‘Nah, it’s not cool. We’re not that safe race to poke fun at.’
As a 3-year-old, the Argentinian-born Jonathan Park arrived in the United States via the Mexican border. Park can only recount the experience through the stories of his mother’s struggles, who smuggled him and his sister across almost 30 years ago. These days Park is known by his stage name, Dumbfoundead, and his lyrics paint the picture of both Asian-American and immigrant life.
He hangs out with Los Angeles’s leading rappers, and his YouTube channel boasts more than 420,000 subscribers. He once taught children at the Ronald McDonald House how to freestyle.
Bearing the stereotypes of America’s “model minority,” Park raps to tear them down. With so few Asian-Americans in rap, their stories go untold, but he works to change that.
“I definitely grew up being one of the few Asian-American rappers,” Park tells the Daily Dot. “Rap is really big in Asia right now with K-pop,” Park says.
It’s true: Almost every K-pop group has a designated rapper, but many underground rappers have emerged on the K-hip-hop scene as well. With a complementing popularity in Asia, Asian-American rappers have experienced trouble finding success stateside, written off with gestures like, “Why don’t you just go rap in Korea?”
And just how often has Park been told that? “All the fucking time. It’s actually really fucking annoying,” he says.
What people don’t realize is that Asian rappers grew up in vastly different environments, he argues. “It’s a completely different experience,” he says. “Asian-American rappers in the States have to answer to so many different questions and experiences that are so different.” Not only does he deal with more direct racism via social media, but Park has to actively think about whether or not he even belongs in American rap.
“We’re the ones who answer to when we’re being accused of cultural appropriation. [Asian rappers] just play the ‘I don’t know better’ card,” he says.
But what Asian-American rappers lack in numbers, they make up for in fervor. As a minority, Park feels challenged to work that much harder to make his voice heard. “It makes you a stronger artist,” he says.
Park began his rap career as a teen doing rap battles on the streets of Los Angeles. Fifteen-year-old Park went by “Chino” growing up, a name endearingly given to him by his non-Asian, Latino counterparts. Nevermind that Park is actually Korean, and not Chinese—that’s just the way it was.
Today Park holds on to his street name “Chino” as a keepsake of his early days, but as Dumbfoundead, he’s found invested parties. At the heart of his music, he’s spitting rhymes to make a name for his community at-large. “I’m very focused on telling these Asian-American stories,” he says.
Park discards the traditional party songs dominating the genre’s pop wing in favor of writing guarded, pensive lyrics. While leaning on his own experiences, they’re experiences that a lot of other Americans can relate to, Park says, like growing up in immigrant families.
“I grew up in the Koreatown area [of L.A.]. That’s pretty much 50 percent Korean, 50 percent Latino,” Park says. “That whole immigrant kind of grind is pretty close to me, and I talk about it a lot in my music.”
2011’s “Are We There Yet?” is the post-“Hey Mamma” love letter to his mother’s border-crossing bravery; it delves into adolescent romance, and on verse No. 3 gets into specifics about his origin story as a battle-tested rapper’s rapper.
Aside from using music to spread these stories, Park dabbles in film, such as participating in the documentary Bad Rap. It follows four Asian-American rappers including Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks. The latter two appeared at KCon New York last month to talk on a panel about the film.
The documentary exposes some of the frustrations and doubts they face as Asian-American rappers. For Park in particular, he struggled with how he’d been rapping for so long, but hadn’t seen success like Awkwafina—the documentary’s sole female.
In the Bad Rap trailer, Park hints toward discussion of gender roles and race. “They asked me questions about if it’s easier for an Asian female artist to pop off in hip-hop or not,” Park discloses. While he didn’t want to give too much away, he mentioned how his thoughts reflected his frustrations.
“That was part of me kind of being an asshole too,” he admits. “But I kind of needed to see that to kind of take a look at myself as an artist too and where I am.”
At the KCon panel last month, Lyricks had a chance to vent his frustrations too. Like Dumbfoundead, Lyricks is also a Korean-American rapper who faced similar challenges with making a name in America. He’s no stranger to commenters telling him to go to Korea. In Lyricks’ mind, those people come forth with two different intentions.
“One is like genuine advice,” he explains. “What I say is, ‘Yo, I can’t speak Korean. I don’t know the slang over there. I don’t know how to be relevant over there, ‘cause I’m American.”
But sometimes their intentions aren’t so naive, instead blowing up his mentions with “You ching chong, you should go to Korea” tweets, Lyricks says. In which case, Lyricks says he and his fellow Asian-American rappers should shed their timidness to break this “so-called bamboo ceiling.”
Park boils it down to a talking point: “I’m an English rapper. They’re Korean rappers. That’s their shit, you know what I mean? It’s not my shit.”
Besides there’s still much to be done on behalf of Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry. Especially behind the scenes, Park says.
To characterize the situation, co-producer of Bad Rap Jaeki Cho gives the example of Drake signing with record label YMCMB. “[In YMCMB, Drake] had people that were African-Americans that probably had experiences that could relate to Drake and could understand Drake’s story,” Cho explains as a member of KCon New York’s Bad Rap panel. Through those connections, Drake had a sort of alliance who could understand his perspective and relay his story in a way the mainstream could relate to as well.
“You’re going to gravitate towards people that you know,” Cho says. “I think that that reason really is why a lot of Asian-American artists just haven’t been able to break through.”
Lack of Asian-American representation spans across all fields of media, especially film—made apparent by Hollywood’s whitewashing habit. “You have these executives, writers, or producers, or directors, that aren’t people of color writing and telling the story of people of color,” Cho states bluntly. It’s a problem that hasn’t escaped Park’s attention either.
“We need more Asian directors, Asian writers, Asian producers—people who are actually putting these stories together for us to actually play these roles,” Park says. To solidify his argument, he put it in a song. His May single “Safe” illustrates these struggles by recreating famous feature films with Park replacing the male, non-Asian leads.
Park wrote the song shortly after the Academy Awards in February, following the conversation surrounding the absence of minority nominees. Park figured Chris Rock would approach the issue with biting wit, but felt the host fell short by throwing other minorities under the bus, including Asian-Americans. And when Rock joked about Asians being good at math, Park had enough.
“I just kind of felt like we were becoming this ‘safe race,’” Park explains, maintaining that his race is more or less considered the punching bag of America. “That’s kind of the reason I wrote that, to let people know that, ‘Nah, it’s not cool. We’re not that safe race to poke fun at.’ It’s getting old, you know?”
The music video for “Safe” coincidentally followed the hashtag activism of “#starringjohncho” and “#starringconstancewu” on Twitter. Each imagined Asian actors in leading Hollywood roles. Park didn’t plan for it to happen that way, but said that he was glad to add to the conversation and keep it going.
As one of Park’s proudest works, “Safe” may be his most powerful message yet, and Park doesn’t intend on stopping there. “I think that’s kind of the responsibility that I have,” he says.
And he’ll continue to get those stories out there. It’s not so much the means, but the end. “I think more than anything, I’m a storyteller,” Park says. “That’s what I try to tell people—I’m not just a rapper, I’m an all-around storyteller.”
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