Legendary rapper and beatboxer Doug E. Fresh once said, “Hip-hop is supposed to uplift and create, to educate people on a larger level and to make a change.” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve listened to hip hop music since I was a kid in the ‘80s. It has been a positive force in my life that has educated me about diversity and equality, uplifted me through the darkest of moments, and changed the way that I interact with others. It has been a healing element in my life, and continues to inspire me to see the world with an open heart and mind.
My first memories of hip hop music come not from the radio, but from television. I was raised by a single Korean mother who worked two jobs, so this meant that my brother and I were often left alone to find ways to pass the time. A majority of our time was spent watching whatever was on cable television. I remember when my brother and I first saw Breakin’ 2: Electric Booglaoo on HBO. We were not only mesmerized by the breakdancing moves and funky beats in songs like “Din Daa Daa,” but also by the diversity in the film. I loved that it had a multiracial cast who were brought together by their love of music and dancing. As a mixed child myself, I didn’t always feel that I fit in with white or Asian people, but the movie proved to me that music is color blind and can bring people of all races together.
It was rough being a teenager and having a mother who was always working, but my brother and I fed our love of hip hop with television shows like Yo! MTV Raps and In Living Color. In fact, I remember seeing Black Sheep perform “The Choice is Yours” on In Living Color and absolutely loving the song. Soon after we were listening to the cassette tape in his room, memorizing the lyrics and freestyling in between hooks. My brother was much better at freestyling, but I became great at writing lyrics, which I would channel into my poetry. I became obsessed, and every writing project I had in school became a rap. I wrote a drug-free rap that I performed over the entire middle school speaker system, and even performed a Tide laundry detergent rap while drumming on an upside down paint bucket!
For me, writing these raps was therapeutic. I didn’t have to think about being an awkward teenager, or about my absentee father, or about my busy working mother. I could listen to Digable Planets, Dr. Dre, The Pharcyde, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest and be inspired. Hip hop lyrics weren’t anything like the conventional pop tunes that I knew. They didn’t focus on crying over breakups and love from above. The songs had messages of defiance, independence, confidence and power. They opposed conventional social and political principles. Listening to them made me feel less like a shy, nerdy teen and more like someone that was going to stand up to the man (or at least to that bully who called me Kristi Yamaguchi). I needed that because I had no self-esteem at all during adolescence.
Starting college in 1998 wasn’t any easier for me. I still had no confidence, but this time I was away from home for the first time in my life. The first few weeks in the dorm I was pretty depressed, despite making friends and staying busy with classes. I would sit at my desk with my headphones on listening to albums like Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and Outkast’s “Aquemini.” Jay Z, Wu Tang Clan, Eminem, Blackalicious, Jurassic 5, The Roots and Common helped me to get through the next four years as Dave Matthews Band blasted every day through neighboring dorm windows.
The Real World
After college I moved to Maryland with my then boyfriend. I wasn’t happy with the relationship, or my job, or being so far away from my mother, so I went into a pretty deep funk. After what I called an “early life crisis” I decided to start over, with everything. I moved into my own apartment and began grad school. Many nights I would come home from work and sit in my room alone, listening to The Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” and thinking that life was doing just that. I dated a few guys, but none of them shared my love of hip hop music, so we would often end up arguing when it came to what to listen to on the radio.
Then I got a job at a comic book company, and things started to change. I met a fellow Asian “brother” at my job who not only loved hip hop, but who was also from my same hometown! I even bonded with a few grad school classmates over Biggie songs. Most importantly, I met my future husband at just the right time because I thought that I would never fall in love again. We talked online for nine months, discussing our love of Run DMC and Jay Z, and then finally planned to meet in person at a Wu Tang Clan concert. Although we went to a movie instead, and I later found out that he favored classic rock over hip hop, we somehow managed to stay together for over seven years. We even got married in Hawaii in 2012.
Over the last year hip hop music has continued to be a healing power in my life. When I started getting stressed out about my day job as a writer, I found an outlet for my love of hip hop and humor by writing for The Rap Insider, a satire music website. The staff members, many whom are as devoted to the genre of music as I am, have become my second family. Since I’ve never had a big family, this means a lot to me.
For my one year wedding anniversary my husband got me the best gift ever: a two hour DJ session with Biz Markie! Meeting Biz not only verified my love of ‘90s hip hop music, but it also told me that my husband was a keeper.
I’ve also been introduced online to an amazing hip hop producer and rapper named Scott “Chops” Jung, an original member of the Mountain Brothers (the first Asian American rappers ever signed to a record label). He has worked with talent like Kanye West and Raekwon. I was one of the proud backers to help fund his Kickstarter project Strength in Numbers, a music anthology featuring some of the best Asian American artists in the world. Knowing that this album is going to happen makes me proud of my Asian heritage, and gives me hope for the success of future Asian hip hop artists.
So that’s how hip hop has been and continues to be a healing power in my life. Doug E. Fresh was right about hip hop’s ability to uplift and educate me, and it has definitely changed my life for the better.