The Many (Soul) Sides of Oliver Wang: Part Three
Activist, DJ, audioblogger, critic, photographer -- you can now add professor to the list of the many hats that Oliver Wang, aka O-dub wears. In APA's interview with him, Wang discusses the dire state of arts journalism, blogging versus print journalism, and why rappers -- and critics -- are sensitive thugs that all need hugs.
Published: Thursday, June 08, 2006
APA: What do you think about networks like MTV Chi and ImaginAsian and AZN TV? How do you think they're going to impact the future of Asian American musicians? Do you think that’s going to make them more mainstream or more ghettoized in their own channels?
OW: That’s a good question. I think for one thing, I think a lot of these video stations and channels are grand experiments. It’s not really clear as to how successful they’re going to be. I mean, AZN basically got shut down before they even got started, right, so it just shows you that it’s still very fragile, it’s still very tentative in what the success of the networks are going to be, let alone what kinds of opportunities it might afford Asian Americans to be shown on those networks. I think it’s a question. I’m not a very good prognosticator, I’ve never predicted trends very well. But I do think having an opportunity to be seen more has got to be at least one step in that path. I think it’s incumbent of the artist, if they don’t want to be ghettoized and pigeonholed in a box, they have to be very savvy about how they construct their careers and who they push themselves to. Which is not always easy. If people want to put you in a particular category, oftentimes it can be very hard to break out. But I think that that’s the challenge that artists have to face, if they want to have much more of a crossover mainstream appeal, is to figure out how to get there and then gamble with it. There’s no silver bullet though. There’s no easy answer.
APA: I was reading Deborah Wong’s book, and she was talking about the Mountain Brothers and how they actually had two press kits back in the day, one that highlighted the Asianness and the other one that hid it. With AZN TV, you can’t hide it anymore, your face is right there. So do you think there are new strategies to pass as non-Asian?
OW: No, I don’t think that’s possible, especially if you want to be a musician, especially a rapper or singer, you’re making a commitment to play a very visible role. You gotta be on-camera at some point and that’s something you’re not going to be able to get past, and the trick is hopefully what you do as a musician will transcend what people think of you on the basis on your appearance. Your voice is going to be so amazing, that they’re not going to care what you look like. I don’t want that to sound naïve or idealistic, but ultimately that has to be part of that process. Any artist basically wants to get by on their talent, rather than their appearance or other dynamics, what they do with their actual abilities. Kelly Pickler aside, perhaps, but I think what we’re seeing for this generation of Asian Americans on the come-up is to find ways of making their talent shine though, and hopefully people won’t pay attention, hopefully it won’t be as much of an issue whether they’re Asian American or not.
APA: How do you think YouTube has affected the ability for artists to become visible, as well as a critic -- your ability to be able to quote videos?
OW: I haven’t spent enough time exploring that to say one way or the other. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the myspace phenomenon which now feels like old fogie compared to youtube, which I’m sure now is five minutes ago anyway. Now there’s something else that’s come up since then. I mean I think the availability of information at your fingertips is an upside in terms of being able to access things better. But the problem is, and this speaks to myspace and the use of internet for promotional purposes, is that once people get savvy about it, then it gets flooded. So it’d be one thing a year ago when you had a few forward-thinking artists using it as a way to promote themselves, if you were only one of a dozen people doing that, then that’s great. When you’re one of 12,000 people doing that, you come back to the central problem, which is, how do people find you, which, when you’re just one face amongst 1,000, then you’re back at square one in distinguishing it. The benefit of information access, is yes, you can get more information, but when having more information, you need more filters. How do you navigate your way through that? And that becomes part of the challenge.
APA: What about as a blogger -- how does that influence what kinds of topics you choose, now that you can quote something online immediately?
OW: I think it just adds another layer to have something to point to that’s visual. To me the thing that’s interesting about youtube is that it’s finally made video, which used to be a bandwidth hog, it’s made it a lot more accessible for people to watch, so it just gives us an extra layer of things to quote from. So instead of saying you should check out this video, request it in a box, instead you can send someone this youtube link and it becomes easier for people to have that immediate access and that’s how things like the whole "Lazy Sunday" thing took off so quickly, because it was easy for people to point at it and then bam, it was off and running. So I think it’s changed it on that level. I don’t think it's a revolution though, I think it just means that’s one more thing that we can now point to.
APA: When you begin at Cal State Long beach, what are some of your goals as an educator? What do you want students to walk away with?
OW: Wow, that’s a great question. What are my pedalogical goals? I’m going to be teaching classes in race and popular culture, and I think the challenge with both of those, number one, with race, it’s a very divisive topic, a very difficult one to teach, in some ways a more difficult one in a multicultural environment than perhaps ones that are homogenous. Because you have people with their own experiences that they want to bring into the classroom and you want to encourage that, but you also have to balance that with the fact that people have to be open to other people’s ideas instead of necessarily relying on their own as their universe. The challenge is not really getting people to understand not only how race functions in their own lives, but how it functions differently for other people as well. And I think that’s one of the hardest things to get people to really have that empathy across racial and ethnic lines, to understand how those experiences are different.
And with popular culture, the challenge is, how do you get students to take that seriously when they’re used to not taking pop culture seriously, because it’s pop culture? Especially things like television and film and music, we’re conditioned to be very passiverecipients and consumers of it. So we’ll sit down and watch a movie, but we’re not necessarily expected to have an opinion or direct engagement with it, or something that’s a critical way of thinking about it. In teaching film classes and music classes in the past, you really have to push people to get out of that comfort level as a consumer, and actually be an active participant in interacting with culture on that level. And I think once you do that, you realize, number one, how powerful popular culture is as a site of ideas and ideology, and its potential for change, because it has a very powerful way of influencing how people think and how they see themselves, and how they feel on just an emotional level. So I think those are some of my goals, just to get people to appreciate the nuances of both race and popular culture, as well as how these things fit together very well -- popular culture as a primary medium of which people learn about race overseas. Those are some of the things I’m trying to think about as I’m putting together these classes.
APA: As rap grows in appeal so rapidly, how would you address the opinion that African Americans have more legitimacy or ownership of rap and hip-hop?
OW: I think it’s what you mean by ownership. I think it’s undeniable that hip-hop has very distinct and obvious roots in African American traditions, in Afro-diasporic traditions. There’s no question that the key pioneers and most of the innovators throughout its history have been largely African Americans as well as Puerto Rican American. So there’s no denying historically where this comes out of.
And the thing is, not to contradict, but on one level, I do think the hip-hop community is very open to anyone who wants to participate in it, but I mean that more on sort of the grassroots level. It’s very rare that someone who wants to be a DJ is going to get their race card pulled for, or if you want to be a b-boy, or if you want to be an emcee. If you want to step into the cipher the question is, can you stand on your own lyrically versus what race are you? What becomes tricky and where I think the issue of ownership comes in is because it’s this idea of industry, it’s this idea of capital. Will a record label sign off on an Asian American artist, or a non-black artist for that matter? Are they willing to throw their weight behind and say that this kid is legitimate in a way that I think we’ve typically associated “authentic” or “legitimate” rappers with the black community, because they’ve come out of that tradition and that we’ve been conditioned through the media to think of rappers as equating to African American?
What makes it tricky is that you could say the same thing about blues music, you could say the same thing about jazz music in the past, and obviously those are artforms now where white or non-black musicians or artists don’t surprise people, be it Eric Clapton, or Kenny G, for that matter. But, what’s happened in that process, is not simply have those genres become open to different races, in some ways, it’s deracinated, the idea that somehow race has been evacuated and sucked out of those things. So people forget that blues comes out of a very specific historical context of African Americans, the same way that jazz does as well. So the danger is that, in terms of, yes, you want to create a space where you can embrace more things, but you don’t want to erase the history and the sense of tradition in that process. And I think that’s why there’s this delicate balance, and I think that’s why there’s this idea of a black ownership of culture; it’s not because they don’t want to share. It’s because they don’t want to lose it completely. Culture, I don’t think operates on an all-or-nothing dynamic, but historically, it’s a very slippery slope, because once you concede, or once you lose these assocations, you won’t necessarily be able to get it back. I do think the thing about hip-hop that is notable though is that it’s managed to maintain a very intimate and acknowledged connection to Blackness for 25 years -- 35 years if you want to go back to the roots of hip-hop before it was recorded. And that’s probably longer than the heyday that jazz and blues were able to hang onto before it became this deracialized form; hip hop is still very much connected to Blackness, even though you have internal dynamics that are changing that.
So, I was asked a similar question at a panel the other week: do I think that non-black artists have a harder time becoming rappers? And yes, I do think they do. The question becomes, is that unfair? And I think that’s a much more complicated question. And in order to judge fairness, the only way you can answer that is by looking through history and saying, "Well if Asian and white artists are getting shafted, well, who’s shafting them and what does that shaft mean?" And how does that compare in the ways that African American artists have been shafted for the last 400 years of American history, and is your complaint really legitimate compared to what the historical record says? And yeah, I think it is harder for Asian and white and non-black artists to make it in the hip-hop industry, I don’t think that’s necessarily an unfair challenge, but it is a challenge.
APA: Do you think hip-hop from Asia will ever be popular here? Bhangra has been popular even though it’s imported from England, and Mexican rap has been incorporated to some degree.
OW: I think it would take a lot for Asian hip-hop to become popular in the States for a variety of reasons. The first and biggest reason is that Americans are incredibly parochial about the kind of hip-hop that they like; as far as a lot of American rap fans are concerned, nothing outside of our borders matters. Not even Canada. And if Canadian rappers can’t even get any love, seriously, what hope does a kid out of Seoul or Shanghai or Manila or Jakarta really have about breaking into the States? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the expectations of American rap fans is that number one, they have a certain look, number two that they rap in English and clearly spoken English. Just look at how successful British rappers have been in America. They speak the same language, but it doesn’t even mean they get any love. So I think it’s going to be a really, really tough sell. Especially because, again, an Asian rapper from Asia can’t depend on an Asian American consumer base to support them, and if folks like us aren’t going out of our way to check who’s the new hot emcee coming out of Tokyo, why is anyone else going to care about them, per se? I mean, I’m being a bit pessimistic, I just don’t see that changing until America’s attitudes toward foreign culture changes. And especially in hip-hop. Hip-hop is one of the most nationalistic cultural forms that exists in the U.S.. We really don’t respect or care about anything that doesn’t come from within our own borders. I mean, people have a hard enough time accepting Southern rap. I mean, so much internal battles that go on, that we’re not even checking for the rest of the world.
But the thing is, I think a really good emcee from Asia could probably blow up in other places around the world easier than they would here in the States because I think people globally and in other places internationally are more open-minded about what hip-hop is supposed to be and sound like, versus the States because we started it, we feel like we sort of have the patent on what the real stuff is supposed to sound like, and no one from the outside is going to tell us that we need to change our minds about that.