On hip-hop, DJs, and racial parameters

Assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico

Growing up in the Bay Area in the 1980s proved to be formative in terms of laying the groundwork for the kinds of questions I grapple with in Filipinos Represent.

During this period, I came of age deeply immersed in hip-hop, strongly identifying with all aspects of the culture—DJing, MCing, writing, and b-boying. This was a time marked by the commercial ascendancy of hip-hop, though most of us who identified with the culture never imagined hip-hop blowing up as huge as it has. But what I also remember about that period was how hip-hop was widely configured as an African American expressive form. In other words, the widespread perception at the time was that hip-hop was unquestionably an African American thing and those of us into it were well aware that we were participating in an African American expressive form.

The 1990s, however, signaled a shift in the perceived racial parameters of hip-hop. In particular, the genre was no longer perceived as an African American expressive form given the role of other groups in its emergence and evolution and its global currency. At the same time, African American youth were no longer considered the exclusive creators and innovators of the culture and accorded “insider” status. Coming of age in the Bay Area proved to be formative for another reason and it had to do with the dominance of Filipino youth in the Bay Area DJ scene. While Filipino youth were into all aspects of hip-hop, it was in DJing that they made their mark, achieving national and global prominence and earning the reputation as the best DJs in the globe.

The ascendancy of Filipino DJs would have implications for the perceived boundaries of Filipinoness as DJing would become a rite of passage for Filipino youth and a constituent element of Filipino identity and culture. In other words, it became increasingly commonplace for Filipino DJs to claim hip-hop as their own, as much a Filipino expressive form as it is a black expressive form.

These formative moments would drive and inform questions I grapple with in my book, questions that include: What does it mean for Filipino youth to claim hip-hop as their own?

What does it mean to claim culture and for a culture to “belong” to a particular group?

If the notion of hip-hop as an African American expressive form is no longer tenable, does it mean that any group can claim it as their own?

How are the contrasting and competing claims of different groups to be adjudicated?

In an effort to address these questions, I conducted a discursive analysis of popular and academic accounts of hip-hop, scrutinizing how these texts approach questions of race and cultural ownership. I was particularly interested in how these texts conceive of the racial scope of hip-hop—according to what terms and on what basis—as well as the shift that has taken place in terms of how the literature conceives of the racial scope of hip-hop. I also conducted interviews with eight Bay Area-based Filipino DJs. In these interviews, I talked to my respondents about a broad range of topics including what drew them to DJing and how DJing figured in their career plans. I was particularly interested in how they go about establishing their cultural legitimacy in an expressive form historically configured as African American.

I make the argument that in considering DJing a Filipino expressive form, my respondents are subscribing to a view of cultural identity not predicated on conventional cultural markers such as language, food, and religion to construct their sense of Filipinoness. Instead, Filipino youth involvement in DJing opens up alternative ways of thinking about Filipinoness—U.S. or diaspora based rather than Philippine or homeland based—that speak to the complex social locations and shifting identifications of Filipinos in the diaspora.

At the same time, a case could be made that my respondents are deploying their own notions of hip-hop authenticity, notions of authenticity not tied to blackness and in the process, broadening the racial and ethnic scope of hip-hop and making it a more inclusive space. And yet, Filipino youth involvement in DJ culture is not without challenges and complications. A case could be made that my respondents may very well be resorting to claims of liberal pluralism in which “difference” is rendered benign and elaborated in nonracial terms.

Accordingly, Filipinoness becomes just another marker of difference, “a kind of difference that does not make a difference of any kind”[i] to quote Stuart Hall. But Filipino involvement in DJing can also be problematic in the way it constitutes a highly gendered stratified space with different implications for Filipino DJs and Filipina DJs. Authenticity is not something that everyone can claim. In short, the foregoing speaks to the complex and contradictory lines of identification opened up by Filipino youth involvement in DJ culture.

Antonio T. Tiongson Jr. is assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico. He is coeditor of Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse.

“Antonio T. Tiongson Jr. gives us a highly engaging and nuanced critique of what is at stake when young Filipino Americans enter the ‘Hip-hop nation’ and rethink Filipinoness in the post-Civil Rights era. It will be of interest to anyone grappling with questions of interracial solidarity, colorblindness, diasporic culture, and globalization that loom large today.”
—Sunaina Maira, University of California, Davis

Filipinos Represent boldly asks what is at stake in defining the public meanings of hip-hop, identifying the stakes of hip-hop as an ethnic and racial practice that elucidates how Filipino American DJs experience race. Particularly compelling about Tiongson Jr.’s research are the interviews he provides with practitioners of the craft. Their narratives and his contextualization of what meanings accrue around these symbols and performative modes are rich and nuanced.”
—Anita Mannur, Miami University of Ohio

[i] Stuart Hall, What is This “Black” in Black Popular Culture?,” in Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), 23.

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