Latinos in Taiwan Pt. 3: Chicano hip hop scene
Posted September 22, 2009 2:48 am (about 3650 days ago)
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To be upfront, I’m pretty leery of anything “hip hop” these days, although it continues to permeate nearly every aspect of my life. At this point, I’m like one of those jaded old men. I actually like some of newer MCs, but whether it’s music, dance, or art, show us something new! I like b-boying, but don’t show me your best rendition of something that was done in New York 30 years ago! By extension, I don’t like seeing people who claim to “represent hip hop” merely copying others, especially other countries trying to imitate the U.S. Rule number one is originality! Hip hop has been commercialized for so long that as I’ve gotten older I’ve had less energy to sort through the garbage to get to the gems. But for the record, I picked up some Taiwanese hip hop records by the likes of a Kou Chou Ching. These guys are way beyond 2nd rate American imitations.
Regarding Chicano rap, it’s a broad term referencing hip hop done by Mexican Americans, often with more West Coast sounds (in terms of samples and production styles) and it’s often associated with gangs. In a general sense, I associate it with three cultures: hip hop, Chicano/Mexican American (as opposed to Mexicans from Mexico) and street gangs. In this context, you can’t separate the three. Although not all of it is gang-related, and some deals with community upliftment, my association with Chicano rap is often with urban, crime-related tales.
My first exposure to Chicano rap in Asia was through Japan. American artists often tour over there and there are locals with Latino names such as, uh, El Latino, and Sad Girl, and Chicano-themed tattoo parlors. At first I was fascinated, but quickly felt insulted. Among other things, there was no distinction between street gangs/crime and Mexican culture. People were emulating “gangsters” out of respect for “La Raza.” Would they feel that Americans or Mexicans respected them if we all started dressing like geishas and mimicking yakuza, to “honor” Japan?
I saw articles about “The Mexican Way of Life,” which merely talked about gang life. One reason I found this to be so insulting, beyond being Chicano, is that I’m in a career that’s devoted, among other things, to giving youth alternatives beyond gangs. I work at a high school in a community with high gang activity and we have a zero tolerance policy. We have both wannabes and active members at our school and I’ve known some in my personal life. Nearly everyone, including the hardcore gangsters are trying to get out of this lifestyle! The ones who aren’t tend to be really young, are often the most depressed ones and are often putting on a front. This depression may come out as anger or pseudo-masked by drugs and alcohol, but I’ve yet to meet a gangster, at least at the street level, who’s truly happy. It’s a hard life to lead. Gangs, urban life, and Chicano/Mexican culture are not interchangeable terms. In my particularl community gangs and crime do exist, but they don’t define us.
Having said that, I get why gangs exist and their appeal. Nearly everyone wants to be part of something bigger (fraternities, sororities, nationalism, etc) and I spent a period of my life idolizing gangsters as well, making some very poor decisions in the process. But was I a bad person? I like to think not, and I’ve turned out OK, although I wasn’t that caught up. Stil, I recognize that my life could've easily gone down a different path. My point is that it’s more complicated. I hate the negative impact that gangs have had in my community, yet recognize that many of these individual members are part of the community. While a few are serious psychopaths that only understand violence, many feel that they have limited options. Why would anyone in their right mind choose a path that leads to death or prison? I say that with respect, as someone who at one point saw lock up as a rite of passage and violent death as immortality. Yes, I get it, but also recognize that it’s a pretty dysfunctional outlook on life. Still, without being an apologist for criminal behavior, I try to see the humanity and internal struggles in people, which is why I chose a career in education. Furthermore, most gangs are about more than merely committing crimes and address some people’s sense of identity and stability. The key is to offer realistic alternatives and recognize that the term “gang member” encompasses a wide range of affiliations and lifestyles, often having nothing to do with crime and complete with all the usual human contradictions. Limiting people to these labels doesn't allow for these complexities.
At any rate, while my initial response to Chicano hip hop in Taiwan was interest, then offense, I finally realized that I should talk to some of the locals and get their perspective. If life’s taught me anything, people aren’t two dimensional! I wanted to find out why they were so fascinated by this subgenre, whether this extended to a larger interest in Mexican and Latino culture, if they actually related, and if there were active Taiwanese cholos. In Japan it’s not hard to find people with tattoos of Latino gangs or to straight buy clothes with gang names on them. Often times, these are people who’ve never been to the ‘hoods they claim to be representing and even squares like me could slap around. It’s like some weird Halloween party gone bad! There’s some serious history with Mexican gangs and there aren’t a whole lot of parallels for the average Asian youth.
So, that’s the perspective I bring when eyeing hip hop, especially Chicano rap, which obviously shapes the following. And just to be fair, Asians aren’t the only one’s who fetishize or stereotype others. We all do it, which doesn’t excuse it, but I could write a book on insults I’ve heard growing up, from people of all backgrounds, and many people still think that not only do all Asians look alike, but we still all know karate, can’t drive, all Asian women give massages, and we speak funny English. Let’s not get started on the eye jokes or insults about our manliness. Also, it’s not a compliment to think we’re all good at math. On the right, check out one of the Asian “tributes” I picked up in Mexico, complete with rice paddy hats and lines for eyes. Yeah, there are a lot of conversations that need to happen all around.
But time to move on to some Taiwanese locals!