This story is part of a series from Code Switch — NPR's new team covering race, ethnicity and culture — about America's demographic shift from a mostly-white country to a truly multiracial one, and the other cultural transitions we'll see as a result.
Say "rapper" and many people often envision a scowling, surly guy who prowls the stage jabbing a finger at his audience. Jay-Z with his Scary Mask on. Ice Cube snarling.
Jonathan Park is different. He's an energetic 27 year-old with a sapling waist and an impish grin topped by a sketchy moustache that still hasn't come into its own. And his work tends to be like him—playful, cheeky and smart.
Park's known onstage as Dumbfoundead--or Dumb, for short. It's a high school handle that came from the glazed expression friends say he wore in class. Put Dumbfoundead in YouTube's search bar and you get scores of videos. Like "24KTOWN," where he ponders the responsibility of repping his Koreatown neighborhood, near downtown LA.
As hip-hop has spread beyond its African-American origins to become a global phenomenon, Asian artists have become prominent in several aspects of the genre. South Korean b-boys (a.k.a. "breakdancers," but that term has gone out of fashion) have won the world's largest b-boying competition, "Battle of the Year," five out of the last ten years. (In that same time, an American team has finished in the top three only once.)
But as Dumb explains, Asian-Americans aren't nearly as prominent on the mic.
"Asians DJ-ing," he sighs. "The back bone of hip-hop. We're on the back burner, behind the scenes."
Dumb believes Asian rappers didn't step to the mic in large numbers initially because they hadn't figured out they could broaden the genre with their own cultural spin. They pictured rap as African-American, and hesitated to break that mold:
"I think a lot of Asian rappers when they were first coming up, they were specifically trying to cling on to black culture. But it's really about understanding all cultures, because that's the route that hip hop went."
Cultural critic Oliver Wang is an assistant professor of sociology at Cal State University, Long Beach, and a music reviewer for NPR. He's studied hip hop and its relation to Asian communities for 20 years, and believes Dumb's observations about Asians' place in the genre are on target:
"I think (he) makes an excellent point in the ways Asian-Americans have become involved and have become prominent as DJs and b-boys." Wang agrees "But it's really as rappers that they face the limitation of being less visible."
And, Wang says, it's a Catch-22: until the commercial gatekeepers who distribute rap understand that Asian rappers are worth promoting, there will be fewer for aspiring Asians to see and be inspired by.
Dumb has been very visible, partly because he is one of a very few Asian-Americans who are succeeding as rappers. Oliver Wang says this is partly because Dumb is very good at what he does, and partly because he is so prolific: "On his You Tube channel, I feel like he's dropping a new song every 2-3 months or so."
Go to YouTube, and you'll catch Dumb rapping about everything from the ode to his K-town neighborhood to dropping his gold-digger girlfriend:
Dumb's variety of subject matter has earned him a devoted following of Asian fans, both here and abroad — but it's also widened to be embraced by people of other ethnicities and cultures as well.
That was evident last month, when he played the Howard Theater, in Washington DC, the crowd was multiracial. And multigenerational. (Some older people really had come to see Dumb, because they were fans or curious. Others had escorted their teen children and were patiently waiting until the concert was over so they could go home to something more understandable. Luther Vandross, maybe, or D'Angelo.)
As critic Oliver Wang noted, being Asian-American in a genre that's considered the natural province of black and brown artists might get Dumb into the room, but he can only stay there if he's good:
"In a way, he has to be sort of extra good to win people over and get beyond their skepticism. I definitely don't think anybody's going to be giving him a pass because he's an Asian."
And Dumb doesn't want them to. "How are you supposed to know if you're getting dope or not?" he shrugs. "If everybody is, like, 'I'ma support you because you're Asian...'" he trails off, clearly irritated. "Ya gotta have some kind of criticism, you know what I mean?"
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
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I'm Robert Siegel.
And, of course, throughout today's program we're following events in Boston and we'll have more updates later in the hour. But for now, we move onto other stories. And today, we introduce a new team here at NPR. It's called Code Switch, and it will cover race, ethnicity and culture. And this week, Code Switch is exploring how culture in the U.S. is changing amid huge demographic shifts.
BLOCK: And today we have a story about hip-hop. It's a genre long dominated by African-Americans. There are, of course, white and Latino rappers as well. But one group has remained largely offstage: Asian-Americans.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates introduces us to a Korean-American rapper who has built a multiracial fan base.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Meet Jonathan Park. He's an energetic 27-year-old with a sapling waist and an impish grin, topped by a sketchy moustache that still hasn't come into its own. He was born in Buenos Aires, but raised in the U.S. And his autobiography is written in hip-hop's cadence.
Here, Park tells us how his mom brought him to this country.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)
JONATHAN PARK: (Rapping) I was only three when she brought me to the States. My sister only one crossing borders wasn't safe. What she did was very brave, I think about it every day, from Argentina to Mexico City and finally L.A...
BATES: Park is known onstage as Dumbfoundead or Dumb, for short. It's a high school handle that came from the glazed expression he wore in class. Put Dumbfounded in YouTube's search bar and you get scores of videos, like "K-Town 24/7," where he ponders the responsibility of repping his Koreatown neighborhood, near downtown L.A.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "K-TOWN 24/7")
PARK: (Rapping) Feel the pressure. Yeah, I feel the pressure when I'm the one who speaks in the voice of my ancestors. And the homies out on Western are saying they'll represent us. So I'm forever tatted (bleep) a temporary henna...
BATES: Others are clips of Dumb going head-to-head in freestyle battles with black and Latino rappers, some young, some way older.
PARK: Hey I was going to put some money up for this battle. But this dude ain't worth a penny. I use to know the average rapper and trust I've marked me plenty. But I haven't served a senior citizen since I worked at Denny's.
BATES: Dumb will straight-up tell you that there could be, there should be, more Asian-American rappers in hip-hop. Dumb says Asians' traditional modesty usually only allows them to be onstage in supporting roles, not front and center.
PARK: We played the back burner a lot. You know, like the Asians DJ-ing, the back bone of hip-hop. You know, the backbone. We're behind the scenes.
BATES: Dumb believes initially Asian rappers didn't step to the mic here in large numbers, because they didn't see anyone who looked like them rapping.
PARK: I think a lot of Asian rappers when they were first coming up, they specifically just cling on to, like, black culture. But it was really, you know, it's about kind of understanding all cultures because - and that's where the route that hip-hop went.
BATES: In other words, hip-hop has gone from black to global. You can hear it from Mumbai to Mombasa to Montevideo.
Oliver Wang is a cultural critic and assistant professor of sociology at Cal State University, Long Beach and a music reviewer for NPR. He studied hip-hop for 20 years and says Dumb does get some attention because he's one of the few Asian rappers people hear. But Wang warns, he's not just a racial curiosity.
OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: He's a very good rapper in terms of he's got great flow, he's got great presence on the mic.
BATES: But so do a lot of rappers. Wang says what sets Dumb apart is how prolific he is.
WANG: On his YouTube channel, I feel like he's dropping a new music video for some song every two, three months or so.
BATES: Go to YouTube and you'll catch Dumb rapping about everything from the ode to his K-Town neighborhood, to dropping a gold digger girlfriend.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG")
PARK: (Rapping) Oh, you need to borrow money, right? Girl, you turning into old news. Hey...
BATES: And thanks to his ability to riff off just about anything, Dumb's audiences are changing. The large Asian fan base he enjoyed initially has become more diverse. That was evident last month when he played the Howard Theater, in Washington, D.C. Although he opened for a white rapper named Watsky, lots of people had come to see him. There were plenty of Asian fans but there were also significant numbers of whites and African-Americans.
Fifteen-year-old Brandon Lim considers Dumb a pioneer.
BRANDON LIM: I feel like Dumb, he's just out there because of all the battles he's been in and TV appearances. I don't know, I feel like, so, he's one of the representatives to show that Asians can do hip-hop, too. So...
BATES: Kyra Williams and her friend Kayla Washington are both 17 and African-American. Kayla says her favorite song is about Huell Howser, a folksy Los Angeles TV host who died late last year.
HUELL HOWSER: Well, hello, everybody. I'm Huell Howser. You know, we've been...
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "HUELL HOWSER")
PARK: (Rapping) Rest in Peace, Huell Howser. You repped Cali better than most. I rolled a fattie up in your honor an' blew out the Netherland smoke. Now, now...
BATES: Kyra liked that Dumb could connect that loss to his life.
KYRA WILLIAMS: His flow is really good and it's a tribute song. And he talks about, it's like real stuff that happened in his life and friends that he's lost. And I think that's really interesting and that's really - it's really real.
BATES: Real is what Dumbfoundead is after. As critic Oliver Wang noted, being Asian-American in a genre that's considered the natural province of black and brown artists might get Dumb in the room, but he can only stay there if he's good. Rap, Wang says, is a meritocracy.
WANG: So I think, in a way, he has to be sort of extra good in terms of winning people over and getting them passed that skepticism. I definitely don't think anyone is going to be giving him a pass because he's Asian, though.
BATES: And Dumb doesn't want them to. He insists he'll keep honing his craft until rap fans of all races consider him, in his words, the dopest MC out there - period.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.