Sunday, December 5th, 2004

Writing The Book, Part 3 or 2.5: The Wait and The “Asian American” Question

This is the period that my editor Monique describes as “the quiet period”. As she describes it, it’s the time between the final filing of the book and the actual release when the hum of work drops to a whisper and you kind of sit on pins and needles wondering what’s gonna happen next. Like the ten minutes before a theater artist or a performer gets onstage. You kind of tighten out your tie and smooth out your shirt a few too many times, stare at the curtain and block out the audience behind it.

I’ve reacted the way I usually do to this. I either do too many things or suffer these ridiculous mood swings. If I’m not working on something, I’m thinking too hard about the book. I grab the galley and read it, trying to tell myself I’m the dopest writer in the world, can’t nobody can top my shit, moohoohoohaha! Or, much more often, I torture myself about how I could have structured a section better or fret over a sentence that wasn’t tight, and pray that, if the punditocracy even deems it worthy of comment or review, they won’t utterly destroy it and leave me to the discount bins. At the end of this exhausting cycle, I grab the Aiye-Keita album or the advance of this ridiculously hot Luaka Bop comp of West African funk, Love’s A Real Thing, and just try to clear my head.

No way is any of this rational, but welcome to The Wait.

In the meantime, I’m still learning to get used to being on the other side of mic. I’m not a stranger to being there, but I was much younger and hot-headed then, usually without sleep, with about 400 other friends chanting or chained together, and about to be arrested.

Todd was kind enough to suggest doing the Hyphen piece (that’s the part 2 of this irregular “Writing The Blog series, Part 1 is here.) as a collabo. Any chance to collab with Todd is OK in my book.

But then I’m still refining what I’m trying to say. Here’s an interview done by Sabrina Ford at Newswatch. Sabrina was a great, provocative interviewer, and I just went bananas. Sound-bitey I’m not, yet.

The interesting thing about interviews is that there are always a set of unspoken assumptions that proceed between interviewer and subject. The subject assumes the interviewer knows certain things, the interviewer assumes the subject knows certain things. This is just a fundamental truth about human interaction.

That’s why some interviewers get lots of stuff, and others get nothing. It was especially pronounced in hip-hop journalism at the beginning, where there was often a huge gap between what a mainstream news journalist might get and what a hip-hop journalist might get out of Rapper X. It’s also why the longer you’re in the interviewing game, the better you are. You begin to learn how to connect with your subject on an almost cellular level, and it shows up in everything from how you approach your subject to your body language to how and when you ask questions.

Being a journalist, your job is to tell the story to your audience. You learn to phrase questions or to poke and prod until you get the subject to say something that will be immediately transparent to your writing audience. As a subject, you never get told that this is what is going on in the interview, and in fact, the interviewer sometimes doesn’t want to let you know–for fear it will impede you from being you. I actually think this is the source of 95% of all misquotes, and the subsequent feeling of betrayal that a subject might feel. The interviewer may have a much better handle onthe assumptions you’re coming to the interview with, and if they are adept or unethical or just good (and who knows just where those boundaries fall sometimes), exploit those to the fullest.

I’m not saying Sabrina did any of that–quite the contrary, she’s already a kick-ass journalist and the world won’t be ready-and folks like me can’t wait-for her to take over!–but I realized in reading the interview back how uncomfortable the “Asian American in hip-hop” question makes me.

My stock answer is this–folks who know me, know I don’t play, and my resume proves it. It’s a real, honest, and incredibly defensive answer. I might as well be telling the interviewer, THE FUCK YOU KNOW ABOUT ME PUNK–WHAT! It’s probably right to be mad about lazy interviewers who don’t do their homework and try to drop this on me, but lots of folks I like a lot–take Todd and Sabrina–ask it, and I owe a decent answer.

So while I don’t think I’m going to come up with a good soundbite soon, here’s a shot at trying to be, uh, you know, nuanced and shit.

Politically, I’m a product of 80s anti-apartheid movement and Rainbow Coalition progressive politics. That meant that some black nationalists used to call me a Asian-white-hippie-wannabe sellout back in the day. These days I’ve been called a nationalist-wannabe sellout by some more-progressive-than-thou-type students (who should have better things to do with their time, like downloading or something), and a black-wannabe sellout by some more-Asian-than-thou activists. Funny what a difference a decade or so makes.

Those kinds of labels used to really rankle me, but in old age, I’ve gained a teflon coating. It’s best, I’ve decided, to take an independent, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic stance. Always tell the truth. Outside is a good place to be. That way you get to piss off both your foes and your friends. Eventually they all come back and want to party with you despite it all. So as opposed to remembering what you’re not supposed to say and holding your tongue, all you have to remember on any given day is who not to invite.

Back to the point, these questions about being an Asian American in hip-hop are funny to me. I can no longer relate to the fixed notions of identity that they assume. My writing in the early 90s criticized Asian Americans for being caught in old paradigms of race that prevented us from recognizing how in some blacks’ and Latinos’ eyes we had turned from ally to enemy. These days, as hip-hop has moved beyond the rhythms of the African diaspora into Asian sounds–this is why I’m so into Robin D.G. Kelley and Vijay Prashad’s idea of polyculturalism–it’s strange to me that we’d still be discussing the culture in terms of ’80s frames of identity. Multiculturalism is dead, long live multiculturalism, apparently.

This doesn’t answer the “Asian American in hip-hop” question for those concerned that hip-hop studies and new forms of scholarship around hip-hop will lead to a whitening of the story, an erasure of the African roots of the culture. In other words, is the inevitable result of hip-hop studies the access of more non-Black scholars to the culture? (For now, let’s dance around the Afro-Latino question, which actually puts a lot of this stuff to rest.) Does that mean we’ll eventually have some white, Asian, or even Latino revisionist history, a Richard Sudhalter-style take on hip-hop?

That’s the assumption of the question that makes me defensive.

And unnecessarily so. All my study of hip-hop has only led me into deeper into Afrodiasporic roots and rhythms and cultures and Black nationalist politics. And, at the same time, my study of hip-hop has only led me deeper into rejecting most fundamentalist notions about hip-hop culture as a whole. The deeper you study, the more questions you have to ask, the less certainty you have about anything, except for the beauty and survival of African cultures, the way they continue to transform and expand upon contact with non-African cultures, and the openings and transformations they create for those other cultures that come into contact with it.

That’s not a soundbite, and it still doesn’t really answer the question, and it opens up hella other questions, but it’s closer to how I feel.

posted by @ 2:04 pm | 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Writing The Book, Part 3 or 2.5: The Wait and The “Asian American” Question”

  1. Anonymous says:


    Two questions.

    Are you worried more about how the book will be received in the mainstream, or by the hip hop audience?

    Is there a particular audience whose opinion means the most?


  2. Jeff says:

    Damn, another tough question there. I think at this point, both. It’s a monster-in-the-closet kind of feeling. You just don’t know how anyone will receive it. Also you gotta get over the fact that it’s not yours anymore. People are going to interpret it however they want, whatever your authorial intentions were. I’m impatient by nature; The Waiting is the hardest part. Hey, that sounds like it could be a song…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, high expectations/hopes are a bitch like that. It’s funny how writers can be their own harshest critics. Many a great writer has tossed a masterpiece in the fire.


  4. ronnie brown says:

    Jeff, no need to get defensive…you give credit where credit is due. When a culture is in full bloom, a “revisionist” can’t get any traction. It’s only when a cultural form is temporarily on the back burner (like Jazz) a Richard Sudhalter dares to step from the shadows. Black folk are still not used to having their cultural contributions appreciated so the “Asian-American in Hip-Hop” strawman may still be used as a hook in some reviews (much like the bogus African-American/ Latino question) but your respect for Hip-Hop’s essential Africanness is what is going to establish your credibility.

    and Robin D.G. Kelly has his finger on the pulse of the thing…polyculturalism is a nice dictionary word, but Black folk have been makin’ somethin’ out of nothin’ or makin’ something new of what’s already on hand since we created soul food from throwaway scraps from the slavemasters kitchen table…

  5. jeela says:

    this resonates with a lot of what you touched on, that rainy sun-shiny day in Manoa… thx for all you do.



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