University of Southern California: Master’s degree student explores race, identity and culture in East Asian hip hop

Whether it involves a musician in traditional dress singing about Tibetans in exile from their homeland or a group in jeans and a t-shirt rapping about a strong, modern China, hip hop music has flourished in popularity throughout East Asia, even becoming the focus of musical competition shows.

During a semester abroad in Nanjing, China, Tiara Wilson, then an undergraduate, became fascinated with the proliferation of hip hop in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. She found the topic so compelling that she made it the focus of her studies when she was accepted to graduate school at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 2019.

“I looked at hip hop as a way to look at different iterations of identity, and then I connected that to how we understand people and how we see race and identity,” says Wilson, who graduates on May 14 with a master’s degree in East Asian Area Studies.

Race interested her, she says, because hip hop in Asia was often perceived as an American export rather than a music form that is specifically tied to the Black community. And when it was featured, race could be problematic: Some groups used blackface, while others perpetuated negative stereotypes about Blackness.

On the other hand, there are some groups that have donated to causes associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, and others that have taken care to stress the genre’s origins in Black American communities.

Hip hop as resistance — and under attack

Just as it is for the Black community in the United States, hip hop is often a counter-cultural music of resistance among marginalized communities in East Asia, Wilson says, although the focus of such opposition varies widely among artists. Taiwanese rappers may sing about resisting Chinese authority, while Chinese singers may talk about fighting back against Western imperialism.

Some acts that grew too critical or adopted a look that seemed too culturally different, were either disbanded or pressured to shift their style to something more palatable to authorities, Wilson says.

“A lot of hip-hop is now under attack due to what the Chinese government calls ‘moral issues,’ such as singers’ tattoos or song themes of violence. A lot of artists will blame this on Black hip-hop and say they were mimicking it, and then they’ll transform into something called a ‘Chinese’ version of rap that focuses on social issues within China.”

The theme of social justice has long appealed to Wilson, and she credits her upbringing as a minister’s daughter with her desire to explore its multifaceted representation in East Asian hip hop.

“My dad was a big believer in, ‘You don’t just force people to convert.’ You have to actually have a conversation with them, and he taught me early on how to listen to all kinds of viewpoints. And for me personally, that is like understanding other cultures,” she says.

While Wilson spent the majority of her time as a master’s student away from the USC campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she will have another chance to spend time there: She returns this fall to pursue her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Cultures.

Wilson says she’s excited about the opportunity to revisit the university — and Los Angeles — in person.

“It’s in L.A., and who doesn’t want to live in L.A.?”

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