Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Ambassador

Last week, Jin the Emcee came out with a new song. I know, I know, you're asking yourself - Jin, who? Once upon a time, dear reader, there was this kid who won the BET freestyle contest for six consecutive weeks. He had some lyrical skill. He was subsequently signed by Ruff Ryders. He put out a CD. No one bought it. He was dropped from Ruff Ryders. He struggled to stay relevant, and now he puts out a new track every few months to remind us that he's not dead. Sounds like every other hard-knock life for a guy just trying to make it in the rap game, right? Oh, did I mention that this kid happened to be a short, head-shaven Chinese guy? Way back when, right before Jin released his CD, he was a rallying point for Asian Americans who embraced his visibility and rock-star popularity. Jin evoked a more masculine image that Asian American men found refreshing, and all Asian Americans could relate to the Chinese American pride he seemed to articulate. Forgetting the inherent misogyny of rap, it really seemed like Jin might be able to embody a positive, political voice for Asian Americans. When Jin came to Cornell, my usually even-headed successor as president of the Asian American on-campus political group squealed as Jin performed an "Asia-fied" remix of Jay-Z's "Girls, Girls, Girls", and debated whether or not she should go down and ask Jin to sign her shirt. Jin's very existence was a middle finger raised to the model minority myth and the dickless, mousy computer engineering nerd stereotype. Part of Jin's appeal was likely not only that he was being accepted as 'cool' by the hip hop community, but that there was some satisfaction - fueled by the same Black-Asian tensions that resulted in the L.A. Riots of the early 90's - in watching a Chinese American best the nation's top Black freestylists at their own game. I admit, that I, too, got swept up in the hysteria -- I was excited that here was an Asian American lyricist with a brain, who was willing to bring the political voice of our community to the masses. And then I heard "Learn Chinese". For new artists, singles -- the tracks chosen by the artist to be endlessly distributed on MTV and BET -- are how they make their first professional impression on the hip hop industry. The single communicates, in many ways, how they want to be defined by the industry, and makes the argument to the masses as to why we should buy their CD. Ashley Parker Angel, star of MTV's show There and Back allowed MTV cameras to document his journey back into the limelight as a solo artist, and one episode recorded Angel's decision to switch his single to one that was angrier and more edgy. This reflected Angel's desire to distance himself from his past as part of the boy band, O-Town, and this gamble seems to have paid off for Angel because he was able to achieve some critical success by remindingu audiences that he had grown up. Jin's first single off of his The Rest is History album featured Jin rapping about how the world was going to "Learn Chinese", and his verses were chock full of references to his Asian heritage. That's when it became evident that what I and many of the community had mistaken as Chinese American pride was actually being used as a gimmick to sell us this artist called "Jin the Emcee". Jin was selling himself not as a fresh, new, skilled lyricist, but as a fresh, new, skilled Chinese lyricist. Take for example this verse from "Learn Chinese":

I wish you would come to Chinatown Get lost in town, end up in the lost in found Eyewitnesses, you must be crazy We don't speak English, we speak Chinese And the only po-po we know is the pigs on the hood out in the window Every time they harass me, I wanna explode We should ride the train for free, we built the railroads I ain't ya 50 Cent, I ain't ya Enimem I ain't ya Jigga Man, I'm a chinaman

full lyrics

The rest of the single includes Jin describing his eyes as "the original chinky eye emcee", speaking Chinese, and imploring his listeners to "learn Chinese" in the hook. Meanwhile, Wyclef Jean is heard in the background associating the Chinese with "refugees" and calling Jin the "first Chinese rapper". In the music video, which seems to be the amalgam of as many Asian stereotypes as one can imagine, Jin starts out the video as a delivery boy but is quickly replaced with an image of him as a member of a Chinese triad and interacting with a group of people practicing karate. At one point, a video vixen sings a hook reminiscent of Chinese folk singing, and mandolins are mixed into the beat. The fact that Jin was Chinese, and therefore "different" was inescapable. In other words, the first impression from Jin's single was that we should rally behind this new rapper because he was, as Wyclef Jean described, the "first Chinese rapper". And indeed, as the video opens, three Black friends are gushing over the new Ruff Ryders video, starring "Jin-Jin". Jin's career is easily summed up by this first impression: future singles released by Jin were lacklustre, and soon forgotten by the same hip hop industry that had cooed over him earlier. The magic of a Chinese rapper faded, and despite Jin trying to branch out with further singles from The Rest is History that didn't play up his Chinese American heritage, it seemed that some part of his PR team felt that his strength was that he must remind us of this "distinguishing feature" about him. In the music video of one single, "Senorita", even though Jin is rapping about a beautiful Latin woman, he is still shown dancing with the woman beneath some Chinese lanterns, inexplicably incorporated into a meringue dance sequence. Symbolically, Jin is shown in this video jumping onto the woman's SUV and holding on for dear life as she drives down a Miami highway -- in the same way, in real life, Jin was also little more than a man clinging desperately to an industry that was driving by him. Eventually, after Jin's CD sold poorly, Ruff Ryders dropped Jin from their label, and he returned to his underground roots. Occasionally, Jin has released tracks to prominent hip hop websites, and he featured prominently in the infamous 'Politicized Asian Americans vs. Hot97' fight. But, overall, Jin has basically fallen off the face of the planet, all but forgotten. Last week, Jin released another single, called "The Ambassador". In it, Jin begins with a voice-over in which he says he can't quit the game and bemoans others only having to represent themselves when he has to "represent [his] whole race". He then says, in the song's hook:
"They call me the Ambassador (why?), I represent. All day, everyday, to the fullest extent."
The track is basically an inward exploration of Jin's role as the first Chinese American rapper to get mainstream recognition. In the first verse, Jin rejects the "gimmick" label, saying that his skill came not from his skin colour but "from within". Jin rejects the Chinese American label, saying in the second verse that he is different from other Asian American artists that have been signed [to the hip hop industry] and that he doesn't want the title "best Asian rapper"; to counter the idea that he has racially marginalized himself in the game, he responds that not only are his fans not just Asian, but that "he blew up on a channel for Black folk". And yet, "The Ambassador" simultaneously presents a troubling counterargument. At the same time that Jin rejects being cast as the "Chinese American rapper", in the first verse, he takes credit for "being the reason that being a chink is in". In the second verse, he describes himself as "hung low, [he] knows how to drive, and [he] rhymes", thereby flying in the face of three Chinese stereotypes. Later in the track, he considers himself representing, as an ambassador, the Asian American community, in all of its stereotypical and non-stereotypical glory. Jin seems to be trying to have it both ways. He seems to want to be accepted as more than just the William Hung of the hip hop industry, while still being a political icon for the Asian American politicized community. This, to me, is impossible: one cannot promote oneself as a symbol of Asian Americana while simultaneously rejecting the idea that one should be viewed as Asian American. Either Jin is proud to be a Chinese American rapper, or he is not. Like all people of colour, he cannot pick and choose when and where people will see his race. To me, Jin was at his best when he tried to be an icon for Chinese Americans by being himself; Jin's in-your-face 'Chinese-ness' always struck me as false, and some of my favourite tracks by him are those in which he embraces the fact that he is just someone trying to make it in the hip hop game. If Jin were able to continue just being himself, he might make further strides for his community than he does with his constant, active reminders of his Asian heritage, and even introspective (yet contradictory) tracks like "The Ambassador" might hold more weight if Jin shied away from the endless use of stereotypical Chinese imagery. In truth, Jin is like many other Chinese Americans -- he is merely himself, striving to create the voice that describes our identity as defined by two worlds, and by rejecting or emphasizing either side of himself, Jin only ends up distancing himself from the same community he tries to represent. Being Chinese American is not about being Chinese or being American but being something that's at the same time both and something completely different from either individual half. Ultimately, with Jin's frequent stereotyping and embrace of racial epithets like "chink", I'm not sure if I want Jin as my ambassador. Jin is a great lyricist, and, outside of the problematic message behind his words, "The Ambassador" is a good track (although I find the second verse clumsily written and executed). If only Jin could start trying to really figure out who he truly is, maybe then his lyrics would seem less like he's still trying to sell himself to sell a record and more like he's trying to communicate from his heart. Cross-posted: Asian Pacific Americans for Progress


Blogger phillyjay said...

"Part of Jin's appeal was likely not only that he was being accepted as 'cool' by the hip hop community, but that there was some satisfaction - fueled by the same Black-Asian tensions that resulted in the L.A. Riots of the early 90's - in watching a Chinese American best the nation's top Black freestylists at their own game."

So this was like some sort of revenge against black people to beat us in our own music? (j/k I kid! I kid! :p )

Jin's an interesting guy.Good when it comes to battling someone.Bad/moderate when it comes to any of his solo work.

6/11/2006 07:38:00 PM  

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