Kung Fu Kennys and Black Samurai: Rap’s Fetishization of Asian Culture


Ever since the publication of my article “Sorry Asians, My Blackness Is Not Your Counterculture”, I’ve gotten a range of responses from praise, to accusation of hating Asians, click-baiting, and ignoring Asian presence in hip-hop.

Now, here is my response to all of you, an article on the flipside of the long-winded history of Asian-Black tensions. This isn’t a piece to pander to the Asians and Asian-Americans who dismissed my message in the last article, but to instead invoke parity within the POC community.

From the Wu-Tang Clan, to Nicki Minaj’s “Harajuku Barbie” persona, to today’s Kung-Fu Kenny, aka rapper Kendrick Lamar, the influence of Asian culture and martial arts in hip-hop is endless.

The history begins in the 70s and 80s when Kung-Fu movies rose in popularity, especially in the boroughs of NYC, where hip-hop culture began. These movies became a solace for many Black men, who saw the movies with actors like Bruce Lee as a way to empower the extreme masculinity expected of them, but in a cool way.

In an article from The Fader about Kendrick Lamar’s “Kung-Fu Kenny” character that has recently appeared with the release of his album, DAMN., it is explained that his new rap personality is influenced by a character in the movie “Rush Hour 2”. This type of influence has been consistent in the Black community, and in another article from Complex, it is said this influence was birthed from the New York City economic crisis in the 70s and for movie theatres that didn’t have other films, where “their best economic alternative was to buy packages of these cheap Hong Kong action movies, and just show them all day long.”

In fact, this specific era was depicted in the now cancelled Netflix original series, “The Get Down”, which also included major influences from Kung-Fu, especially from a character named Shaolin Fantastic.

While responding to someone’s message to my previous article, we began to discuss how Black people and Asian people often feel on the opposite sides of the spectrum of race, that was created by stereotypes, i.e. Asian men are painted as effeminate and Black men as hyper-masculine. Because of this, and the push for these men to adhere to said stereotypes, Asians take on Black culture as a way to appear more masculine, and Black men take on Asian culture as a way to appear cooler without being painted as aggressive.

When putting this into perspective in the world of hip-hop, it then begins to get blurry. Asian figures in hip-hop approach the culture with an overly tough character, and Black figures utilize aspects of Asian culture and end up romanticizing and appropriating them to reinvent their own image.

So, how far is too far when appreciation for Asian culture turns into appropriation by Black artists? Is it when Beyoncé sports traditional Indian dress for a music video with Coldplay? Is it when Nicki Minaj gets a tattoo in traditional Chinese, appropriates Korean culture in one music video and then even goes on to wear a sexualized version of a kimono in another one of her music videos? Or is it when rapper RZA directs a misguided Kung-Fun film with lack of actual Asian leads that aren’t sexualized or turned into caricatures?

See, the message is lost when Black communities fetishize Asian culture and attempt to wear it as their own, in an often warped and sexualized manner. Asian culture, and Asians should not become their props when approaching new concepts in their music careers.

It is seen much too often — even within the POC community — that Asians become equated with Whiteness, and are seen as separate entities in the struggle for equality, especially in Western societies.

The first step to erasing this divide between the racial groups is to first acknowledge that our experiences with racism are not the same, and that Asians, in a sense, are brought down by this generalized label when the cultures across Asia could not be any more different.

Not only does the model minority myth create an image of Whiteness around Asians, but it suggests that other racial groups, like Black people, are at the bottom and lack success to no one’s fault but their own.

This “racial wedge” is described in an article by NPR, and says that at the center of the arguments between Asians and Black people is “racial resentment” rather than plain out racism, and the model minority myth perpetuates the idea that “Asians [are] industrious and rule-abiding [and] stand in direct contrast to African-Americans, who [are] still struggling against bigotry, poverty and a history rooted in slavery.”

Now, this may be why it is so difficult to bring these communities together, and why we keep borrowing and taking from one another’s cultures (as if it’s our right) because we view each other with resentment and loathe the positions that Western society has placed us in.

I think it is perfectly fine for us to find solace in each other’s respective cultures, but I don’t want to see anymore animosity between us! And I definitely don’t want anymore examples of mockery from the Black community as we pretend to be Kung-Fu stars, dress up in kimonos or Indian dresses for fun, slant our eyes to make fun of Asians, have Asians wear traditionally Black protective styles or use Blackface!

It’s about time we end this nonsense on both sides (especially since the race war has begun and we’re under this sham of the Trump administration). For us to move forward, and unify as I imagine, we have to not only check ourselves, but our families too, who carry on the Anti-Asian and Anti-Black sentiments for generations.

In fact, I’m hoping that films like the remake of “Black Samurai, will show the effortless blending of our cultures, rather than exploiting Asian culture once again.

Nia Tucker is a current undergrad at the University of Rochester, trying to study things that she can use to make the world a less terrible place. She’s a Capricorn who likes beauty, writing, activism, and Beyonce…but mostly Beyonce.