Asian hip-hop reaches its Summit at the U of C

The Asian Hip Hop Summit performs on campus this Saturday.

By Ben Sigrist

Modern musical genres have functioned as a sort of melting pot for various cultural influences. Innovations in modern music, especially in hip-hop, have been a means both for achieving a sense of unity among wildly different people and for expressing individuality amidst kaleidoscopic cultural chaos. It is this unifying and defining power of music that motivates the Asian Hip Hop Summit, a group of hip-hop artists who will be performing on campus this Saturday.

The Summit group began in 2002 with a performance in Koreatown, Los Angeles, that commemorated the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and raised money for victims of famine in North Korea. Organized by former Ph.D. candidate Kublai Kwon, the Summit began touring across the nation and reaching out to other hip-hop and Asian-American communities. According to Dumbfoundead, a hip-hop artist who regularly performs with the Summit, the goals of the group have become much more community-oriented. “Last year was my first national tour, so it gave me a chance to reach East Coast audiences, as well as Canada,” he said.

But both Kwon and Dumbfoundead emphasized that the community the Summit seeks to create goes beyond just extending their fanbase. “There’s Asian communities in all these places, and we’re trying to connect to them through music,” said DJ Zo, another member of the Summit.

The performance this Saturday, sponsored by the PanAsia Student Association, is, in a sense, an opportunity to witness the effects of the aforementioned melting pot—the ways in which cultural and racial identities are transformed by the American experience. Of course, the dangers and ambiguities of the term “melting pot” reflect the complexity of the issue that PanAsia hopes to address. Exactly what changes between the first generation of immigrants and its posterity—the second, third, or fourth generations?

PanAsia is unique in its perspective on Asian-American culture as a combination of different influences, said second-year Alan Sit, the organizer for Saturday’s performance. “Asian-American culture is a hybrid,” he explained. “PanAsia recognizes both the native culture [of first-generation immigrants] and Asian-American culture.” With its emphasis on Asian-Americans exploring and innovating new forms of musical expression, such as hip-hop, the Summit uniquely reflects the dynamics of Asian-American culture. There are still pervasive stereotypes about Asian-Americans, especially in regards to music, suggested Kwon. “Everyone expects Asians to do a certain kind of music, usually classical music,” he said. As a group, the Summit does envision its collective performances as part of a cultural project to change how Asian-Americans are popularly perceived.

Following this theme of hybridity, hip-hop music itself also reflects a diverse range of musical influences. Hip-hop artists performing with the Summit sample every genre from classical to jazz for their songs. L. Scatterbrain, another artist who will be performing on Saturday, said that in the process of sampling a song, he looks “for what a song could be instead of what it is.” And envisioning the potential for greatness, for both music and community, is exactly the goal for the Summit.