VOLUME 28 NO. 12 | MARCH 14 - MARCH 20, 2009


Rappers delight
API Hip Hoppers carve out a home in the Seattle scene

Last updated 3-12-09 at 4:44 p.m.

To many, Vietnamese American Andrew Le is better known by his stage name, “Nam.” Le is a local rapper who has been carving out a niche for himself in Seattle’s Hip Hop scene.

Khanfidenz, photo by Jane Gershovich

CanarySing, photo provided by their MySpace

Know Choice, photo by Griff J.

By Dr. Julie Pham
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly

“The Northwest has a large API cultural presence, so it’s inevitable that there would also be a large API Hip Hop presence,” said Seattle MC and activist Daniel Kogita (also known by his stage name, King Khazm). “It shows there’s an awareness of Hip Hop as a culture, a universal entity.”

Kogita founded 206 Zulu, the Seattle chapter of Zulu Nation, the largest Hip Hop organization in the country. The richness of API Hip Hop in the Seattle area is, in part, due to the organizational force of 206 Zulu.

“Through its acceptance and promotion by [206 Zulu], Asian Hip Hop Summit Seattle has become woven into the local fabric more tightly than any other Asian Hip Hop summit out-side of Los An-geles,” said Kublai Kwon, founder of the Los Angeles–based Asiatic Em-pire, which or-ganizes the annual summit.

Considering that the first Asian Hip Hop Summit Seattle was held just two years ago, that’s saying a lot. Last year, Seattle hosted the 2008 Asian Hip Hop Summit Tour, which was organized by 206 Zulu’s Alonzo Ybarra (Big Zo).

“When I was asked to coordinate it, I could have said no because I’m not Asian,” he said. “But that would be going against the universality of Hip Hop. The event celebrated the huge contribution of Asians to Hip Hop culture.”

Kublai Kwon pointed out that the “nationwide Asian spoken word scene during the 1990s was largely organized by Asian poets from Seattle.” In Seattle, he said, “many of the top underground rappers are Asian.”

Hip Hop producer Greg Garcia said that when he first moved to Seattle from Sacramento in 2005, he was struck by the high level of consciousness in the music of local Asian rappers.

This does not necessarily mean Seattle API rappers saturate the music with their “Asian-ness.”

For example, Korean American Paul Yoon (Khanfidenz) cites his artistic influence as “LIFE” on his MySpace page. In the selection of three songs, he does not include any ob-vious references to being Asian. He chooses to focus on un-iversal themes of domestic violence, substance abuse, and depression. One nod to his ethnicity is in his stage name, a play on the words “confidence” and “Genghis Khan.”

Lyrics and people

Though an ethnic influence in one’s music is not always overt, being Asian does factor into many API rappers’ lyrics. Younger rappers tend to write about subjects that are familiar to them.

“My music is very introspective and personal, as it tackles very vulnerable subjects,” said Jason Chen, who goes by the stage name Know Choice.

Chen has a Taiwanese mother and Taiwanese­-Japanese father. In one song, he emphasizes the diversity among Asians, defying the stereotype that all Asians share the same cultural background. “Ain’t a person that can tell us who we can or can’t be,” he raps. “We more than the language that we can or can’t speak/Whether refugee or immigrant, alien or citizen/If you clumpin’ us all together then you ignorant/That could “how could two-thirds of the world all be the same?”

Some other APIs rap about a common thread in Asian history. In “Beats, Rhymes, and Rice,” Andrew Le, whose stage name is Nam, is joined by George Quibuyen (MC Geologic of the rap duo Blue Scholars). Though Le’s family is from Vietnam and Quibuyen is from the Philippines, two countries with different histories of Western colonialism, there is still a sense of kinship between the two as they find commonalities in their respective experiences. “Dusty foot brothers coming from the third world/Southeast countries/Where our people livin’ hungry/We separated through miles of foreign land/But we connected through the heart between/My pen and my pad.”

Then there are the minorities within the minority: Asian female rappers. Hollis Wong-Wear and Madeleine Clifford form the rap duo CanarySing. Hollis Wong-Wear’s mother is from Hong Kong and her father is from Omaha, Neb. The biracial Bay Area native started rapping after she came to Seattle for college.

“Most people who see us perform haven’t seen a woman do what we do, much less a Chinese girl. People are incredulous when I tell them I rap,” said Wong-Wear.

She is currently working with Clifford on her first rap, “half breed,” that explicitly invokes her Asian ancestry. She shared bits of the rap, which she has yet to “spit in public.”

“Yo, I’m a second generation postcolonial kid/With scrambled egg skin/Mixing the whites and the yolks/As a baby I babbled bilingual in my mother’s kitchen/But my Chinese got silenced before I knew the difference.”

Though her Chinese was “silenced” at a young age, Wong-Wear has resurrected it through rap.

“[My mother] is absolutely my hero, and I like to call her a true gangster — I rap because she can’t,” she said. (end)

Julie Pham is the managing editor of Nguoi Viet Tay Bac/Northwest Vietnamese News, a semiweekly newspaper in Seattle.

Julie Pham can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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