Innocent Or Criminal? Asian-American Idols Represent

Innocent Or Criminal? Asian-American Idols Represent
One is a dexterous street poet; the other, an adorable nerd. They are, respectively, New York City's Jin and Berkeley's William Hung, two men whose recent forays into the charts have provoked controversy in the Asian-American community.

Hung, of course, is the university student whose appearance on American Idol — where he performed a sub-karaoke calibre version of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" — launched him (however briefly) into the mainstream consciousness, earning him invitations to network talk shows and a $25,000 recording contract with Koch Records.

Jin, meanwhile, is the decorated battle rapper whose splendid debut single ("Learn Chinese") has critics hailing him as the "Asian Eminem," a street credible MC whose skills preempt any questions about his right to rap.

With last month's release of Hung's first album (Inspiration) and the scheduled June release of Jin's (The Rest Is History), these artists have assumed a prominent role in the commercial domain, but they've done so in ways that betray the music industry's persistent racism. Whether these artists are complicit in perpetuating that racism has become a matter of some debate.

Hung's fame, in particular, has been decried by several watchdogs — like SFGate.com's Emil Guillermo and Africana.com's Jimi Izrael — who note his resemblance to the Kim Sisters, a Korean-born trio who sang accented versions of American pop songs on The Ed Sullivan Show. For these critics, the reaction to Hung epitomises the American culture industry's routine characterisation of Asians as quaint, sexless beings — an ignoble tradition that extends from Mickey Rooney's buck-toothed Chinaman imitation in Breakfast at Tiffany's to Sofia Coppola's glibly superficial rendering of Japanese culture in Lost in Translation.

Jin, too, has been criticised by commentators, especially for his attempt to offer Chinatown as a tawdry alternative to the African-American ghetto and by presenting himself as the dialectical (but no less stereotypical) counterpart to Hung's harmless immigrant persona: the underworld crime boss.

That the incipient notoriety of these two artists could attract such scrutiny is no surprise, for few Asian entertainers have attained such renown in North America — and fewer still (like Bruce Lee or Margaret Cho) have done so in ways that expand our understanding of their respective cultures. To critics of Hung and Jin, their stature is based solely on their willingness to assume hackneyed subject roles, a compliance that similarly accounts for the fame of actors Lucy Liu (eternally typecast as the insane dragon-lady) and Jackie Chan (the harmless kung-fu huckster).

Such criticism rather naively assumes that the gatekeepers of the American entertainment industry are interested in promoting nuanced representations of reality. Instead, I would argue that the industry's antagonism toward subtlety — unless, of course, it's profitable — is a condition no more worth criticising on racist grounds than for its implicitly condescending treatment of audiences. For what is American Idol if not an elaborate sitcom, and what are its three judges if not cardboard cut-outs: the snobbish Brit, the "with-it" black guy and the sympathetic matron.

The denunciation of Hung's fame by some Asian-American commentators strikes me as at least partly motivated by a sense of embarrassed self-loathing; as a member of a French-Canadian community whose biggest export (Celine Dion) is a parody unto herself, I well understand how mortifying it can be to have your culture represented by a walking caricature, but I would contend that the root problem here is not racism but blinkered capitalist zeal.

In fact, Hung's awkward song and dance routine would be no less (nor more) entertaining were he, say, a Czech immigrant. I'd argue that his popularity is not due to racism, but rather because his guileless performance and defiant response to the judges' castigation ("I already gave my best. I have no regrets at all.") were at once humorous and heartening — a nerd's revenge more satisfying than any serialised movie franchise could ever muster.

As for Jin, his gangsta stance should be criticized not because it's damaging to Asian identity but because he's too talented to be mining such clichéd subject matter. Judging by his freestyles on BET's 106th & Park, the New Yorker is one of the dopest young rappers on the planet, a man in possession of the sole attribute of consequence to the corporate model: market appeal. If his album is a hit, then the cries of his critics will indeed be history, for he will have helped chart a course for a host of MCs to come, whatever their ethnicity.