Hip-hop made me aware of the bruises and strains of my people
People usually laugh at me or squint their eyes — their disbelief tracing a question mark in the air — when I tell them that I’ve played R Kelly’s “Ignition” on repeat for three months straight. Cognitive bias gets the best of them: a Chinese girl can love hip-hop too. Hip-hop is my lingua franca — a language that crosses cultural boundaries and local differences.
In hip-hop, I heard neither the scratching nor the beat boxing. Instead, I was caught by a voice amplifying the routine oppression experienced by black Americans. Cooling down in the shower after a long day of school, I would hear J. Cole over the radio: “I’m lettin’ you know / That there ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul.” On my way to class, I plug in Childish Gambino: “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ up / Look at how I’m livin’ now/Police be trippin’ now / This is America.” Exposed to police brutality through these songs and Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. city,” I sought to further understand these issues.
I trembled as I read about the origins of mass incarceration in Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and how a man was wrongly incarcerated solely for the color of his skin in Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.” Born and raised in the city of Shanghai, China, I did not grow up in the m.A.A.d streets of Compton or see the school-to-prison pipeline in my community, but I knew something drew me to the music.
As a Chinese citizen living in the United States, I am a quotidian witness of cultural misunderstandings and biases. After all, China is a country rooted in extreme dictatorship and censorship. The values it practices and preaches seem to go against democratic American ideals, whether that be freedom of speech or the right to vote. With my country often associated with words like inferior or backward, it is sometimes easy for me to forget what being a Chinese person means. As I ponder upon all of this, Kendrick Lamar’s voice entered my head: “I got royalty got loyalty inside my DNA. I got hustle though ambition flow in my DNA. My DNA not for imitation.”
Through the generational trauma of slavery, police brutality, mass incarceration and cultural appropriation, Kendrick Lamar is loyal to his blackness: he is proud to be a black man in this country, and he has the utmost respect for his heritage. While Kendrick raps, I am reminded of my own feelings toward my Chinese roots. Yes, my blood, my Chinese blood, is resilient and powerful in its own way. I am the descent of men and women who starved and suffered, who beared and endured. The blood and tears of my ancestors are what runs in my DNA. I realized, that despite countless faults and mistakes, my country deserves to be respected too.
Thirty years ago, my father grew up eating white rice and soy sauce because they were too poor to afford meat. Today, I am blessed with not only the privilege of never having to worry about hunger, but also the opportunity to learn, and to thrive. Here, at Northwestern, I get to engage in profound dialogues with Kierkegaard and Augustine, reimagine what it means to live a good life, interact with seasoned professors and insightful classmates, as well as redefine what it means to be a college student for myself everyday.
The lyrics I’ve heard from hip-hop led me to discover generational memories and reconsider my Chinese identity. Hip-hop has made me aware of the bruises and strains of my people. To Rakim, writing is more than a tool to express, it’s a form of identity: “I start to think, and then I sink / Into the paper like I was ink.” I don’t flow lyrically like the rappers I love, and I can’t relate directly to every lyric they pen, but I strive to provide a voice for those who are unheard in my own ways. After all, we all deserve to be heard.