Hip hop dreams: Asian Americans artists on the difficulties they face breaking out into mainstream rap

By Steven Cong
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY

Gordon Tsai, a rapper, is also known by his stage name, Gifted on West East, or G.O.W.E. (Photo by Jen Au)

“Right now, we’re at a time when we’re just bubbling. When all Asian artists come together and start to realize each other’s work ethics, it’s going to be great,” said Sonny Thongoulay, a local Laotian Ameri­can rapper. Thongoulay goes by the stage name “Sonny Bonoho.”

Thongoulay was born in Ubon, Thailand, but is ethnically Laotian. He has served as the opening act for rappers like Snoop Dogg and Twis­ta. His most recent album, Phone Phreak, was released on April 10.

Sonny Thongoulay, a rapper, is also known by his stage name, Sonny Bonoho (Photo by Anthony Frausto)

Thongoulay, along with Gordon Tsai, a Chinese American rapper with the stage name “Gifted On West East,” or G.O.W.E., are concerned with the current state of Asian Americans and hip hop. To them, there are certain challenges that arose from Asian American stereotypes.

“The first thing people think of when it comes to Asian emcees is that it’s almost like an oxymoron,” said Tsai. “Hip hop was created out of poverty, and this whole idea that Asian Americans are the model minorities leads to the belief that they can’t possibly have struggles to talk about.”

Tsai is a Beacon Hill native who draws inspiration from his Christian faith. He says he does not believe in conform­ing to the stereotypes associated with hip hop artists and that he finds value in networking with other rappers, espe­cially those in the Asian American community.

“In America, when you think of hip hop, you think of African Americans. So when an Asian American person tries to make it big, they get shut down because they don’t fit the image of what a hip hop artist should be,” said Gio­vonni Bruno, a Korean American fan of the music.

The mainstream

The artists also view the lack of media attention as an ob­stacle to mainstream success, as well as the reinforcement of conventional hip hop stereotypes.

“A lot of Asian artists out there are real creative in the mind,” said Thongoulay, “but it’s not like the media wants to look for an Asian rapper that’s real cool. I’m trying to figure out when a company is willing to put a million dol­lars or two behind an Asian rapper.”

Tsai points out that too many people perceive rappers to be individuals who live with limited economic resources. As a result, many Asian American artists are pretending to fit the archetype and produce music that address issues they are not actually familiar with and could not personally relate to.

“A lot of Asian Americans feel like, if they want to rap, they have to put on a certain gangster image and go all the way, or else they won’t be believable,” said Tsai. “I really wish more rappers would just be themselves, honestly.”

Despite the difficulties of establishing an image, both rappers agreed that there are limits to how culture should be stressed.

“I don’t think you should use your ethnicity as some kind of a gimmick to draw attention to yourself. If that’s your only crutch, you’re screwed,” said Tsai. “But please do not neglect who you are. You’re Asian for a reason. You should be proud of that; you should represent that, but you shouldn’t exploit that.”

An fact often overlooked is the fact that Asian Americans have been involved in the hip hop community for decades. The Mountain Brothers in Philadelphia and the Asiatic Apostles in California were pioneers of Asian American hip hop during the 1990s. Newer groups include the Far East Movement in Los Angeles and the Blue Scholars in Seattle. However, the only mainstream breakthrough in Asian American hip hop was Chinese American rapper Jin Au–Yeung, who found success in 2001.

Au–Yeung was the first Asian American rapper to enter the mainstream music industry after he retired undefeated on the Black Entertainment Television program “106 & Park,” a music video show. He was signed to the Ruff Ryders record label following his stint on the show. His debut album, “The Rest Is History,” was released in October 2004 and earned him a spot on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.

Dr. Oliver Wang, a professor at the University of Cali­fornia, Berkeley, attributes hip hop’s popularity with Asian Americans to the fact that it was the “dominant youth cul­ture” of the 1980s and 1990s.

Language of youth

“[Hip hop’s] more energetic and fun than everything else,” said Bruno.

“Hip hop is a language that a lot of youth today can un­derstand, and when they do understand it, it’s therapeutic to them,” said Thongoulay.

“If you’re stressed out with a bunch of different things, and there’s a bunch of stuff in your life, you write it down, you record it, you transform it into a dance. It’s literally your way of expressing yourself and getting that off of your chest in a positive way that influences others and builds community,” said Tsai.

Artists of the Northwest

Tsai and Thongoulay compared the Northwest to the rest of the nation by citing responses local Asian American rap­pers have received.

“In the Seattle area, I think everyone respects the Blue Scholars, but on a national level, people are still too scared to really support them because they are different,” said Tsai. “In the whole West Coast, there’s a really good Asian community. But the West Coast? Man, that’s only 20 per­cent of the whole nation. If you look at the rest of America, the majority is white people. They only understand Asian Americans from what they see on TV. All of a sudden, you’ve got this rapper, and on top of that, he’s Asian. You know, it’s completely foreign to them.”

Thongoulay elaborated on the need for Asian American art­ists to branch out. He described how Asian American rappers should not depend on their local communities for a fan base.

“It is the Asian American artist’s responsibility to go out. Do they have a faith factor of going to Portland, to Califor­nia, or wherever? I went on tour in Germany, and came back and made money. The sky is the limit,” said Thongoulay.

The rappers hope for greater success in the future of Asian American hip hop artists. The current status of Asian American hip hop will set the stage for what’s to come. ♦

For more information on G.O.W.E., visit www.teamgowe.com. For more information on Sonny Bonoho, visit www.myspace.com/sonnybonoho.

Steven Cong can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

20 Responses to “Hip hop dreams: Asian Americans artists on the difficulties they face breaking out into mainstream rap”

  1. J’ai pas eu l’occasion de finir de regarder
    toutefois je passe ce soir

  2. C’est un véritable bonheur de visiter ce post

  3. J’ai trouvé votre site par chance puis je ne le regrette point !!!

  4. Fantastic website. Plenty of useful information here.
    I am sending it to some friends ans also sharing in delicious.
    And certainly, thank you on your effort!

  5. stacy says:

    I tend to agree- stereotypes exist for people create to a quick perception without really true knowledge/understanding. It’s only when the pure soul of a person comes out, will people really listen or care to try to know vs. perceive.

    The feature story reminds me of Gowe’s latest song, “Star In My Eyes”, which also addresses the image that mainstream hip hop music portrays/accepts. Check it out (especially listen to the lyrics) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTPPn9DyDfc

  6. J.R. LeMar says:

    I think it’s a shame that Jin never really broke through the mainstream like I think he should have. The first problem was that Ruff Ryder took so long to put out his debut CD. They should have struck while the iron was hot, and got something out within months of his becoming FF Champion. Even if his own CD wasn’t ready, they should have dropping mixtapes, and having him feature on a bunch of other rapper’s songs, keeping his name in the spotlight. Instead it was over a year and half before Rest Is History came out.

    But his second CD, Emcee’s Properganda was AWESOME. If that had been released on a mainstream label, it would have been huge.

  7. sphere says:

    nice article… its tough in my city for Dru B Shinin’, but he’s the best emcee in our city. unfortunately he has to get past the whole “who’s this guy think he is” drama just to be heard!

  8. Ivan says:

    hip hop belongs to all colors, races, and backgrounds. asians have been b-boying, djaying, and taggin’ since forever and a day. grab the mic and rock the that sh*t!

  9. Spectrum Lab says:

    I don’t normally reply to posts but I just had to in this instance. Really great article!

  10. Hola says:

    What about creating a new form of music? That’s what African-Americans did with jazz, rock, hip-hop etc. Why copy?

  11. non says:

    Unity is the key to success. Who care if others are supporting us or not in this begining stage. At least, we, all Asian-Pacific Americans should throw in to support our cause for media attention, success, and network. Keep your motives up and never give up. You have to be confident and show you can do better and should succeed in some days.

    I know, this country is all about White and Black. Hey, what about us: Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Arabic, Indian, and everybody else. You have to fight hard to get attention and don’t afraid to create waves. People stereotype a lot in this country. I used to go to club dancing. The general population didn’t think I could go up the stage and dance and do all kinds of dirty stuffs in front of everyone. I did, I showed my dominate, man, courtage, I liked it. Hey, everyone was suprised and they backed out. I even picked fight and fought for girls I danced with. People were wrong to even judged me.

    Key it up brothers and sisters. America needs new ethnic model, Asian and Hispanics are fast growing ethnic groups and we need to show our power and determination. Forget what they think and it is time to brain wash them, condition them, and maybe them a little bit more Asia spice and make them wake up!

  12. Lisa says:

    - Lovely layout Marcy! Congrats on the Elle Design Team pistoion. Oh, and glad your sewing machine is up and running again. (What a relief!) Love all of ES stuff but those labels and pennants are darling! Take care you!

  13. Lisa says:

    - Lovely layout Marcy! Congrats on the Elle Design Team pistoion. Oh, and glad your sewing machine is up and running again. (What a relief!) Love all of ES stuff but those labels and pennants are darling! Take care you!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Hip hop dreams: Asian Americans artists on the difficulties they face breaking out into mainstream r… [...]

  2. [...] was reading this interview conducted by Steven Cong of North West Asian Weekly titled “Hip hop dreams: Asian Americans artists on the difficulties they face breaking out into mains…” and it got me thinking a little bit. He was interviewing two artists… Gordon Tsai and [...]

  3. [...] Hip Hop Dreams: Asian American Artists Face Difficulties Breaking into Mainstream Rap | NW Asian Wee… "'The first thing people think of when it comes to Asian emcees is that it’s almost like an oxymoron,' said Tsai. 'Hip hop was created out of poverty, and this whole idea that Asian Americans are the model minorities leads to the belief that they can’t possibly have struggles to talk about.'" (tags: via:cruelsecretary asianamerican hip-hop stereotypes images) [...]

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by G Slick, Movement Inc, Glenn Raps, Bellz, Entertainment news and others. Entertainment news said: Hip hop dreams: Asian Americans artists on the difficulties they face breaking … – Northwest Asian Weekly http://bit.ly/cnpY09 [...]


Leave a Reply

Save the date! — SEPTEMBER 19, 2014


Amazing Women Mentors: Volunteering as a way of life
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.—1:30 p.m.
WHERE: China Harbor Restaurant, 2040 Westlake Ave. N., Seattle
TICKETS: 206-223-0623, rsvp@nwasianweekly.com

Community Calendar

Weekly E-Newsletter

READ NWAW ONLINE!

Follow our tweets

Do you like us?

  1. We welcome any feedback, questions or comments
  1. Are you the organizer of an Asian/Pacific Islander community event? Just fill out the following form at least 14 days in advance of your event and we’ll do our best to include it in our calendar. Please fill out the information as completely as possible. Failure to do so may result in your event not making it in the calendar.

Photos on flickr