry.
In KOTD5, a rap battle showcase sponsored by rapper Drake and his label, Dumbfoundead, a legendary former battle rapper and the foremost Korean-American rapper, battled Wild ’n Out cast member Conceited, in what would become the most watched rap battle of 2015. In this battle, Dumbfoundead denounces Conceited for selling out by signing to Wild’n Out, a MTV comedy rap battle improv skit show. He claimed that in his audition, MTV made him play out demeaning Asian and Chinese stereotypes, and likely made Conceited do so as well.
Someone who did not take this well was Timothy DeLaGhetto, Thai YouTube phenomenon, rapper, and Conceited’s fellow Wild’n Out cast member. Bordering hate speech, Conceited’s attacks towards Dumbfoundead did not only contain but were almost exclusively comprised of racist diatribes that showed an alarmingly accepted hatred towards the Asian people. DeLaGhetto, who was laughing along on the sideline for both sides, scored the highly contested battle 2-1 for Conceited when interviewed.
In such a close battle, DeLaGhetto’s stance can be perceived as trivializing hip-hop culture and larger society’s racism towards Asians. Dumbfoundead’s accusations of Conceited selling out to Wild’n Out is even more applicable to the show’s token Asian rapper, DeLaGhetto. With his scoring, DeLaGhetto attempts to delegitimize Dumbfoundead’s claims regarding Wild’n Out while legitimizing and normalizing the humor in Conceited’s blatantly racist lines. In doing this, DeLaGhetto is complicit in hip-hop’s orientalization.
Yet, without context, DeLaGhetto’s participation in Wild’n Out cannot be construed as a blatant ‘sellout’, as much as it is a renegotiation of his identity in the context of the model minority myth and his place as Thai-American in the multiple dimensions of hegemony. Growing up with more economic privilege, DeLaGhetto had more exposure and influence of the model minority myth than Dumbfoundead. While DeLaGhetto was pursued theater in high school, eventually attending college for a short time before deciding to pursue an entertainment career, Dumbfoundead, smuggled from Argentina as a child, started battle rapping at the age of 10, dropping out of high school by his sophomore year. Constantly having to reaffirm his racial identity in the face of verbal opposition, Dumbfoundead grew up rejecting the model minority myth.
This difference in their exposure to the model minority myth leads Dumbfoundead and DeLaGhetto to different philosophies of liberalism and radicalism in their work. The biggest difference lies in their attitudes in battle rap. Dumbfoundead, who was at the top of the battle game in the 2000s, gave up battle rap to produce a less successful studio career, in part to escape battle rap’s toxic racism. The decision to turn around a successful career for a principle is radical. DeLaGhetto, however, while running a top #100 YouTube channel and earning substantial revenue, would not decline a token Asian role in Wild’n Out when offered. Due to DeLaGhetto’s greater exposure and influence to the model minority myth, he is much more willing to perpetuate it for personal gain.
Yet, Dumbfoundead and DeLaGhetto are also afforded different opportunities due to their positions in the Asian hegemony. Dumbfoundead, as the foremost Korean American rapper, is in high demand for collaboration by emerging Korean American rappers, as well as Korean rappers that fluent in English or want to expand to a global fanbase. Even with his limited language skills, Dumbfoundead potentially has access to a multibillion dollar K-Pop/K-Rap industry and fanbase that he can engage with without racial guilt. Contrarily, DeLaGhetto does not have necessarily have a burgeoning Thai Pop/Rap industry that he is able to access. Due to this lack of economic options, DeLaGhetto may have been enticed to take a more demeaning role in Wild’n Out in order to achieve his career goals.
Although, from Dumbfoundead’s perspective, forged by his relationship with the model minority myth and his place in the hegemony, it may easy to dismiss Wild’n Out and DeLaGhetto’s relationship with it as ‘selling out’, DeLaGhetto’s relationship with the same two factors may have forced his hand in having to go against some principles that Dumbfoundead is afforded, in the interest of sustaining his career. This shows that intra-Asian American relations are as important as their relations with society at large.