“So Who Are You to Tell Me It’s Not My Passion, Homie?” AfroAsian Alignment as Asian American Being

Excerpted remarks for Shirl Yang and Cheng-Chai Chiang’s panel, “Tries and Tribulations: The Difficulties of Trying Reciprocity,” at the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present 12.

Asian American being exists at the ontological axis between anti-Blackness and Blackness. It collides against each, yet neither can subsume it, and structurally it takes the side of Blackness, fully and always, if for no other reason than the fact that all forms of racial-sexual abjection, as we Asians learned early on here in the United States, are variations on the central theme and fundament of anti-Blackness. Assimilation into racial whiteness — the supposed hallmark trying of our model-minoritization — is a mirage-horizon that most all of us recognize, in our heart of hearts, as nothing other than bad faith commitment to begin with. Alignment with Blackness, however, seems, at least to some of us, yet another foreclosed flight of fancy, an obverse mode of Asian striving in an anti-Black world that most Asian American literary theory would view as coming up short in and against the post-1960s ethnic context wherein true people-of-color consciousness has been scuttled by the realities of both the political economy of Asian immigration and the sociological / psychological morass of model-minoritization.

Contemporary Asian American culture, however, finds its new legibility, in the pandemic era especially, underwritten by the presence of an unshakeable AfroAsian consciousness that even mainstream academic culture recognizes now, however belatedly, as the foundation of an “Asian American” political banner, as we have seen in recent years, for instance, in the valorization of Grace Lee Boggs by Asian American Studies, despite the fact that Lee Boggs herself had nothing to do with the Asian American Movement proper.

That is to say, what Grace Lee Boggs got right — and what contemporary Asian American academia has traced correctly to her legacy — is the presumption that liberation study and revolutionary people-of-color consciousness begin in this civilization within Black struggle. In other words, Asian American consciousness, at its best, is grounded in the open field of Blackness. As Lee Boggs’s gracefully long life of commitment to Black liberation exemplified, one task of the Asian American, regardless of epoch and despite our own sociological and historical embeddedness in an anti-Black world, is to enact an unceasing reciprocity with and to the Black Radical Tradition.

As I have argued recently elsewhere, a theory of Asian American being must paradoxically commence from such reciprocity. In other words, to describe Asian American-ness is both to evoke AfroAsian comparison, by way of the ontological openness of and inclusion in the Black Radical Tradition, as well as to consider its own ontological bearing such that Asiatic being, even in this uniquely white-supremacist nation-state, can be said to exist in a mode its own. In this way, the reciprocal station of Asian America is simply the tried-and-true people-of-color feedback loop of ontological fortification wherein the reciprocity to Blackness serves to strengthen Asianness. In other words, Asian American being’s a priori pro-Black alignment is the paradoxical basis for an autonomous Asian American culture in the twenty-first century. This double composition of Asian American culture could barely have been traced, especially in academic quarters and its overemphasis on the so-called interpellative power of model minority discourse, if not for the cultural labor of a recent wave of Asian American thinkers and artists whose work conveys this paradox in all of its reciprocal richness and fullness. Thankfully, the visibility of elite Asian American Hip-hop artists has provided the cultural mapping of this alignment, wherein the Eliotic effort of “great labour” in earned understanding of Black cultural form and tradition aligns Asiatic racial ontology with the Black Radical Tradition in a straightforward way, arguing for a cultural reciprocity between Blackness and Asian Americanness via the idioms of alignment and shared dispossession.

In other words, what might it mean to take seriously the notion that some Asian Americans are the progeny of the Black Radical Tradition? Lyricks from Year of the Ox answers this question in “Pothole Freestyle” (2018) when he claims at the beginning of a boom bap missive that “I got my delivery from the greats”:

“Pothole” is a play on the pronunciation of “85” in Korean.

Rapping over J. Cole’s production to his 2018 track “1985,” Lyricks addresses the anti-Asian accusation that a lifelong passion for Hip-hop amounts to a kind of Black cultural theft rather than reciprocity:

believe it or not there’s some Asians that love rap like a matrimony

man I’ve been rapping all my life that it comes naturally

man I was mastering the master of ceremony, Dilla tracks I attached it on me

so who the fuck are you to tell me it’s not my passion, homie?

you think I’m exploiting to make money?

you want the mike back, right? Fuck it, then take it from me

Such defiance, a definitive hallmark of Hip-hop performativity, is quite conceptually complex, since Lyricks’s utterance against his accusers implies that they think of the Black cultural field 1) as exclusive of “Asians that love rap,” and 2) as a property to be protected by Black people. Yet here, alignment with Blackness for the Korean American emcee is a given, a “passion” that can be neither denied nor dispossessed. He has, after all, “been rapping all my life that it comes naturally.” Aurally, Lyricks’s defiance is soaked in the cadence and timbre of the Golden Age of Hip-hop emceeing, indexed, for instance, in his signifying on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour” earlier in the track when he announces that he was brought up by the “do dat do dat do dat dat.” Notice here that the defensive posture of Hip-hop / Black saturation — “You want the mike back, right? Fuck it, then take it from me” — doubles as an assertion of Asian American presence, a right to the mike skill and to a passion that cannot, in fact, be taken back by anyone because they are being given away. That is, what Lyricks comprehends here in his matrimony to rap music is that the Tradition’s openness requires him to study it so that he can extend it. Such giving away includes, at times, the preservation of its continuance. This mode of Eliotic trying, a quest to access a tradition or cultural field that doesn’t, at first glance, necessarily need us, Asian Americans, in order to cohere, is an expression of AfroAsian reciprocity.

This brings me to the second point regarding Asian American being, with which I will conclude. In academia, the notion that Asian Americans share a collective being, our own positive-defined ontology, has been tragically foreclosed by a thoroughgoing conceptual nihility, taking shape either as a generative anti-essentialism or as a critique of our racialization under transpacific neoliberalism (sometimes both), from Asian American literary theory of the twenty-first century. Yet G Yamazawa’s and Lyricks’s sense of identity and pride point to a shared Asian American-ness that sounds to my ears to cut deeper than identity or even consciousness but rather toward a shared mode of being in the world. This being, becoming ever more legible during this paradoxical period of anti-Asian violence and Asian cultural representation, will likely be remembered as having come to light during this Asian Renaissance. Our task as critics, perhaps, is to outline the content of its AfroAsian source material and the form of its generous reciprocity, but we can also rest assured that the cultural workers, like G Yamazawa and Lyricks, are already preserving and enacting both.

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