(Asian American?) Hip Hop: Cool Calm Pete’s “Black Friday”

Curator's Note

Cool Calm Pete is a Korean American rapper who grew up in Queens, New York, studied fine art at Cooper Union, began rapping as a member of Brooklyn-based trio Babbletron, and is on the independent hip hop label Embedded/Definitive Jux with Dizzee Rascal, R2J2, and others. Along with M.I.A. and Rob Wall, he won Hip Hop Site's Rookie Award in 2005 for his debut album Lost. Unlike fellow New York-based Chinese American rapper Jin, Cool Calm Pete rarely refers to his racial identity in his songs. When he does it's a brief, geek-cool nod to his ethnicity: in "Windsprings" he calls himself the "Korean Buddy Holly." When I first saw "Black Friday" on YouTube (thanks to a tip from a former Korean American student and b-boy in Oklahoma), I was blown away by Pete's clever and skillful assemblage of popular media clips and his slow, resonant, and deliberate style of rapping, which functions as smart critical commentary on the postwar US consumer culture that emerges from these images. Since then I've used the video in the classroom to initiate discussions on consumerism, media "addiction," and detournement - but never on Asian American identity or culture. So I thought I'd post it here to perhaps begin complicating what we mean by "Asian American" media, identity, and culture. What is "Asian American" - if at all - about this particular song/video (I would venture to say nothing or not much though I guess I could shoot from the hip about how Asian American identity can't be articulated except within and through the interstices of white American popular culture, etc) or an artist like Cool Calm Pete who chooses not to explicitly "represent" that aspect of his identity? On a side note, I also think it's quite telling with regard to the globalization (and to some extent deracialization - but not toward the side of default whiteness) of hip hop that none of the students in my current class here in Sydney had a clue that Pete was Korean American. I think Asian American artists like Cool Calm Pete and media texts like "Black Friday" gesture toward new ways of theorizing the relationship between an artist's racial identity and his/her work, which might be questioning the assumption that people of color should always bear the "burden" or responsibility of representing that identity. Does this example indicate we're moving "beyond race" in US popular culture or perhaps suggest that the ways in which "race" - and embodied forms of identity more generally - need not always be addressed with respect to what one does, how and what one creates?


Jane, This is a wonderful clip--thanks for introducing it! I think the question you bring up (how is Asian American expressed in popular culture as opposed to how do Asian Americans perform and interact with popular culture?) starts with the difference between being the Object and being the producer of culture. Cool Calm Pete is the producer of his material so his approach may be informed by his ethnic identity but it's not the only way to read him. I see this with M.Night Shyamalan as a director. His films are not Asian American but he populates his films (sometimes with cameos) with different races and ethnicities as part of everyday life. Perhaps that's one way of thinking "beyond race" is to reduce the shock value of seeing difference.

Jane, This is an intriguing piece to consider, definitely, not only in terms of the film/video itself, but in raising your question about the rapper Cool Calm Pete. I think there are several issues that emerge, including: authorship, audience/reader response, and the notion or application of identity politics. As you described, your students don't know and don't think about the rapper being Korean American ~ does it change their interpretation of the video when they find out? Cool Calm Pete seems to have established a position of being an author/artist who is Korean American from the East Coast in a way he is comfortable with. I also think, within the context of racial politics, artists of color have to establish 'credibility' in a different way than non-minority artists. Where once upon a time, a director like Spike Lee was expected and also elected to create 'Black Cinema' he has since been able to do films that don't fit strictly into a category (SON OF SAM, for instance). Perhaps artists like Cool Calm Pete is taking a different route, beginning his artistic career without being directly pegged as "an Asian rapper." The particular race and the particular genre/venue probably factor in as well. What I am wary of is the ideological stance that some (majority and people of color alike) take of: s/he's a writer or director or politician (etc.) "who just happens to be Asian or Black (etc.). which aligns itself with a neoconservative "color blindness" which posits that "race doesn't matter." Of course it does. At the same time, I rather like the idea ~ and the successful execution of ~ an unexpected "oh, he or she directed or sang or wrote -- or danced (JabbaWockeeZ) or was funny (Harold/John Cho, Kumar/Kal Penn, Margaret Cho) like that?" It challenges the expectations that an Asian American artist's work would be 'about' being Asian American. I like Justin Lin's philosophical, artistic and (business) strategic approach, which is that all his work, whether BETTER LUCK TOMORROW or FAST AND THE FURIOUS (3 and 4!) are Asian American by virtue of the fact that he is lending his perspective to making the films. In what way do we ask or consider how the identity of a 4th generation white American of mixed ethnic heritage directly affects her or his work? We don't, really. They are granted a wider frame to create work, as should we all be.

These are some provacative questions you pose, Jane. The video you present here does make me think about how Euro-American texts are read as "not about race" while Asian American texts must be "only about race." On the other hand the impulse toward the erasure of race is so strong and the absence of Asian Americans in media is so widespread that, as a reader, I continually want to read race back onto texts. I don't want to prescribe how an artist _should_ represent a racial identity, but I do want to think about how we position ourselves as readers and to think about how the salience of race rises and falls according to context.

Hi Jane- Thanks for introducing me to this artist and his work. In response to your question and the discussion here, I wonder if appropriation of whiteness and white imagery might be another way to think about this video. Appropriating hip-hop from blacks, and other cultural productions from particular racial groups is often noted, but we rarely look at the category of whiteness as being "about race." I'm struck by the near homogeneity of white images in the video when these historical periods also contain plenty of images of people of color. Is Cool Calm Pete possibly depicting what he sees as the white hegemony of the post-war consumer period by using hip-hop as an oppositional black strategy?

Hi everyone, Thanks for the terrific feedback and sorry for the lag in responding (17 hr time difference to blame there). Shilpa, I think your comparison between CCP and M.Night Shyamalan is really apt - and the question, what happens when we stop being the object of media/cultural production and become producers ourselves is a wonderful way to frame this clip and what's happening in US popular media as more Asian Americans get behind the mike, camera, and computer screens. Personally, I think "reducing the shock value of seeing difference" can in itself be a profound and important political move and/or indication of changes afoot (though there's always of course the possibility of co-optation by neocon forces that such images herald the "end of race/racism" etc). L.S., thanks for the insightful response - definitely CCP seems to have taken a very different route than artists of color like Spike Lee or Wayne Wang, who started off by specifically representing Black and Asian American cultures/experiences/identities, respectively and have since crossed over into the "mainstream" while(like Lin, Shyamalan and others) continuing strategically to represent "race" in more subtle ways. It's also of course important to consider different media context they're coming from: music v. movie industries - and the different foci: aural v. visual - along with the perceived dominant default racial position listeners/viewers historically have been presumed to assume (with hip hop: Black masculinity; with Hollywood: white masculinity) LeiLani, I totally share your desire to "read race" into texts by Asian Americans, particularly given that we are nowhere near the kind of visibility in US popular culture white or even other nonwhite people have. But reception is your forte not mine! =) I guess I'm searching for a way to come up with new or hybrid critical frameworks/methodologies to interpret texts like CCP's (and others mentioned in comments and showcased this week in clips) are appearing - and I think in certain ways challenging/pushing us to rethink the ways we've discussed racial and ethnic representation in media thus far. Finally, Shalini - thanks so much for your very helpful suggestion re: one way to read this video. I hope we'll be able to meet irl someday. It had occurred to me that consciously or unconsciously - the plethora of white American imagery here gets conflated with US capitalist consumer culture, which CCP is clearly critiquing via hip hop. I guess what I wonder is how he uses hip hop as an oppositional black strategy if this is the case. And this brings up much larger questions around race, identity politics, and authenticity that are central to hip hop culture, especially now as it has become such a dominant, global style/language/industry and academics talking about that culture. It also brings to mind L.S.'s clip and the image of the working-class Asian American men dancing in masks of various colours (is this appropriation or homage on the part of the performers; whichever the case, how does it differ from white perfomers referencing/performing blackness). And finally, the question I keep coming back to here and in my own work: what does AA representation (by Asian Americans and non-AAs) tell us about position/role of AAs in the changing racial landscape of the US?

michal's picture
By michal

I'm struck by the near homogeneity of white images in the video when these historical periods also contain plenty of images of people of color.


hiphop rappers


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