As an Argentina-born child living in downtown Los Angeles’ Koreatown, Dumbfoundead (real name: Jonathan Park) would spend time at his father’s store and hear the electronics shop next door playing the local hip-hop station.
It not only sparked his curiosity, but exposed him to a culture that seemed far different from that of his immigrant parents.
“That was my first introduction to the music,” he told me. “You would think my parents were strict, but I don’t think they had time to be strict. They were working so much that I kind of had a chance to run throughout the city, which is a good and bad thing. You can get into trouble, but at the same time, you can discover all these new things and cool things you may not be able to if you’re too sheltered.”
It also provided a temporary escape from reality. Growing up, Dumbfoundead didn’t fit in with many social circles — as he put it, he was nerdy and into “different things.” He also didn’t have that many Asian Americans he could look up to for guidance (Bruce Lee was the only idol he had at the time, he admitted).
“I was kind of a weirdo, so being an outcast was something I was always, so hip-hop wasn’t any different, ” he said. “I feel like it was very accepting in a way. You would think that just because I’m Asian and in a predominately Black art form, it was hard or anything but, no, I always liked being different.”
What started off as a casual interest in rapping somehow turned into a full-fledged career — one that Dumbfoundead had never planned for, he explained. After the artist dropped out of high school during his sophomore year, his father attempted to get him to work in the family store. Dumbfoundead, however, wasn’t particularly thrilled about the idea and instead worked odd jobs while rapping on the side.
“If you’re passionate about something, you just keep working on the craft,” he said. “And that’s what it was for me, and, eventually, somehow I was able to make a living off of it, you know? But as far as my parents go, they definitely didn’t think there was a future in rapping.”
Despite their differences in opinion, Dumbfoundead’s parents ultimately supported his decision to pursue rap full-time, so long as he put “110 percent” into his art. The artist’s hard work seemed to pay off in 2008, when he first received significant attention as a member of Project Blowed, an open-mic workshop, and Grind Time Now, a defunct rap battle league. In a highly watched face-off against fellow Asian American rapper Tantrum, the Korean American showed off both his humor and clever wordplay.
“I don’t care man, this cat ain’t rippin’ me,” Dumbfoundead rapped. “We’re both Asian, but we were raised differently / While I was attending funerals and smokin’ chron / you were playing Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon / I was taking hip-hop beyond the limits / You were racing Integras and Honda Civics.”
Over the next several years, Dumbfoundead’s profile grew, thanks to some notables battles with other rappers, including The Saurus and later Conceited (of MTV’s “Wild ‘N Out” fame). In between those battles, he released his own music. In 2011, he came out with “Are We There Yet?,” a single off his album “DFD” and an ode to his family’s early struggles in Los Angeles.
The music video, which has since received more than 4 million views on YouTube, was one of the first to give his audience a glimpse of his potential not just as a rapper but as a multifaceted artist. It also signaled a gradual — and difficult — shift in his career from battle-rapping to music-making.
“I wanted to make music, and I wanted to transition from battle rap into music ’cause I wanted to say more things,” he told me. “[In] battle rap, you’re focused on one person and I wanted to reach more than my opponent, you know? It was definitely tough because if you’re known for one thing, people just want to see more of that. I was lucky enough to make music that generated a different kind of fan base that didn’t care for battle rap.”
Nevertheless, being an Asian American artist in hip-hop comes with an asterisk. For one, it means being a visitor in a culture that has been historically Black.
For context, hip-hop’s roots can be traced all the way back to 1973, when a little-known teenager by the name of Clive Campbell, a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc, threw his sister’s back-to-school party in the South Bronx. Instead of playing songs in their entirety, Campbell dragged out the instrumental breaks while his friend Coke La Rock engaged the crowd with his rhymes.
What resulted was a musical genre that carries social significance among many African Americans, particularly those from urban communities and working-class families who saw it as an outlet to express themselves.
In the decades since, hip-hop has transcended racial and ethnic boundaries and seen its fair share of Hispanic and white artists, from Fat Joe to Eminem. Asian Americans have also tried to make a major push into the genre, but the journey has been longwinded.
Despite the modest success of rappers like Fresh Kid Ice of 2 Live Crew and former Ruff Ryders artist MC Jin, Asian American hip-hop artists have collectively struggled to be accepted by the mainstream. Much of it can be attributed to the “model minority” stereotype — the idea that Asians and Asian Americans are not only smart and hardworking, but wealthy and docile, the latter two traits of which seem to run counter to the grittiness and outspokenness that defined hip-hop’s early days.
As a result, Asian and Asian American hip-hop artists have often faced accusations of being “culture vultures” — a term commonly used to describe those who culturally appropriate. In 2016, for instance, Indonesian rapper Rich Brian released his single “Dat $tick” under his former moniker “Rich Chigga” — a portmanteau of Chinese and a racial slur. Though the song became a hit, the artist faced accusations of racism for repeatedly using the N-word. He was also criticized for rapping about a lifestyle that he never lived — “Dat $tick,” for example, glorifies the gun violence that can take place in some impoverished communities.
But some Asian American rappers like Dumbfoundead insist that hip-hop — a fundamentally Black genre — has given birth to their own coming-of-age story: one that is very much Asian in nature.
“What the Black community has done with their voice in entertainment has been amazing,” he said. “I’ve always looked up to that, and I was always inspired by that. More than just influence, it inspired me to be unapologetically Asian. You know, people think that when you grow up on Black music or Black TV or Black film, you’re trying to imitate that. I was never trying to imitate that. I was just so inspired by that.”
Yet, while several Asian American rappers like Dumbfoundead have acknowledged the positive impact that Black culture has had on them, the disturbing truth is that anti-Blackness is strongly present within the Asian community — a point that the artist, who grew up not too far from where the 1992 Los Angeles riots occurred, does not shy away from addressing.
“I definitely think the dialogue between the Black and Asian community needs to happen more,” he said. “I don’t want to run away from the discussion … If people want to talk to me about it, then they should.”
In discussing how he balances his appreciation for hip-hop with his community’s tendency to stigmatize the Black community, Dumbfoundead made a point to emphasize that the broader Asian community — not just Asian American rappers like himself — needs to understand “the systematic racism that’s been going on in this country with the Black community.”
“I think the frustration is that we’ve been on the other end of that as opposed to an ally,” he said very frankly. “And I think we have to be more of an ally. That’s going to take time. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight.”
Amid this complicated dynamic, the artist said he takes pride in being an Asian American rapper in a mostly Black genre. While some Asian American artists have acknowledged that their race has been a roadblock to their success in hip-hop, Dumbfoundead sees his place in the music industry differently.
“I never want to just say it’s just harder for me as an Asian American in hip-hop,” he said. “Standing out helps too, you know. If I go to an open mic and there’s 300 Black rappers and I’m the only Asian dude, people are still curious like what the f*** am I going to say?”
That self-confidence has translated to a level of well-deserved success. The artist, who recently released his singles “INSIDE” and “OUTSIDE” alongside Cambodian American singer Satica, has amassed a large social media following: he has well over 200,000 followers on Instagram alone.
In fact, Dumbfoundead’s rise seemingly reflects a very recent potential breakthrough in hip-hop by Asians and Asian Americans. In 2015, Sean Miyashiro and Jaeson Ma founded 88rising, a mass media company that has signed Dumbfoundead and also Rich Brian, Keith Ape, Jackson Wang and the Higher Brothers — all of whom have cult-like followings.
“Even for us to talk about an Asian American record label is amazing in this time,” he said. “The fact that this kind of Asian Renaissance has happened all at the same time with TV, film and music is amazing. It just tells you that there is truly a movement because it’s not just a one-off, you know … I think the industry knows that we’ve arrived, and it’s just going to keep moving forward.”
If you enjoyed this story you might want to read about Asian American model and activist Chella Man’s quest to create representation for people like himself.
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