Cover StorySlaying the dragon
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On one side of the banquet room, a slender-yet-well-built dancer spins on his head, seemingly forever. On the other side, a deejay skillfully manipulates two copies of the same record to create his own beat. Both draw roars of approval from an ethnically mixed — yet distinctly Asian — crowd. No, it’s neither a demented, bootleg version of Beat Street or Juice, nor a hot club in downtown Tokyo. It’s just another night at Golden Harvest. Yes, that Golden Harvest, the nondescript Warren Chinese restaurant.
In an area as ethnically and musically polarized as metro Detroit, even the most hard core hip-hop fan could spend an entire life here and never learn about events such as this. That is, if metro Detroit Asian youth were content to be a silent minority. While Asian and Asian-American community organizing is nothing new, many members of today’s generation are using a new tool to gain respect and visibility in the city they call home: hip hop.
Detroit promoter Rodrigo Gayta of Classified Records says that hip hop and other forms of urban music are key to promoting Asian-American culture. His predominately Filipino-American-run Still Real entertainment company sponsors events such as the parties in the banquet room above Golden Harvest that attract large numbers of Asian Americans who have few options when it comes to gathering with people of ethnic backgrounds similar to their own. Simply bringing people together and being professional is enough to instill a sense of pride in the community. However, he’s quick to add that no events are closed off to non-Asians. And the diverse crowds prove it, too.
"Music is the common ground that draws together people of different backgrounds. From there, personal friendships and business connections are made, thus breaking down stereotypes and misunderstanding," explains Gayta.
Yet Korean-American Mike Song of Grosse Ile says that hip hop can be a double-edged sword when it comes to stereotypes about Asians. "Most songs and videos that make reference to us reinforce old stereotypes: We all know kung-fu, own shops, and all Asian women are sex objects," he says.
In the same vein, others feel that Asian-American participation is creating a new caricature, the breakdancing super-deejay who wears clothes that are three sizes too big and gang-bangs on the side — a far cry from the pencil-pushing, docile, model minority myth with a bad haircut and thick accent.
While overcoming these stereotypes is critical in society at large, it’s equally so in the hip-hop world, which is a way of life for so many young people who grew up in the concrete jungles of urban America. Korean-American Joontae Park and Hmong-American Taying Yang express frustration at always having to prove themselves. "We grew up on hip hop. This is what we know. From b-boying (dancing) to deejaying, we’ve been doing this for as long as we can remember, but since we’re not black, people are hesitant to take us seriously," says Yang.
But, says Park, "A lot of Asian kids aren’t into hip hop for the right reasons. They don’t know its history or respect the fact that this culture was primarily founded by African Americans and shouldn’t be watered down like rock ’n’ roll and jazz were."
Ironically, a lot of these misunderstandings and misinterpretations lead to the same divisions along race, class and geographical lines within Detroit’s hip-hop community that permeate the rest of our society. For example, Detroit-based deejays and b-boys with strong ties and connections to California and New York have never been to Detroit hip-hop hubs such as Cafe Mahogany or Kaboodlz. Patrons of these establishments have never heard of talents such as Filipino-American DJ Crucial, who’s making a name for himself in the prestigious DMC DJ competition circuit. But this is all changing.
Killing two birds with one stone, Still Real has made impressive strides in promoting both Asian-American pride and the core elements of hip hop. Seamlessly combining the two, their Golden Harvest party featured a who’s-who of Detroit talent: Non-Asians DJ Godfather, 12 Tech Mob and the nationally respected b-boy U-Turn performed, as well as Filipino-American DJs Pino and Scratch ’n’ Sniff.
Crucial continues making a name for himself, deejaying at local venues with the likes of 105.9 FM mix DJ Wax Tax ’n’ Dre. Additionally, he has joined DJ crew, Combined Individuals —which also features Goodie Mob’s Filipino deejay phenom Shotgun.
Although he’s very proud of his heritage, Crucial makes it very clear that working hard and being creative is what will bring Asian Americans respect. Often, ethnicity is just an incidental characteristic.
Despite the fact that this was a Filipino-sponsored event, the vibe at Golden Harvest was anything but exclusionary. Interracial couples watched African-American dancers battle Southeast Asians, while Latino deejays, kinda, well, deejayed! In the end, the common bond was people having a good time.
Detroit hip-hop junkies are steadily adding another element to the mosaics of Asian America, and a new flavor to the chocolate soul of D-town and the vanilla suburbs north of Eight Mile. Answering Rodney King’s eternal question, "Can’t we just all get along?" — after a night at Golden Harvest, the answer is a resounding yes!
Daniel D. Zarazua writes about music at the Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.