The Hip-Hop of Asian America: An Interview with MORris Done
MORris Done is a San Francisco-based emcee. He forms part of Bay Area hip hop groups The People’s Tree and Still People, and specializes in introspective lyricism and complex rhyme structures. MORris is a rare breed of artist: a unique and compelling writer, a technically sound performer, and a fellow Asian American emcee. I caught up with MORris about his past and current projects, as well as how his heritage and life in the Bay have influenced his work. Check out MORris at:
|SOUNDCLOUD||SOUNDCLOUD: The Peoples Tree|
How do you feel your work to be related to the historical roots of Asian Americans in the Bay Area? Is it influenced by any traditions that Asian immigrants imported to the area?
My home soil of San Francisco had a population of Asian Americans who were influenced by hip-hop culture. We grew up around a racially diverse crowd, playing basketball and listening to hip-hop. Although that demographic has largely disappeared, this is reflected in my personality and music. I always looked up to Equipto’s work as an artist (he is half Japanese/Colombian), and he has been a huge inspiration for me both personally and artistically. I had to commute to a mostly-white high school in a less diverse city, and my time there drove me to hang on to the cultural aspects of my home city.
Do you hope for your work to appeal to those outside of this demographic -- Asian Americans who live in the Bay Area? If so, how do you try to avoid being boxed in both racially and geographically?
A huge drawback to the Bay Area hip-hop scene is that its fanbase is mostly natives of the same region, and this “bubble” has a hard time breaking out into the mainstream. In fact, much of the flavor of the Bay is stolen by other artists and these “ism’s” are implemented into other scenes, while the originators remain unnoticed. This is because the Bay Area scene is in fact a “bubble,” and since not many artists make it to the next level, inferior artists from other regions “pick up on the game” and call it their own. Even in nightlife, local DJs at clubs and bars will play almost entirely LA-based G-funk when it comes to rap.
Getting play in other areas is definitely an aim, and a lot of this comes down to what demographic your style fits with. Since my music draws a lot of comparisons to East Coast boom-bap rap, the NYC scene is always something in my sights. Ironically, this can make creating hometown clout more difficult, if local folks are looking for a West Coast vibe. My group, The People’s Tree, was able to do that thanks to a local label called Solidarity that provided leadership and opportunities. Learning how to “get in where you fit in” is a valuable skill within the rap scene, especially here in the Bay Area.
My music rarely refers to the notion of “being Yellow,” as many artists prior made it the sole focal point of their artwork; I see it as crucial to explore all topics of life that humans experience, as being an Asian American artist is not defined solely by heritage.
In the mainstream media, Asian Americans tend to be portrayed as passive. In contrast, rap is creative, bold, often braggadocious. Have Asian American stereotypes of passivity shaped your interest in, and approach to rap?
Hollywood is a hypnotizing thing. Because Yellow folks are so misrepresented in media, a lot of people outside of the Bay, LA, and NYC view real Asian American males that way. When conservative white folks put Asians in a box, I think it stems from repercussions of ill relations with Black America. It’s an effort to paint themselves as “the perfect middle ground,” and avoiding being last on the social totem pole.
Since I had to commute to a mostly-white high school outside of the city, I dealt with people (unsuccessfully) trying to put me in a box. My stance against this evolved and grew over time, and heavily influenced my desire to pick up a microphone, as it gave me a voice. The essence of rap was the embodiment of self-knowledge, love, and connection with my surroundings.
Sort of contradicting “passivity” stereotypes, the mainstream media also represents Asian Americans by the “yellow peril” trope, which portrays Asians as foreign threats. As you aim to subvert stereotypes of passivity, do you ever worry about going too far in the other direction and falling into the “yellow peril” stereotype?
No; my music is definitely not extreme, and mostly gives insight to my intellectual capabilities and thoughts on life. A lot of my work is existential in theme, and does not cover my everyday routines, which already differs from most hip-hop music. However, my personality off the mic is more outward and animated. In all honesty, this country requires Asian men to have a forward, secure, and stable aura in order to gain a “seat at the table” as I like to say, due to the preconceptions of what Yellow men are. Because of this, my actions are segued; on the mic, I choose to show a certain side of me: thoughtful, intellectual. Off the mic, I become less flexible and more adaptable to surroundings, navigating whatever is needed. A mantra I have learned to live is to “be smart but play stupid on the surface,” as many non-Asian men become intimidated whenever a Yellow brother excels at any field outside of the prescribed skill-set.
Besides stereotypes and representation, what else are you conscious of, as an Asian American rapper? I’m particularly curious about how you deal with rap’s relationship with black culture. How do you feel about the concept of cultural appropriation, as one that frames how non-black rappers should approach the medium?
There are many paths being an Asian American rapper, including artists which perpetuate the stereotypes or use “being Asian” as a novelty or focal point of their artistry, those who paint the street life aspect of Asian Americans raised in the hood, and artists whose music reflects deep thought introspection. The works of Black/Brown artists before us have led the way in showing how to embrace native culture amidst oppression, in addition to molding the art-form to what it is today. If Asian Americans are to be involved in rap, I believe they are responsible for at least doing the research on the roots of the genre, going back to jazz, blues, and soul in order to better understand hip-hop as a lifestyle, and remaining true to themselves and their actions. After all, one can not expect to contribute expansion if they do not experience or understand the origins of this art.
At the end of the day I just am myself on the mic, although I cater the music to a certain type of listener (not a racial demographic) who enjoys lyricism and complex bars. Many of my listeners did not know I was Asian until they saw photos of me or met me. I feel if an Asian American really is immersed in Black culture (this may only be prevalent in diverse major cities) or does the research on its roots, then it is not cultural appropriation if they do not “cross the line.” It is simply painting the story that is theirs. Then again, rappers these days will say anything regardless of its truth, so it’s important to filter wisely.
Alex Sun Liu is a rapper, writer, and Professional Asian Woman.
You can find more of her work at www.lexliumusic.com.
g.o.a.t Hip Hop