The minute they see me, fear me
I'm the epitome, a public enemy
Used, abused without clues
I refused to blow a fuse
They even had it on the news
Don't believe the hype
—Public Enemy, “Don’t Believe the Hype”
American social movements have come to define our culture in the face of capitalism. In fact, it’s the cataclysmic intersections of visual art, writing and performance art that have contributed to great cultural change in the United States. Though hip-hop originated in the Bronx in the 1970s, the exhibit “Don’t Believe the Hype: L.A. Asian-Americans in Hip-Hop” documents the way the 40-year-old music movement has inspired resilience and defiance in the art created by Los Angeles' Asian-American population.
Justin Hoover, newly appointed curator at the Chinese-American Museum of Los Angeles, recognized the connections; he and co-curator Ninochka McTaggart bring together these links to examine themes in the local Asian-American community. The main ideas in the exhibit involve breaking expectations, self-expression, innovation, social change, connection to racial/ethnic/gender identity and collaboration. Where racism tries to alienate and manipulate identity, L.A. Asian-American artists have answered with painting, photography, digital art, drawing and video installation.
One of the brightest populist bursts since the days of jazz, the Beats and the abstract expressionists, hip-hop was music born from the need for community in places that white people (colonialism in the truest sense) wanted to destroy and lampoon. Popularized byo DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, who vandalized vinyl to create breakbeats and mix their own songs, hip-hop spread across the nation. The party in the basement became the meeting place, the date night and the social center. Graffiti artists painted the walls, breakdancers took over the dance floor, fashion reappropriated, and MCs belted well-crafted rap lyrics that influenced a new literary vocal style (later called slam poetry).
In Los Angeles, hip-hop was embraced immediately. Marginalized groups like Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans forced into their own pockets in the city not only appreciated hip-hop but also became active participants in the movement. Groundbreaking California artists like African-Americans Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg appeared on the scene, and Filipino-American DJs like Mix Master Mike, Qbert and Babu followed.
McTaggart’s Ph.D. dissertation, “Asian-Americans in Hip-Hop: 'So Ghetto' or as American as Elvis and Apple Pie?,” served as a jumping-off point for the exhibit. The show focuses on Asian-American artists who participate in facets of hip-hop and artists who document Asian-Americans in hip-hop. Participating visual artists include DEFER, Gajin Fujita, Hueman, Kenny Kong, Nisha Sethi, Farah Sosa, Shark Toof, SWANK and Erin Yoshi. Other ephemera and media from B+ for Mochilla, Beat Junkie Institute of Sound, Culture Shock, Daryl Chou and Alfred Hawkins (organizers of the Firecracker music series) and performing artists Jason Chu, DJ Rhettmatic, DJ Babu and SETI X hit the roots of the movement, the music and styles that have evolved as the genre innovated.
Though as an art form it predates hip-hop, graffiti seamlessly complements hip-hop in many ways. Participating painter Gajin Fujita explained, “Hip-hop naturally became a refuge for me and my experiences, especially because I was able to inherit a group of friends and joined a graffiti crew. The crew gave me a sense of camaraderie and safety, like a fraternity of the streets.” His large-scale paintings are a window into L.A. Asian-American street culture, and Extricate, his collaboration with crew peer DEFER, shows just how much their styles can range while inspired by the same set of circumstances, talent and ambition. Together they communicate how unique factors come together to tell a similar story of resistance, refuge and reinvention in the face of popular misidentification.
“In graffiti, the letter form is the foundation — in hip-hop, it’s the wild style,” DEFER explained. “It’s how you can take something relatively simple and contort, add arrows, twist and turn, add dimensions to create a form of organized chaos. These components of style can be seen in my works today. The music — the art of rap, the beats, past and present, are, have been and still are ever inspiring to my work, often on an unseen level of motivation that helps me push myself to reach for new levels in my artistic evolution.”
McTaggart’s academic work pushes these ideas. She expanded on how the exhibit is able to visualize them: “All the artists in the show represent one or more of the generally accepted four pillars of hip-hop (MCing, dance, graffiti or turntablism). For example, Farah Sosa is a photographer who captured Asian-American participation in a dance series, THE FLOOR Improv Night, where dance and improvisational music and rhythms come together. You may find b-boys dancing to salsa or capoieristas moving to the sounds of old-school hip-hop. Another artist, Nisha Sethi, mixes elements of her Punjabi heritage, like henna tattoo stylization, with hip-hop lyrics and aesthetics, viewing art as a way to create social change.”
The need to reinvent and resist is prevalent in communities that need to dispel discrimination and foster equality. Hip-hop as a movement is symbolic in the way it creates change in the most primitive sense. While the media and old American guard want to produce propaganda that falsely frames people of color, the exhibit “Don’t Believe the Hype” reminds that the myth is easy to see through and community endures. Chuck D and Public Enemy’s message truly transcends the African-American experience.
“I hope the Los Angeles community can visit the exhibit and view a perspective of Asian-American life that is not often represented. I believe that both hip-hop fans and those curious to learn more about Asian-American contributions to hip-hop can enjoy the exhibit,” McTaggart said.
“Don’t Believe the Hype: L.A. Asian-Americans in Hip-Hop,” Chinese-American Museum, 425 N. Los Angeles St., downtown, through Nov. 4.
Editor's note: Due to incorrect information supplied by the museum, the name of the pictured work, a collaboration between Gajin Fujita and DEER, was incorrect. The piece is called Extricate. We regret the error.