Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics


Does Childish Gambino Have an Asian Problem?

Photo by Jesse Chang, Wikipedia.

When I heard that Community was going on extended hiatus, I thought, “There goes one of the few shows where ‘diverse cast’ didn’t mean ‘one black guy.’” It was nice to see actors from a broad range of ages and ethnicities, and what really stuck out to me was the odd-couple duo of Abed and Troy played by comedic actors Danny Pudi and Donald Glover. Much of the time, I didn’t know whether to laugh my head off or bash my head in from their ridiculousness.

It turns out that Donald Glover is part of another odd-couple duo in real life: Donald Glover in real time, and rapper Childish Gambino in studio time. There’s a lot more to Glover than his likable Troy character. As Gambino, his first label release, Camp, which came out in November, reflects the angst and anger Glover felt growing up in Stone Mountain, GA, where he was, for a while, the only black kid in his school.



I had been tipped off to its contents by a friend who writes for a legit hip hop site, but, despite his warnings, I still wasn’t quite prepared to hear so many things unprintable in Hyphen. At first, it almost didn’t seem real. I mean, seriously? Consider these lyrics from the song “Bonfire”: “This Asian dude, I stole his girl, and now he got that Kogi beef.”

Or, from “You See Me”: “I need some variation/Especially if she very Asian.” Actually, that song is sort of an ode to Asian girls, in a leery kind of way.

Then “Backpackers” had this gem: “I got a girl on my arm dude, show respect/Something crazy, an Asian, Virginia Tech.”

Whoa, man. You’re talking about the most horrific school massacre in modern history. The fact that it was perpetrated by a Korean American sent seismic waves through the Asian American community. I know comedians have long used irreverence as a way to hold a mirror up to society or for shock value, but Gambino’s casual drop of VT, particularly as a non sequitur to a line about girls, adds nothing to the conversation. It’s lazy. Talk about (not) “showing respect.”

And then there was this line from “L.E.S.”: “Yellow 9/11 Persian girl in the back car.”

You got me, buddy. I have no idea what that means. However, I’m going to defer to history, where ‘yellow’ was commonly used as a pejorative to describe Asians for our skin color. Coupling that with 9/11 and Persian girl? For a guy who is so sensitive as to how blacks are portrayed in the US, he sure doesn’t seem to care about slinging slurs at people from other races.

These lyrical misfires are especially odd because, overall, Glover/Gambino seems to be a pretty racially conscious guy. In an interview with NPR, he notes that it can be difficult for young black kids to find their own identity because they are constantly told how they should act, what they should like. Kids who don’t conform pay the price of becoming ostracized. Though he did try to change other kids’ minds by becoming a likeable kid, adult Glover is out to please no one but himself.

Or is he? I disagree with the writer of that previous article. Gambino still seems to be deeply concerned with how he is perceived by others. In “Kids Keep Up,” he preemptively defends himself against having an Asian fetish by saying:

You made a mistake
These dudes, man, you bathing in apes
Finding you is like finding Asians I hate
But they say I got a fetish, nah, I’m skipping all of it
Black or white girls come with a set of politics
That’s all I was saying

Oh, I see. Totally okay! Asian girls are politically neutral, and therefore that makes him exempt from accusations of racism or fetishism! Why didn’t I think of that? I must have missed the memo somewhere about Asian women having less agency than women of other races.

But, as my fiance pointed out, perhaps what Gambino is trying to say is that if he is with a black or white woman, society will judge him based on the color of his companion. In the song “Not Going Back” from the Freaks and Geeks EP he says: “Relax, black chick, I think that I have offended thee/Got nothin' against the sistas, I just don't think they're into me” which also seems a preemptive defense about his racial preferences. But no one says anything if he’s out with an Asian woman; Asians aren’t the majority, but they are the forgotten minority. So, apparently it doesn’t matter.

Here’s the thing, though: his views on his upbringing in our multi-layered society are something that many people of color can relate to. My friend (an Asian American woman who actually met Glover after a concert) told me, “I have a love/hate thing with him. I love him because he’s so honest, but some of his stuff is, um, too much.”

Many a person of color can relate to feeling like an outsider. Glover’s in the position of not being “hood” enough for the rap industry, but too “black” for the indie crowd from his previous albums. And through it all, he does not feel “black” enough in general. This kind of identity confusion is one that many of us are familiar with. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told I was “too Asian” by one group of people ,“too white” by another, and too whatever else by  a third. Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it makes me mad, but at the same time, I know exactly what they mean. Sometimes you don’t fit comfortably into any boxes. You deal with it, and get on with your life.

Glover is not dealing with it. He’s tired of feeling powerless, tired of trying to gain acceptance -- and yet, he can’t seem to help himself. He can’t seem to stop trying. Rather than celebrate what makes him different from other artists, he falls back on run-of-the-mill hip hop posturing and lazy rhymes. Perhaps objectifying Asians, women and Asian women in his lyrics is the only way he can feel the measure of power and control that he believes he should have but doesn’t receive in real life.

What makes Asians and Asian women such a casual punchline for him when he’s clearly distraught over black/white racial dynamics? It’s kind of pathetic -- or troubling? -- that someone with as much wit and talent as Donald Glover would find Asian women a comfortable target.

 

11 comments

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Anonymous wrote 1 year 18 weeks ago

Here is a site that clarifies his lyrics

My Friend THIS IS HIS ART HIS MIND HIS PERCEPTION 1st AMENDMENT BABY http://rapgenius.com/Childish-gambino-kids-lyrics

Anonymous wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

LOL. No offense, but you're

LOL. No offense, but you're taking this way too seriously. If you did any sort of research on what some of these lyrics are, you'd have a different perspective.

And before you get your panties in a twist, I'm an asian woman. Frankly, none of this matters.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 8 weeks ago

???

What is your problem? He doesnt have an asian fetish, duh he said that its just easier to not date a white or black girl which breaks my black girl heart but you just get over these things instead of publishing articles just to hurt people. Some things are a joke and how do you know by yellow he meant asians. Also how is he ovetcompensating for anything? If you want to judge someone you don't even know I can do you. Your just a speculator stating opinions as though they are facts to feel better about yourself.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 27 weeks ago

in reply to other comments:

in reply to other comments: he might be referencing the porsche 911, but you can't just assume he meant only that. plus, he's not stupid. if he says "nine-eleven", he knows what other connotations it has. so he either chose to ignore them, or it's intentionally meant to reference both the car and the event.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 27 weeks ago

Lazy

The irony of not even googling yellow 911 (when there are half a dozen sites dedicated to just analyzing lyrics for meaning) and then calling what he writes lazy.

Sorry, if you think he has to have grown as person to make music but the whole point of his music is to point out how he feels, how he's conflicted, and not how one with the universe he is. That's not relate-able and it's not real. Saying that he should deal with it and move on is pretty absurd. His subject matter is obviously something that still bothers you as a writer,but he can't express his experience with race because its not mature? Mature compared to what? almost every rapper dwells on this.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 29 weeks ago

"Preemptively defending himself?"

With regard to him "preemptively defending himself" something you have to realize about Rap is that a lot of times it takes on a narrative form, and they explain a story of something that happened in the PAST. Though he's rapping and you're listening to it, he's not LITERALLY talking to you, so you can't actually say he's preemptively defending himself just because YOU PERSONALLY weren't attacking him. The whole point of if it to show how OTHERS have reacted to him IN THE PAST. Also, its pretty obvious that his song "Backpackers" is about people who hate on him or try to "ride" him so to speak. If anything, "Backpackers" is addressed to THEM.

Gambino fan wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

Wow, ur really offended. Like

Wow, ur really offended. Like actually offended. A few things to realize about rap in general. One thing is that it's alot like comedy, which glover is a comedian, consider that most double entente in rap are actually jokes. The verging a tech line was not lazy it was a pretty cool way of describing the girl as amazingly beautiful and Asian. Headed you to show respect for god sakes in the line b4. As for offending people, that's just what rap does, it offends people again like comedy. He offends black people all the time. All the time..."they real black like won't show up on your camera phone, they real black like turn the flash on your camera on, they real black take shit turn it into gold, I'm real black I survive when the pressure on" same song. If u were a real gambino fan, which u just might not be, and listened a little more you'd realize that he regs on every race and probably himself most of all. He has whole songs about in confidence and depression, u gotta have a few upbeat songs about women... C'mon. I've actually heard him criticize most races but not Asians.... He talks about em alot but he talks about whites and blacks just as much. Go through his songs and count. One tick for black one for white and one for Asian. Asians aren't the majority...at all. The fact that's u called him lazy just hurts me, I don't know another rapper who uses better vocabulary, more interesting references or anything. How many times can u hear"I'm the shit......something about poop" from little Wayne. I think you have actually just focused on the racial insensitivity that focussses o you and you didn't cout the ones that applied to other people.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

Lmao. He's talking about a

Lmao. He's talking about a yellow 911 porsche. And the Virginia Tech line is not lazy. Thats a very clever line. The beauty of rap is a rapper can say things that goofy pop star can't. Im sure he meant no disrespect with that line

DL wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

Porsche 911 not 9/11

Come on man... subject says it all.

Moses G wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

Curious

Actually I need your help trying to understand something here. First of all, I’m almost 51 years old. I rarely even listen to rap. Some of it’s ok, but frankly I think it (rap music) objectifies “everything”. What I would call the “Get Rich or Die Trying" mentality. As for women in general being objectified in Rap Music, it’s especially black women, but, nobody seems to have a problem with that, it’s only when you stray outside racial lines and objectify woman other than black, it becomes an issue. I have dated all women, but I happen to like Asian Women most of all. What I am trying to understand is. Why is it that when white men date Asian women, there is very little outcry and rarely any mention of any kind of “objectification”. But if a black man is with an Asian woman or likes Asian women, well, now it’s a “Fetish”. An “Aberration”. White men “Date” Asian Women. Black men “Target” Asian women. If I’m white, I date Asian women because I love Asian Culture and people, so it’s cool with Asians. If I’m a Black man, then I love Asian women because I have an “Asian Problem". I just don’t get it. What am I missing?

Anonymous wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

“Yellow 9/11 Persian girl in the back car.”

Not necessarily to defend Glover/Gambino, but I'm pretty sure "911" is actually referring to the car, i.e. a Porsche 911.

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About The Author

Victoria Yue

Victoria grew up in Northern Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, majoring in English and minoring in Art. Heeding the siren call of activism and negative 30-degree weather, she received her M.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University and worked as a communications specialist at an office supply company in Chicago, where she takes great pride in asking deeply probing questions about laminators and writing run-on sentences. She recently relocated to the Washington, D.C. area.

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