The Ballad of Jay Park, Who Is Fighting to Be Hip-Hop’s First Asian Star

Just as Jay Park has achieved success due to his duality, Jay Park must now suffer for it.
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There is a bond that forms among Asian American men, applicable to any Asian man that a Westerner might label “Chinese,” accurately or otherwise. It’s a bond over a shared uphill struggle which begins once a yellow boy first knows himself to be yellow. The struggle comes in realizing that, as “yourself” in your rawest form, you will almost universally be deemed the least cool subgenre of male through the gaze of the world you’ve been placed in. It is an ethnicity and gender combo that I can only equate to country music; you can make this cool to others, but it’s going to be difficult, and it’s probably going to involve becoming a version of a very safe archetype.

Asian American boys deal with this in different ways. Many keep things simple and positive, making use of the infrastructure around them to become a high-earning, well-regarded professional, placating parental strictness as best as possible. Others rebel. 

An ever-popular form of rebellion is in the Hip-Hop Asian Boy. Often times, the Hip-Hop Asian Boy turns to modern-day minstrelsy, says the N-word as often as his conjunctions, because he hasn’t dealt with a black or brown person who cares enough to punch him out. Mostly, the Hip-Hop Asian Boy just wants to be a cooler minority. He might buy bags of Supreme and Off-White like the black artists he idolizes. He often doesn’t realize the struggle of black people, so he covets their culture. But of course, he might not do those things. He might see himself as a fan rather than an imitator; he might work to appreciate the culture that influences him through praxis and patronage. 

For all of these boys, there is no path that has been set to become any of the stars they dress like, talk like, fixate on. There is no path for an Asian boy to be 2Pac, to be Eminem, to be Kanye or Lil Uzi or Lil Pump. The closest he has to a star example is Jay Park.

Jay Park has reached familiar heights for Asian artists. He’s been a K-pop star, due in part to his incredibly versatile skillset and some good looks to boot. He started with a boyband (2PM), left, and launched a successful solo career with the help of a viral cover of “Nothin’ On You;” a K-pop Justin Timberlake. But K-pop success was never enough for Jay, the boy from Edmonds, Washington, who grew up fascinated by hip-hop and became a renowned breakdancer early in life. Part of his charm in South Korea was in his Americanized sensibilities, his perfect American English, his hip-hop stylization of music and dance. These were not your typical appeals to rap that are now commonplace in the K-pop industry (and often executed misguidedly). 

Jay was something of a trailblazer for Korean artists who loved hip-hop styles because Jay was actually rooted in American soil. He actually grew up in the States, and he actually cared deeply about hip-hop in a way that wasn’t outside of expectations, but was actually common and important for the culture he was raised in: the Seattle area has always had a strong hip-hop scene, starting with Sir Mix-a-Lot and pivoting to underground acts like Blue Scholars and Dyme Def. 

Many K-pop artists attempted, sometimes unsuccessfully, to create that same bicultural energy in their music, but Jay Park stood out because he was really from the soil.

Yet in the same way that Jay Park carries an authenticity to his hip-hop-isms in Korea, Park struggles to emerge from outsider status in America. To even the somewhat informed listener, which Park’s prospective new audience may not be, Park is a Korean boy that has spent all of his celebrity life in Korea and is now trying to cross over. Just as Jay Park has achieved success due to his duality, Jay Park must now suffer for it. He is not quite Korean enough for Korea and not quite American enough for America; he is from the hip-hop soil, but many won’t see his roots as deep enough, if existent at all, and much of this will simply derive from the fact that he’s an Asian man named Park Jae-beom.

Such is the Everestian mountain to climb in becoming Asian and popular in the U.S.—you’re trying to appeal to people that have labeled you simply as “Asian” and see little alarming with that fact; in part due to a society that calls itself American like there aren’t two continents of American nations vastly different from them. It should be no surprise that audiences in the U.S. won’t know the concept of han or the vast differences (and quarrels) between the people they group together as Asian. This, in turn, creates solidarity between a type of diaspora. Outside of this culture, we as Asian people do not mix. But within it, we have all been made to be a type of kin, because we share the same struggle of forced unity within a structure that doesn’t know you or care to.

Park will have an audience dilemma as he grows in America. His vast following is still mostly Asian or Asian-obsessed. This is enough to close doors: to love Jay Park currently is to consider yourself part of that base, which is enough to potentially turn off listeners who don’t relate to those people. It’s a whole new vicious duality: you want the American audience that historically doesn’t want you, and you get the Asian audience that needs you. 

A case study in Jeremy Lin will show that many fans of the NBA still do not regard Lin as a valuable player, either because he’s Asian, or because he’s received massive media attention and fandom because he’s Asian. Meanwhile, Lin has used his platform to speak a bit about the trappings of Asian masculinity. In the 2010 NBA Draft, he and John Wall ranked as the two fastest players, and yet, as Lin told YouTuber Kevin Kreider in 2017: “’He was athletic and I was ‘deceptively’ athletic. And I think I’ve been deceptively ‘whatever’ my whole life.’”

Jay Park can sing, dance, and rap (among other things), and he’s used his talents to become a Roc Nation signee. Being associated with names like JAY-Z and 2 Chainz may be as “cool” as it gets. Yet Park still plays the “deceptively” card in his music. On his latest EP, Ask Bout Me, Park sarcastically asks, “Who the fuck is this Asian boy / Where he learn to rap?

The EP is a tricky listen for me as a (biracial) version of a Hip-Hop Asian Boy. Park shows his versatility throughout the EP, flaunting skills he’s worked so hard to hone. Many of the songs, like “FSU,” are bangers. But I wish Park would shirk some of the Asian Boy conventions. I wish he wouldn’t have to lyrically prop up Soju as his alcohol of choice, or remark on destroying stereotypes, as predecessors like Jin and Dumbfoundead did. Internet-age artists like Rich Brian and Joji speak from a “post-racial” perspective; they are comfortable enough to just be themselves, which might partially be out of blissful ignorance for how people see them. 

Jay Park has seen it all and is still fighting uphill battles. I love him for it, but I wish he didn’t have to.

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