Don’t Believe the Hype: L.A. Asian Americans in Hip Hop examines how hip hop, now a vehicle through which young people all over the world have a voice, acts as a space for reinvention for Asian Americans in Los Angeles. One of the first museum exhibits of its kind that's focused on Asian Americans’ contributions to hip hop, Don't Believe the Hype is on view at the Chinese American Museum in Downtown L.A. through Nov. 4. Featuring photos, audio/video installations, paintings, interactive media, poetry, murals and historic ephemera, Don’t Believe the Hype portrays hip hop from a different cultural point of view than usual.
Born in New York City in the early 1970s as a pathway of expression to mainly black and Latino youth, hip hop today crosses racial, ethnic, gender, class, language and geographical boundaries, influencing everything from fashion and television to music and film all over the planet. As a cultural unifier, hip hop allowed the Los Angeles-based Asian American artists in the exhibit a voice that they otherwise felt they didn’t have.
“These artists resisted traditional expectations of themselves,” said Justin Hoover, who co-curated the exhibition with Ninochka McTaggart. “They were unfulfilled by what existed. Hip hop allowed them to be fulfilled. Through hip hop, they reinvented their sense of culture and showed how Asian Americans can express themselves in diverse ways.”
The cultural connection is highlighted in the archival photos and documents that reflect the popular (but now-closed) Firecracker underground club organized by Daryl Chou and Alfred Hawkins at the Grand Star Jazz Club in Chinatown. Firecracker became a thriving community featuring racially, ethnically and age inclusive events from 1998 until 2009. “Hip hop is generally perceived as belonging to African Americans,” said Hoover. “Firecracker shows hip hop is a way to connect the community, regardless of culture.”
Another section of the exhibit is devoted to the Beat Junkies, internationally recognized as one of the greatest DJ crews in history. Born in Los Angeles in 1992, the Beat Junkies are world-famous for their signature “Beat Junkie Style” of DJing. DJ Babu, a Beat Junkies member of Filipino descent, is credited by many for coining the term “turntablist” - a DJ who uses the turntable like a music instrument.
“My parents wanted me to be a lawyer, architect or doctor,” said DJ Babu about fighting the "model minority" stereotype. “What I wanted was the last thing my parents wanted.” DJ Babu, who earned world titles in the 1990s, said his fierce determination to succeed outweighed traditional thinking, which views hip hop coming primarily from blacks and Latinos. “It doesn’t matter where you come from,” he said. “I could be an alien. But musically I wanted to be so advanced.”
And What! (Fujin) by Gajin Fujita suggests there’s no stereotypical definition of hip hop. Inspired by Japanese antiquities, Fujita depicts the Japanese wind god Fujin with a boombox, a 40-ounce bottle and a tattoo across his stomach, a reflection of his own upbringing as a Japanese American in Boyle Heights. “I wanted to give Fujin the attitude of not really giving a thought to what people think of him,” said Fujita.
L.A.'s global melting pot shaped many Asian American artists such as Shark Toof, best known internationally for his iconic wheat paste image of a hand-drawn shark. In Qīnrù (Trespass) he spray paints the shark image on a sewn canvas tarp behind a chain link fence to question if that fence is keeping the audience in or out. The red shades of the shark are attributed to his Chinese heritage. But speaking no Chinese, he grew up in South L.A.
The fusion between traditional Asian roots and street art is exemplified with Spiritual Language, an acrylic on canvas by DEFER, an Asian American street artist who grew up in Boyle Heights. He mixes calligraphy with graffiti by obliterating the letter form through abstract strokes.
The exhibit includes a few works by Nisha Sethi, one of the few female graffiti artists of Indian descent, who uses her art as a tool for social change. Sethi mixes her Punjabi heritage with street art in Indian Style, As We Recite These Hymns, which features a lyric from "Award Tour" - a 1993 song by her favorite group, A Tribe Called Quest. “I didn’t want to be confined to stereotypes,” said Sethi. “Graffiti was an opportunity to do that. We don’t have to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. We can be ourselves through art work.”
The interactive exhibit featuring the voice of rapper Jason Chu confirms Sethi’s thinking. “Hip hop is all about glorifying and bringing to light the margins, rather than you got to come to the mainstream to be appreciated,” Chu said. “It creates a space for voices that are otherwise invisible.”
Underscoring how hip hop is a space for innovation, artist Kenny Kong explores the connections of dance, music and visual arts in “Body Tagz,” an interactive installation that uses boomboxes, cameras and software. This work gives power to the audience to turn their bodies into musical instruments and digital spray paint. “Hip hop is about using tools to express yourself to find your own voice,” said Kong. “As you dance, you create music and visual art, underscoring the idea that you can express yourself and be heard.”