Making Waves: Asian American Rap in the Forefront

29496267_1527473044046895_5689082412919685120_oWe are witnessing a moment in Asian America where rap and Hip Hop are making its way to the forefront, and the Bay Area alone has multitudes of artists and creators who bring Asian American voices to the stage. For APA Heritage Month this year, I had high anticipation for a packed weekend of Asian American Hip Hop in the Bay Area: CAAMFest36 expanded to Oakland for the Asian Americans in Hip Hop Panel featuring industry professionals, educators, and artists; Directions in Sound featured G Yamazawa, Ruby Ibarra, and Lyrics Born rocking the stage at Starline Social; to be followed by API Cultural Center’s Making Waves at the historic Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. Rapper Lex the Lexicon Artist organized the Making Waves showcase, featuring a short but powerful line up of Bay Area Asian American rappers, including Lex herself, Ruby Ibarra, Chow Mane, and Rudy Kalma. With over 200 attendees at this iconic venue, each of the artists brought their own truths to the stage, shining a light on personal narratives, having fun with the crowd, and presenting their respective badass assertions of their Asian American identities, unapologetically delivered in their mother tongues and in English.

In short interviews with each of the artists, I asked Rudy Kalma, Chow Mane, Ruby Ibarra, and Lex the Lexicon Artist to share their thoughts on their music, connecting with other Asian American artists, and their thoughts on taking the stage for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

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Hailing from the Pinoy Capital of Daly City, Rudy Kalma shared a set from his EP, Labor of Love, which was released in January 2018. With smooth transitions from beginning to end, Labor of Love is packed with playful bending inflections and wordplay weaving in and out of English and Tagalog. For his set at Making Waves, Rudy Kalma performed nearly his entire EP, including “California Genesis,” “See it Through,” and “Pizza Man,” and acapella versions of previous works, “Crossroads,” and “Who I Am.”

While some of the concepts and ideas that I picked up as a listener from Labor of Love fit into a greater dialogue of immigrant narratives and everyday peoples on the daily grind, Rudy Kalma makes music as simple as breathing: “[I’m] speaking my truths. I wanted to take [the audience] through what goes on in my mind as an artist.. talking about my past, talking as a Filipino and Filipino American. I moved here so young, and I was raised in Daly City most of my life so I really took in that experience as well.”

Photo courtesy of Anthony Bongco

For Rudy Kalma, Making Waves was also an opportunity to reconnect with fellow artists he met along the way through music and community: “Ruby and I are both UC Davis alum, and she actually put me on to a show a few years ago for Tindog Tacloban, which was a fundraiser concert for Typhoon Haiyan. We performed in a lot of the same places for a while, and for her to reach everything she’s pursuing right now, with sponsorships is super dope, and I look up to her, especially with respect as an MC.” Reflecting on APA Heritage Month and his next steps as an artist, Rudy left me with a short but powerful message for other artists: “Keep grinding, keep speaking your truth, doing what’s pure to [you]. I think that’s what you gotta do as an artist and be involved with the community. It’s strong, it’s very supportive, and it’s our community, so we gotta keep going and keep pushing.”

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Photo courtesy of Anthony Bongco

Prior to meeting Chow Mane at Bottom of the Hill, I did not come across many rappers making specific references to dumplings, soy sauce, and Honda Civics, without making a racist mockery. I found myself always in a position of defending Chinese culture but Chow Mane throws it all out the window with a bold sense of ownership and comedic timing in his music videos. Rapping in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin, Chow Mane presents his own take on an Asian American narrative, laced in triplet beats, trendy rap styles, and samples from Asian instrumentals. From family-rooted storytelling in his title track, “Mooncakes,” which provides a heartfelt look at his grandparents’ survival in the restaurant business, to a borderline comedic and satirical take on the rise of the Asian American-specific cultural term, ‘Asian Baby Girl’ with his track, “ABG,” Chow Mane flips stereotypes and cultural references into trap bangers.

Most of his performed tracks came from his debut EP Mooncakes, which was a project that centered Chow Mane’s Asian American experience on growing up with a family of Chinese and Vietnamese refugees. Sharing that he only started out in music not too long ago, Chow Mane also reflects on his trajectory as an artist: “For me, it’s a monumental step because this time last year I was just starting out my career, trying to figure out where to position myself, and what kind of music I wanted to work on. Just to see where my work has taken me within this past year has been incredible… This was my first time playing for an audience of at least 90% Asian faces and I feel like the crowd could relate a bit more to my songs than audiences in the past.”

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Taking a few moments to sit down and reflect on the past two weeks alone, Ruby Ibarra shared her thoughts on APA Heritage Month and diverse Asian American visibility. From sharing the stage with Mike Shinoda and Jay Park at Identityfest LA, rocking Directions in Sound in Oakland with G Yamazawa and Lyrics Born, and inaugurating the first annual Long Beach Filipino Festival, Ruby has been performing nonstop since releasing Circa 91 in October 2017: “I haven’t really sat down to truly digest the impact that the music has made.. but there are moments where I get a glimpse of what’s happening when I step offstage and talk to people, and I see girls who have tears in their eyes and they’re talking about how much the music has empowered them, or it’s made them actually learn about their identity more, and that’s beyond anything I would’ve expected the music to influence.”

Ruby has always been vocal about Filipino American and Asian American representation, and she did not hesitate to share her appreciation for the ways that our differences add dimension to our collective identities: “I wanted to be honest with my stories, and the only way I knew how to be honest was to talk about my own experiences… To know that its become bigger than myself, bigger than my experiences, and become a story for the whole community, that’s humbling.”

Photo courtesy of Anthony Bongco

For Asian American Hip Hop artists, rap provides a channel for Asian American stories and ideas to be shared. Although I personally gravitate towards conscious rap and lyricism, it was a refreshing and an important reminder from Ruby that not all rap needs to carry a political message or agenda: “There’s different stories that don’t necessarily have to come from a socio-political lens. There’s different ways to express our Asian American identity and story, which is why I hella fuck with—and celebrate– the works of artists like Chow Mane and Rudy, just being honest with how they grew up.

“Not every Asian American identity will be the same; even the term Asian American is so diverse, and encompasses so many different countries and backgrounds, even within the Filipino American community. It’s not one dimensional.”

APA Heritage Month is a reminder that there is much to appreciate, and yet still a long way to go. Just as she has been advocating since the beginning, Ruby continuously pushes for more access and visibility: “We’re seeing a lot more spaces and platforms open up for Asian American artists, specifically during the month of May, but why can’t we continue these concerts throughout the year? I think that would more beneficial for our community and would allow us to be more visible, [rather than] to just do this 30 days out of the entire year.”

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Photo by Anthony Bongco

I remember my first introduction to nerdcore rap, seated front row at the Asian American Music Conference 2017 artist showcase, where I witnessed the undying energy of Lex the Lexicon Artist, dancing and rapping at the top of her lungs, “Asian American beauty, Asian American booty!” Lex, who organized and hosted Making Waves, would reach out to artists that she met at this AAMC showcase. Having participated in multi-genre Asian American showcases in her previous years, Lex wanted to organize an API rap-specific showcase, especially with artists who are local to the Bay Area. For Lex, working with Ruby Ibarra, Rudy Kalma, and Chow Mane was an opportunity to show support and to build relationships, through their collective passion for music as Asian American artists.

As a performer, Lex commands the room and the stage with her band, smart rap, and an incomparable level of confidence. Her new album, Raging Ego, offers a comedic aspect and addresses insecurities and challenges with feelings of being an outsider. Through music and entertainment, Lex strives to “make [the audience] think introspectively about what matters to them and their lives.” Lex had a specific vision for Making Waves, and her hope for audience members was to take this message home: “If you are someone who doesn’t necessarily fit in, whether you are Asian American, whether you are a pariah, whether you are some sort of outcast, or someone too weird for the mainstream, and you feel like as a creative artist you want to distribute something out to the world, and you want to share your truth and tell your message… I encourage you to not give a fuck and do it. There is someone in the world who wants to hear your perspective!”

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At the intersection between identity and platform, demand for representation teaches us two lessons: Firstly, that there is no monolithic Asian American narrative streamlined to represent everyone, at every intersection of identity, or at every political outlook. Secondly, to answer the demand, there is room for all walks of Asian American experiences and art. However, we have to hold the door open for each other, to listen to each other, and seek the stories behind our work. Through these conversations with Rudy Kalma, Chow Mane, Ruby Ibarra, and Lex, one commonality that they shared in their vision and purpose was “speaking your truth.” Through amplifying voices and empowerment, we challenge persisting notions of invisibility, and through “speaking [their] truths,” these artists drew into a greater Asian American community of creators, enthusiasts, and fans.

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Photo by Joy Ng

The great turnout of attendees was a definite contributing factor to the success of Making Waves, and a greater part of the event’s success was in the artists staying true to their voices, driving their messages across to an excited audience, who came to revel in their art. For Asian American Hip Hop heads like myself, I hope to see more events like Making Waves, putting Asian American artists in the spotlight and celebrating the stories that bring us together.

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Hella recommended:
Lex the Lexicon Artist websitebandcamp
Ruby Ibarra website / bandcamp
Rudy Kalma soundcloud
Chow Mane website / soundcloud

Keep your eyes on Asian American Music Conference 2018

Read Pinoy Capital: The Filipino Nation in Daly City (2008) by Benito M. Vergara

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  • Photos courtesy of Anthony Bongco.
  • Interviews with Rudy Kalma, Chow Mane, Ruby Ibarra, and Lexicon, conducted by Joy Ng at Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco. May 19, 2018.

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