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“Understand the meaning of MC. The power to Move the Crowd like Moses splits the seas.” Remembering the lyrics of Talib Kweli, my favorite rapper, I rapped, surrounded by a small crowd on the streets. As I stole glimpses of teens in their oversized sweaters and baggy jeans throwing their hands in the air and swaying them left and right, I felt as if I were a talented rapper – a real MC.
“Hip hop is for African Americans,” retorted my English literature teacher after overhearing my views on rhymes in rap music. He argued that a middle class Asian girl’s mimicking an African American rapper’s style and lyrics wouldn’t make her an authentic artist. Though I wanted to fight back, I found myself unable to offer a counter argument.
That night, I sent an e-mail to Vanessa Diaz, the director of the Cuban hip hop documentary, Desde el Principio, which had mesmerized me only a few nights ago, explaining what had happened during that class – and the problems of expressing myself through hip hop. Through her lengthy reply that arrived after many days, I learned that the Cubans and African Americans had gone through similar predicaments – poverty and oppression – and thus adopted similar music as a means of expressing their sufferings. Toward the end, she added, “What kind of strife are you going through?”
To that question, I was dumbfounded. Perhaps, it was because I was too immature, inexperienced, or maybe because I was born to middle class comfort. Though my heart throbbed with the pulsating beats, my body swung to the smooth melody, and my eyes were enthralled with the flamboyancy, I then realized that I knew not the pains of oppression and deprivation the musicians rapped about. I knew I wasn’t faking it, but I wasn’t identifying with it either.
So I stopped rapping. Rapping without consciousness, I thought, was like trying to pass for something that I was not. Days had passed when Jin, a member of the school rap group, called and asked, “Come and show how to freestyle.” “No,” my mind resisted, but before I knew it, the rhythm of the body had already swept through my small frame. “Give her the beat!”
Riding the Talib Kweli quadruple beats, I rapped Korean rhymes mixed with my hometown dialect – about suffocating competition at school, about the estrangement I felt living alone to continue my studies, about a friend who refused to talk to me for days, about the xenophobic tendency of certain Koreans, and about a few populist politicians’ branding us, foreign language school students, “elitists.” None of my stories actually coincided with those of African American or Cuban rappers, but the lyrics this time were fully mine.
Hip hop is a vessel through which one molds and refines one’s identity. I was initially attracted to certain beats, particular rhymes, and the unrefined swagger the musicians embodied. But now I know, whether I am African American, Cuban or Korean, that this music is a way of figuring out who I am.
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