AZN HIP-HOP IS FIRE

A few weeks ago, the documentary Bad Rap premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film follows the careers of a few Asian American hip hop artists, and how being Asian impacts their craft and is a reflection of broader race relations in the US. It’s not available for wider release yet, and so I haven’t seen the film yet, but to say that I am excited is definitely an understatement.

Hip hop has always been the voice of the minority. Typically, as highlighted by Fast Co Create, it is dominated by the black male voice, and often that voice is aggressive. This is the antithesis of the emasculated Asian male figure depicted in popular media. Ever wonder why Jet Li never got to kiss Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die?

And it’s the same reason why when I tell people about the burgeoning Asian American hip hop scene, I get a very surprised response.

Of course nowadays, hip hop dominates most of popular music. In The Guardian’s review of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, they (correctly) identified modern hip hop and RnB as “carrying the conversation” of today’s cultural zeitgeist. But still, at its heart is the spirit of the underdog rebel, searching for a voice and a place in a society. (Or maybe it’s just about popping xannies and drinking lean).

And while it is still relegated to the realm of the underground, for various reasons, films like Bad Rap and personalities like Eddie Huang and Benjamin Law are doing great things for third culture kids of Asian immigrants everywhere. There will be cries of ‘cultural appropriation’ from certain critical corners of society, but that is a gross misunderstanding of what is happening right now.

Anyway, here are a few Asian/Asian American artists in the hip hop scene I’ve been bumping recently.

1. Dumbfoundead

“Still the same OG” from K-Town LA, Parker/Dumbfoundead seems perennially on the verge of something big. He released a few singles in the past 9 months or so, my favourite being “Mellow Yellow” with the hook of:

I see your parents are worried you’re fucking with yellow boys now (걱정하지마)
Tell ’em that they should be worried I’m thinking of hanging around (아무데도 안가)

FYI, Dumb established himself as a battle rapper, and his songs are full of clever wordplay as well as some impressive bilingual rhymes as he switches between Korean and English.

2. Keith Ape

Koreans (South, not North) have always resonated with American culture. This historically stems from their close relationship during the Korean war (or so I’ve been told). They also notoriously have a huge K-pop industry. What we are seeing right now is a two way road, with many underground Korean and Korean American artists being influenced by American artists, putting their own spin on it, and then spitting it back to their Pacific Ocean neighbours.

The most obvious example of this is Keith Ape’s huge banger “IT G MA” (Korean for “never forget”) and its resulting remix, combining some of the US’ best underground rappers over a beat that originally belonged to OG Maco. Keith Ape has a distinctive visual style (#UNDERWATERSQUAD) and that heavy trap influence goes well with young Koreans’ propensity for partying hard. Dumbfoundead also featured on the track, providing a unique bridge between Korean and American popular culture.

3. josh pan

For a long time, no one know who josh pan was. Was he the twenty secret producers he claimed to be? Or a pseudonym for a shy individual? The myth was broken in April last year when it was revealed that he’s just a man on a mission to produce some of the best underground beats on the internet right now.

I think my music is in between everything, could be EDM. I don’t listen to that much music because I’m making so much. We don’t really listen to EDM or pay attention. Even if it sounds like it, the form doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about the soul, all about swag. You can’t buy swag

Josh released a 15 minute opus remix of “IT G MA”. It is kickass.

4. Rich Chigga

Real name Brian Immanuel, this 16 year old is home-schooled from Indonesia, and is either a comedic genius, or…well I still don’t quite know what to make of it. According to this interview with hypetrak, he learned English from Twitter and Youtube. He’s the perfect embodiment of the internet world we all live and meme in – a product of watching hip hop videos and funny Vines, channeling American hip hop culture in a way that nobody ever saw coming. In a pink polo lampooning Asian male stereotypes from the world’s most populous Muslim country.

5. CL

Hailed as the “living symbol of the global pop golden age to come”, CL is bound to be a household name very soon. She’s another example of the unique Korean-American connection over hip hop, and has had collaborations with Skrillex and Riff Raff already. A superstar in her home South Korea already, (girl group 2NE1), she is now making waves her solo work (“Hello Bitches”) getting spun around the world. Plus, she does all her styling and choreo herself. It’s no wonder she’s known as the baddest female.

Having that frenetic visual Kpop insanity in the West is going to be fun.

6. JL & Lyricks

Close friends of the co-producer of Bad Rap Jaeki Cho, this track is filled with wicked flow and venomous rhymes. Breaking stereotypes and the perception people put on him because of the colour of his skin or the shape of his eyes, JL and Lyricks lay it down heavy on this New York squad track. The attitude in this line gets me every time:

“Fuck you mean do I really rap?!
Korean motherfucker with the flow”

The Asian pride shines brightly with the incorporation of Eastern sounding gong and Street Fighter samples. What a time to be alive!

 

The Gospel According to Yeezus

 

The madness of Kanye West never fails to capture our attention. His bizarre behaviour has everyone wondering whether he is a genius or an imbecile; or as Stephen Colbert put it, a “visionary toddler”. As controversial or hated as he may be, he is an influential figure in modern pop culture. His new album for all its hype and fanfare, belies a disarming and personal thoughtfulness.

The Life Of Pablo is a bit of a hot mess, but not without its charm. No, it isn’t the “greatest album of all time” as promised. However, it did reveal a new version of Kanye not seen before in his music – as a husband, as a father, and as someone struggling with fame even more than before. One of the most surprising reveals was his personal Christian faith.

Several interpretations of who exactly Pablo is in the title exist (including from the mouth of Ye himself). They include the influential and notorious figures Pablo Picasso and Pablo Escobar. The third is more surprising – St Paul the Apostle (Pablo=Paul in Spanish).

https://twitter.com/kanyewest/status/692435575836676097

During the advent of Yeezy Season 3, Ye tweeted out that this is in fact his Gospel album. It being a Kanye album, Christians reacted with indignation. How could Kanye West, the most hated, narcissistic and foul-mouthed figure in pop culture create a Gospel album?

Upon several listens however, the final package actually does present a complex expression of personal faith. One that is surprisingly honest and insightful.

Just listen to track 1: “Ultralight Beam”  – a heavily Gospel-themed track. It sets the stage for a spiritual journey across the 18 track record. The ultralight beam of the title is a reference to the blinding vision that Saul experienced on the road to Damascus. TLOP is an exploration of Kanye’s “God dream”. A sample of Gospel singer and producer Kirk Franklin preaching is included:

Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough. This prayer’s for everybody that feels like they’re too messed up

Franklin is also something of a controversial figure in conservative Christian circles. His upcoming album is titled Losing My Religion and his openness has rubbed a few people wrong along the way (kind of like Jesus back in the day). Critics demanded to know why he would associate with a sinner like Kanye.  

Kanye called Paul the most influential figure in his time. We are still talking about him 2000 years later “because he danced”. It’s no secret that Kanye considers himself the most influential figure of our time (at least 50% moreso!). So what parallels can be drawn between the two?

TLOP reveals a tormented soul caught between the physical stresses of this world, and the heavenly salvation that awaits. Paul’s most important book is arguably his letter to the Romans. From reading this book of the Bible, one can learn the content of the Christian faith better than anywhere else in the New Testament.

One of the most quoted verses in Romans is 1:16-17 (also a song by rapper Lecrae). In fact, many theologians consider Romans 1 to be the most succinct summary of the Christian faith in the Bible.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Verse 17 is of particular note: the idea of living by faith. The Christian Gospel of righteousness is not about living according to a checklist of dos and do-nots. The central tenet of Christianity is being made righteous not by our works, but by our faith in the saving work of Jesus. It’s always an encouragement for those who feel “like they’re too messed up”. 

In ancient Rome, Saul of Tarsus was a renowned religious leader – the most Jewish of Jews (Philippians 3:4-6). If anyone knew about rule-following, it was him. In his transformation to Paul/Pablo, he finally understood God’s grace. But just like us, he was trapped in a fallen world, prone to temptation and sin.

Saul’s moment of ‘salvation’ did not solve all his problems. A strong theme within Romans is the fact that as Christians walking the faith, we will never know peace while still living in these physical bodies. We exist in this perpetual tension between the ‘now and the not yet’. Preacher John Piper said of Romans 7:

…we also learned that our liberation from sin is not yet final and perfect. Decisive and irrevocable, Yes! But final and perfect, No! Sin still dwells within us (Romans 7:17, 20). Evil is present in us (Romans 7:21). The “flesh” is a daily troubler of our souls (Romans 7:25).

Which brings us back to TLOP as Kanye’s exploration of this tension. It serves as part  confessional, and part simple expression of his journey and position in life thus far. The dichotomy is something every Christian experiences, and  one that shouldn’t be ignored even if on a hip-hop record. The tension was even highlighted by Christ himself for example in John 6 as a battle between flesh and spirit (“The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing”).

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Even the album art poses this question of which life does one follow? To settle down and be a godly Christian family man? Or to indulge the temptations of the flesh? 

The first four tracks of the album flow into one another almost as a prayer. “Ultralight Beam”, as mentioned above, is a full-on Gospel track. The intro sample is from a viral video of a young girl praising Jesus. Then, an organ kicks in and Kanye begins singing with a choir. As he asks for deliverance and guidance, it reads like a literal prayer. “Father Stretch My Hands Parts 1 & 2” is as literal as it gets when it comes to symbolism of supplication and prayer.

The juxtaposition between the two lives – the flesh and the spirit- is captured best in “Pt 1”. All throughout the album, Kanye bounces between the two lives; the two mindsets like a morally scrupulous ping pong ball. The intro to “Pt 1” is a sample from an old Gospel track. Yet Kanye’s opening line is about sex with a model who has just bleached her asshole (in other words, a porn actress). It’s a deliberately jarring moment as Kanye explores the paradox of being a man of God, and an entertainer constantly surrounded by distractions of the flesh.

The turning point in the album comes at “Famous”, and more explicitly at “High Lights” (sandwiched between these two is “Low Lights”, another prayer which Kanye dedicated to all the single, working mums out there driving their kids to school). “Famous” reads like a breakup letter with fame and success. He wants to be “liberated” and he feels like the pressure of his fame is forcing him to hold back on his creativity. On a deeper level, it’s affecting even his spirituality (interestingly, another of Rihanna and Kanye’s collaboration  “All Of The Lights” also addressed similar themes).

It’s a startlingly honest look at the struggle between the flesh and the spirit. In Romans 7:15, Paul writes:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do

Part of this is Kanye’s admission of his own pride. In his ever-entertaining twitter stream, Kanye acknowledged that his biggest problem is his ego. This is acknowledged on “FML”, where he (and Abel of The Weeknd) struggle with the fact that they always become the author of their own destruction. He feels trapped by the version of himself he’s created.

In the completely ridiculous track “I Love Kanye”, he plays around with a popular internet meme about how much he loves himself. Kanye treads that fine line where you can’t really tell if he’s being ironic or not. His behaviour and music inspires a strong schadenfraude in even his most ardent fans.

Ultimately though, in “No More Parties in LA”, we see Ye teaming up with Kendrick Lamar for an indictment of the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, which they’ve been bought into/sold to. As new slaves of the hip hop machine, they describe scenes of excess and hedonism, but as Kanye the family man wakes up to his shortcomings, he begs “please baby, no more parties in LA”.

This sense of confusion and being lost pervades the album. On “Wolves”, Kanye echoes a hook from MBDTF’s “Lost in the World” about how life turned out too wild, and how he feels lost in his doubt. Surrounded by wolves in his life, (such as his cousin who stole his laptop), Kanye poses an interesting question. Who were Mary and Joseph before they were injected into the Gospel story; before they raised the son of God?

The question of what one has done in their past (or even their present) is inconsequential in the light of a redemptive salvation. Kanye says it doesn’t matter whether or not Mary met Joseph in a club, and whether or not Joseph was a gang banger with a shady past. Because God chose them, they were saved for life. By focusing on his new goals away from fame, his number one priority now is to protect his family and to battle his ego every day. Not just for the sake of his own soul’s salvation, but that of his children Nori (North) and Saint.

The album closes with the lyrically minimal “Fade”. The title alone speaks volumes as to how Kanye views the “lights” from earlier. Rather than being enraptured with fame and the pleasures of this world, he resigns himself to the fact that he just feels like everything is fading.

Walk a day in the life of Pablo. It starts off with a morning prayer, committing his day to the Lord, “We don’t want no devils in the house today!”. But just as in the walk of the everyday Christian, we get distracted along the way. We fall into temptation and mindless rebellion. As we approach the twilight of our day/lives, do the bright lights remain? Or do they just fade away?

Relevant posed the challenge to readers and listeners to not condemn someone like Kanye based on his brash personality and tendency for drama. By doing so, opportunity to engage in stimulating conversation about faith and truth can be lost. Kirk Franklin posted this on social media:

That is a dangerous message I believe we send to the world when our posture is they have to meet certain requirements before they are worthy to kiss the ring. It says people are not redeemable, forgivable or candidates for grace. That my friend is religious. I will not turn my back on my brother. I will love him, prayerfully grow with him. 

One week after the album’s release, Kanye revealed a surprise track “Saint Pablo”. He references the ubiquitous Christian “Footprints in the Sand” poem. As on “FML”, Kanye is just pouring out his feelings, “revealing the layers to [his] soul” for the benefit of his audience. It may not be as eloquent, but in one way or another, it is not so unlike the works of San Pablo in 1st Century Rome.

Drop my ego and confidence with my last resort

I know, I know he got a plan, I know I’m on your beams

One set of footsteps, you was carrying me

The ultralight beam Kanye identifies with is the intrusive presence of Jesus Christ, which literally broke into Paul’s life. TLOP demonstrates that expressions of personal faith can come in any shape and form. The Gospel according to Kanye is unqiue in that it is through the prism of fame and materialistic success. It reveals a complex world of duality and temptation. It may seem foreign to mere mortals, but the heart of the tension is something all Christians can identify with, even if none of us aspire to be like Yeezus.

Featured artwork is a fan-made appropriation of ‘Paul Writing His Epistles’ attributed to Valentin de Boulogne (c.1620). 

BAAO: Melodic Hardcore & An Unnecessarily In-Depth Exegetical Study

Story time! San Diego melodic hardcore outift Being As An Ocean first came to my attention through Tumblr posts back in 2012. Joel Quartuccio’s intensely personal lyrics and their raw performances saw them gain notoriety in their local hardcore scene. The contemplative nature of their music forced a personal introspection as Joel took listeners on a journey deep into his heart and mind. As I dug into their lyrics, Joel’s relation with his Christian faith was at once engaging, convicting and encouraging in a comepletely refreshing, honest way.

Dear G-d (2012) came at a time where, for me at least, the hardcore scene was at a turning point. The heavy brutal breakdowns that were so popular in the 2000s seemed to make way for a much more self-aware and navel-gazing genre. Drawing from elements of emo and spoken word, the emphasis was not so much on the breakdowns, but on the lyrics and the groove, so to speak. Combined with quiet guitars and picking patterns, the subgenre of melodic hardcore was something completely new to me. At first, Dear G-d was a bit too rough around the edges, and at times lacked focus across the 11 tracks. However, this post-hardcore melodic thing seemed to be catching on, and Being As An Ocean were a group well worth adding to my listening library.

I was lucky enough to attend their Europe tour in 2013 with Capsize and The Elijah. The Elijah were a UK band that blended a huge post-rock sound with hardcore elements. Sadly, as soon as I discovered them, they announced they were breaking up (I highly recommend their 2012 album I Loved I Hated I Destroyed I Created). Their farewell tour was a co-headliner with BAAO, so I was 1000% keen to catch them. Of course, as BAAO fans know, The Elijah’s clean singer Michael McGough eventually ended up joining BAAO. This changed their sound greatly on their sophomore effort, 2014’s How We Both Wondrously Perish, which proved to be a much more polished cohesive record.

They may have lost some of the raw qualities from their first album, but Joel’s lyrics were potent as ever, with critics and fans hailing him as a kind of modern day melodic hardcore prophet (his mighty beard and shaved head only serving to enhance this image). The band went through a few line-up changes, but musically they became more impressive than ever.

On their 2014 European tour with Counterparts and Hundredth, they debuted new material and I remember standing there with my mouth literally agape in awe. It was so heavy and abrasive, yet still melodic and maintaining that signature BAAO earnestness. Plus, Michael’s voice creates a perfect clear foil to Joel’s screams. I hadn’t heard a more perfect pairing since the likes of Spencer and Aaron in Underoath. Critics and fans alike were excited to see where this band was going. With their third album, self-titled, out now for about a month or so, it looks like BAAO are here to stay.

A year is a relatively short time to put together a whole new album, but in between relentless touring around the world they somehow managed to do it. “Little Richie” was the first single released, and it showed a further development of the sound introduced on HWBWP. Some fans were turned off by the lighter sound, saying it lacked punch and edge. The band even incorporated electronic elements into the music, and some fans didn’t appreciate the shinier production values. I for one appreciate it whenever a band attempts to stretch their sound. No one stays the same forever. However, it was the subject matter of this song that really grabbed my attention.

The eponymous figure is based on Joel’s close friend and pastor Rich McCullen. According to Joel, Rich grew up in an abusive household, yet was able to overcome his terrible past through the power of love and Christ’s grace. An interesting concept for a leading single.

As I looked at the tracklisting and as the subsequent singles were released, my curiosity was piqued. It was only with repeated listenings of the album, that an overarching narrative unfolded before me.

Dividing it into 4 sections, this is what I came up with:

A) “Little Richie” and “Ain’t Nobody Perfect”
B) “The Zealot’s Blindfold”, “Sleeping Sicarii”, and “Judas, Our Brother”
C) “St. Peter”, “Forgetting is Forgiving The I”
D) “The World As A Stage”, “Sins of the Father”, “…And Their Consequence”

Section A introduces the story of Little Richie. As mentioned above, it is a narrative about Richie’s abusive childhood and how he was able to find peace through his Christian faith. In a miraculous way, he overcame the pain his father caused him, both emotional and physical: “Attending those Baptist services alone, in the house of the Lord, he found purpose and a home”.

“Ain’t Nobody Perfect” continues this story. It shows how forgiveness modelled on a divine kind of love was able to repair the relationship between Richie and his father. The title of the song is a reference to the way victims of domestic abuse sometimes try to rationalise the behaviour of their partners, as Richie’s mum begs him to try and understand his father’s actions, “My entire life I’ve resented you, but now I get what mum meant when she said ‘Ain’t nobody perfect. Ain’t nobody gonna be perfect'”. At the same time, it can also serve as a reminder to not hold people up to such high standards, such as to expect people to be perfect or God-like. Fortunately, Richie doesn’t leave it there and decides to finally confront his father.

The exchange goes as follows:

“Dad, something has been weighing on me”
“What is it, Richie?”
“When I was young, you were awful to me; a terrible father, a worse husband
You have to see the blood on your hands…”
“Oh my son, for what I’ve done, I’m so sorry
Just know that I’ve always loved you, if you ever can forgive me”

Thus, the opening two songs introduce the central concept of the album: that of a broken relationship between a father and child and the desire to mend it. Coincidentally, this is also the central tenet of the Christian worldview.

Which brings us to Section B. Winding the clock back several thousand years to the time when Jesus Christ walked the earth, we are introduced to the character of the Zealot. Initially, it is not entirely clear who the Zealot is, but between the next three tracks, it is clear that the subject is indeed Judas Iscariot: one of the Twelve Apostles who ultimately ended up betraying Christ.

The Zealots in ancient Rome were a group of political radicals, awaiting their salvation. In modern day terms, the Roman officials would have called them terrorists. The Jewish people were in political exile at the time, and were awaiting the Messiah of their ancient texts; someone promised to deliver them out of bondage. The Zealots were on the extremist fringe of things (a concept further reinforced by Track 4, “Sleeping Sicarii”). A few of Jesus’ disciples were in fact associated with this political group.

That’s why “The Zealot’s Blindfold” is optimistic and musically hopeful, as Judas witnesses Jesus’ actions and asks whether their salvation as a nation and a people is finally nigh.

This could be the Light; this could be the Fire
(The Lamb to bring the sword, blaze rise higher)
We must make this right, for our need is dire
(The Lamb to bring the sword, blaze rise higher)

The Sicarii were another faction of political rebels. The title literally translates to ‘the daggermen’, as they were known for assassinating Roman officials and soldiers with hidden daggers. The video game series Assassin’s Creed was loosely inspired by the Sicarii.

Consider the juxtaposition between a blindfolded zealot and a sleeping sicarii. Both are unaware of their surroundings, whether intentionally or unintentionally (the blindfold is either self-imposed, or put on by a captor, while sleeping implies unreadiness, listlessness or unwillingness to participate). At first, Judas is blindfolded and feels like he has had his eyes finally opened as he anticipates deliverance courtesy of Christ. However, by Track 4, he feels duped by an unfulfilled hope as Christ seems to be delivering promises different to what he expected.

Judas must awake from his sleep, even as he has already decided to betray Christ:

We’ve waited in exile, in expectancy
All eyes eager towards the Sun
Knowing things had to get better eventually
(Compliant savior; loving Father.)

Bless the spotless sheep
The shame I feel is killing me

The arc in section B ends with Judas confessing that he never betrayed Jesus for the money, even if he is overwhelmed with intense guilt. Only after the fact does Judas realise how blind he really was (“How was I so blind? How did I miss it?”). He admits that now, and only now, does he see the truth that he would willingly hang on a tree as the “spotless Lamb” did. Well Judas, hindsight is 20-20.

Section B is a fascinating, speculative portrait of what Judas went through. More importantly, it is also a way for listeners to identify with elements of his story (eg, questioning who Jesus really is, deciding where to place one’s faith…). But how does it fit into the rest of the album?

This is the core concept of the Christian faith, retold as the redemptive Gospel narrative but from a new perspective, i.e. that of Judas Iscariot’s. Just as Richie and his father had a broken relationship that needed God to intervene, so too does humanity require a fixed relationship – something that only God himself was able to provide.

But it goes even further than that. Another key concept is introduced – the idea that our actions and our sins have effects and consequences that carry down the generations. This was only loosely introduced in Section A (father sins against son, son carries that weight into adulthood), is elaborated upon here in Section B, but really gets hammered home in Sections C and D.

In a sense we are all Judases in our own lives every now and then, carrying on this Zealot’s legacy. The song title is “Judas, Our Brother”, thus identifying the band and the listeners as sharing in Judas’ position. We’ve all betrayed Christ and God the Father with our sin. And just like Judas, in our own lives, it is always after the fact that we fully realise and acknowledge our guilt and shame.

Shout-out to Rad Bar (Yours & Owls) in the Gong! Also, yes that’s me in the tie dye Hotel Books shirt.

As we enter Section C, it is perhaps the most similar to older BAAO music in the personal nature of the lyrics. In fact, “Forgetting Is Forgiving The I” is thematically very similar to “We Drag the Dead On Leashes” on HWBWP. The central concept of forgiveness first introduced in “Ain’t Nobody Perfect” is elaborated upon here and thus the major themes of the album come to the forefront here. The forgiveness little Richie showed his father set him free from his cell.

Ultimately though, it is not just the forgiveness we bear against one another, but also learning to free ourselves of the burden of such grievances. Learning to forgive ourselves is often just as hard as forgiving others. We are each in control of the light and the dark within ourselves. As Joel and the band listen to a preacher in “St. Peter”, Michael’s clean vocals soar with a chorus that is extremely hard to forget:

We are all given dark and light
A beautiful contrast of black and white
You can hide in the darkness
Or strive for healthy progress
Forgive what makes us human
We could grow an earthly heaven

Yet there is also a risk that history just seems to repeat itself forever and ever, as shown in “The World As a Stage”.

This is where things get really meta. Track 7 ends with the lines:

Character actors
Writing our own screenplays
Stopping to wonder
Why are all their roles all the same?
We play the victim
We play the victim

It’s a reflection on how despite the sins of our fathers and their fathers before them, we seem to continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, indulging the darkness within each of us.

As if Section C literally set the stage for us, Section D flows directly on. It begins with the description of a graphic murder scene. As the closing bookend to the album, it is a hyperbolic reflection of the opening story. Little Richie’s abuse in Section A and the betrayal of Section B leading to death, are combined here in the way this man murders his 3 year old daughter (even the police officers are overwhelmed, vomiting on the front lawn).

Gentle grace, met with violence (met with violence)
In this dark place, I feel Your silence

Furthermore, Joel references Little Richie himself:

That little girl was his redeeming grace
The thing to help him forget the misery
Cause he was never shown it

which links with the refrain from Track 1:

How can we know Love when we were never shown it?)

It’s as if Joel is challenging us to consider” if no one goes that step further to make sure we show love to our children and to one another, this is a horrible, horrible example of what exactly can happen. This is the action of a monster, not a man – but perhaps the scariest thing is that it could be any of us if not for some kind of divine intervention, as Richie (and to a certain extent, Judas) experienced.

With Sections A-D played out now, this is how it all goes together: the loss of innocence and the graphic nature of the murder is set up like a stageplay, which is a reflection of the story of Judas betraying Christ, which is in itself used as a reflection of a broken relationship between a father and his child, which as a whole is used to describe man’s relation to himself and to his God. You following?

This is my favourite use of imagery on the album though: the Christmas tree (the description of a cold winter night and the presents and tree in the room suggests it is Christmas time on “Sins of the Father”) is a symbol of Jesus’ birth. The purpose of Jesus’ birth was to save humanity from our sins by his death and resurrection ( recall: “Oh, Brother Judas, woe to thee! I’ve handed over my Savior, damned to hang from a tree”).

Most notably though, in the context of the whole album, the tree is also a warning of how we live our lives in balance of light and dark (the album art also supports this concept, as a shadowy light figure seemingly overwhelmed by darkness). The final track title completes the triptych of Section D, whose titles can be read as one continuous poetic phrase: “The world as a stage. Sins of the father…and their consequence”. As Joel screams on Track 8:

Observe the theatrics
Witness the play of man
We’ve turned our shame into rage
It’s we who set the stage

And the consequences of our actions, whether we wish them to or not, do carry onto the next generation. The closing lines of the album is a haunting refrain that forces the listener to consider how the story of the whole album impacts their life:

Father-given
Son-received
Red flows down the family tree

It is a haunting, vivid image, particularly given the use of the murder as a poetic setting. But here’s the beautiful thing. It’s not just about our sins and crimes – “The darkness of man, obscene, the blood on his shirt staining darker”. The image of blood running down a tree is paradoxically also an image of hope.

(I would also like to point out that the image of the tree also ties into Judas admitting to willing to be hung on a tree, and BAAO’s previous song “We Drag the Dead On Leashes” – “Oh fallen acorn, lost and alone, can you still be kissed by fire?”).

In Christian theology, it’s the blood of Christ that offers salvation for a broken and guilty humanity. Yes, we each have a balance of light and dark within us, exactly as Judas did, or Richie’s father, or the murderer from Section D. However, just as condemnation came through one man (Adam), salvation comes through one man too.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24

On this, their third album, BAAO have crafted a rich text that not only confirms their musical growth, but when you sit down and pick it apart, it reveals itself to be as challenging and informative as a C.S. Lewis apologetic. It is a beautiful meta-story, weaving theological, spiritual and emotional concepts into a complex collection of songs that are much more than the sum of their parts.

This album has been a strong reminder for me to sit down and appreciate the lyrics behind the screams. The stereotype of this genre tend towards simple misogyny or self-pity, but BAAO do so much more. Granted, you might need a list of lyrics to follow along, but it is well worth it. And now if anyone ever tells you they don’t get heavy music, or how Christians can be a part of this particular scene, you have a perfect case study to throw in their ignorant, close-minded faces.

When a band releases a self-titled album, it should be taken as a statement of sorts. Being As An Ocean have come into their own, and they are a force to be reckoned with. The subject matter has been treated with maturity and with a surprising undeniable cerebral strength, and hopefully some of us learn something along the way. Lyrically and musically (I love how the duality between Michael and Joel’s voices is used as a conceptual tool, and not just a musical one too), the band uncovers the truth that our lives are fraught with dichotomous tensions – the struggle between light and dark, man and man, man and himself, and most importantly, man and God.

In that sense, it could even be considered a modern collection of Psalms. The album definitely encourages introspection and at the same time, reveals something of God’s character too. Just as King David did in his hours of deepest despair, Joel Quartuccio has been screaming his heart out to God (and for us) since their first album. Yet, it’s in a manner that allows us to listen to a brother’s struggles and failures, and experience grace, love and truth all at the same time. The closing track is a way for Joel and Michael to pause and reflect on the previous nine songs they’re compiled. Joel begs us to listen to what they have had to say, to take on board the story of Little Richie, Judas, BAAO and all the stage actors to “break the cycle of rage”. It’s a haunting exhortation, and for this listener at least, it has done its job well.

NOTE: this was also posted at Selah Seventy Seven, the blog where I sporadically write about Christian music and stuff.

It’s Ur Boy Bangz…ha HA! & How Jimmy Fallon got me thinking about anti-immigration policy

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is insanely popular. When Jay Leno stepped down in 2014, no one knew what the new incarnation of the iconic show would look like. After announcing Jimmy’s name as the replacement, producers and talk-show devotees expressed trepidation. He lacks the ironic, “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” sensibility of the usual late-night crowd. But that has been the exact reason behind his popularity. Jimmy’s appeal is his affable, seemingly genuine nature. His GQ profile back in 2013 heralded him as the new king of late night TV:

Fallon wasn’t edgy. Fallon wasn’t dark or complicated. Fallon was perhaps too cute for late-night audiences used to hanging out with the snarky, cool crowd…Fallon offered a new mood for the post-irony crowd—a new generation with a taste for immediately streamable chunks of unabashed pop-culture sugar that didn’t pretend to be nutritious, symbolic, relevant, or important.

Personally, Jimmy isn’t always my cup of tea. I enjoy the occasional interview with my favourite actors and actresses, but I’m always left wondering, “Why is this guy famous?”, and “How do I get that kind of job?” (I’m probably just deeply jealous to be honest). His reputation for being the nicest guy in showbiz is clear to see. Interestingly, his detractors tend to see his friendliness as being over-the-top to the point of being insincere and sycophantic. Plus, they hate his laughing and incessant clapping. On July 17, The Tonight Show ran the segment “Do Not Listen”. The premise of the segment is that Jimmy highlights a few artists from around the world who sound just terrible. Then he, his announcer Steve Higgins and his house band The Roots have a good laugh about it.

One such artist was aspiring Sudanese Australian rapper Bangs, real name Ajak Chol. Jimmy featured Bangs’ 2009 cult hit “Take U to Da Movies”, a song about taking a girl on a date to the cinema and his love for popcorn: a satire of the machismo and misogyny Bangs saw prevailing in much of modern hip-hop. Its endearing lyrics, surreal hook and perfectly shot lo-fi video saw it go to viral fame in Australia.

The easy temptation would be to laugh at the video for being so left-of-centrefield, just as Jimmy did. “Look! Another delusional ethnic person who talks different to how I do!”. That’s the surface treatment of such viral videos that deserves another look whenever we set these people up as targets of humour – the memeification of black stereotypes, as highlighted by Slate.

However, as the old adage goes, “Never laugh at someone with an accent. That accent means they already know one more language than you do”. Thankfully, I would argue that Aussie fans have taken a genuine liking to Bangs. Of course, there are no shortage of trolls online, but for the most part, support for Bangs is positive. His appeal is in just seeing a guy putting his all into his music, language barriers be damned.

When news broke of the “Do Not Listen” segment, Bangs’ fans were not impressed. Our innate love for the underdog trumped any amount of climate change denialism I saw on my newsfeed that day.

My problem with the “Do Not Listen” segment is that Jimmy took an easy target. It’s obvious that Bangs won’t be dropping an Illmatic any time soon, but that doesn’t give us permission to laugh at his music. In setting Bangs and his ilk up for mockery and a cheap laugh is unashamedly appealing to the lowest common denominator. “Haha! Look how dumb this guy is!”. It’s the same reason I don’t enjoy those mean-spirited “Jimmy Kimmel fools hipster prank videos”.

It’s emblematic of a larger problem facing our global society. Our interactions are becoming increasingly impersonal via screens and emojis. The speed at which we can leave inflammatory comments directed towards others is beyond comprehension. If I watned to, with a few swipes of my thumbs, I can find a few selfies posted by a stranger in Chattanooga, TN and tell them to “kill themselves”. Without even thinking about it, I can post “You’re stupid, please never reproduce” on a shared post on Facebook because of something I disagree with.

With the emotional distance afforded us by smartphones and computer screens, we dehumanise the other, allowing us to make such comments with reckless abandon. When Jimmy highlighted Bangs as a ‘terrible artist’ to not listen to, he neglected to think about the person behind the music. The difference between Jimmy and the countless online trolls is that his is a global platform speaking to millions.

Ajok Chol was born in Sudan in 1990. He moved to Egypt in 2001, before finally settling in Melbourne in 2004. He didn’t even speak English until he arrived in Australia. The mid-2000s saw a large influx of Sudanese refugees into Australia. The ABS reported in 2006:

Sudan-born people are currently the fastest growing birthplace group. Over the past nine years the number of people in the Australian population who were born in Sudan has increased by an average of 28% per year (starting from a low base of only 2,600 people in 1996). Other fast growing birthplace groups were Afghanistan (12% per year on average) and Iraq (10%).

Having fled all his family and friends because of war, to a foreign country to become a viral sensation is a success story to be damned proud of. If Jimmy Fallon knew this, do you think he would’ve included Bangs in “Do Not Listen”? Seriously, how could you make fun of this face?

ur-boy-bangs

“Chill out Kevin, it’s just a joke”. To Jimmy’s credit, yes, it was just a mindless game segment never intended to have consequence nor impact. However, this thinking just makes it easier to puff up our own chests for whatever purposes. Whether you’re Jimmy Fallon, out for an easy laugh, a Confederate flag enthusiast, or a Reclaim Australia acolyte, you’re vilifying the idea of a person without even pausing to think about the actual person. It’s one thing to leave hateful comments on a thread, it’s another thing completely to say it to another person’s face. Once we realise we’re all humans and not all that different, worldviews change drastically. It’s the reason why ads like this by Save The Children are so effective.

If Jimmy Fallon is really as nice as everyone claims to be, I’m sure he will come out and apologise sometime soon. Bangs has already told ABC that Jimmy and the rest of the Tonight Show team follow him on Twitter now. And it’s not like he’s completely ignorant to the mockery and haters. Being the bigger man though, he just lets them waste their words.

When they make fun of me, I’m like, whatever they say, let them say it. Anybody wanna make fun of me, let them talk and let them do what they want to do. It doesn’t bother me at all.

In an age when far-right extremism is sweeping the western world, and refugee movements reaching fever pitch, this seemingly trivial entertainment beef is a perfect example of the complex nature of living in a global village. First it was the blacks, then it was the Jews, then it was Asians, now it’s the Muslims. Humanity has a long and storied history of cultural and racial divides. Jimmy Fallon is by no means a racist, and I’m sure he meant no ill will towards Bangs. I’m just saying that it got me thinking about the way we interact with ‘the other’ and how our callous treatment of ‘the other’ has to stop. It is the driving force behind thinly veiled racist government policy as much as it is the core of casual racist humour or even just mindless talk show drivel such as Jimmy’s “Do Not Watch” segment.

Mad props to his Bangs’ diss track “Do Not Watch” which opens with the fantastic line:

Yeah, it’s your boy Bangs
And this track is dediated to Jimmy Fallon
The one who talks shit when he got nothing to talk about

Sometimes, I feel like that last line should be printed on Jimmy’s business card. But then again, I’m probably just jealous of his job.

Jay Z, Beyonce & Nihilist Thought

A few days ago, I was walking through beautiful Letna Park on a glorious Spring afternoon. Families were out and about, youngsters were slacklining and playing frisbee, there was a girl with an acoustic guitar sitting under a tree writing songs. It was picturesque. After a cold and dark winter, Europeans really know how to embrace the change in seasons.

As I walked towards the beer garden, I was taking in all these sights whilst listening to a WNYC podcast called ‘On The Media’. The episode I had chosen was dealing with nihilism and the utter meaninglessness of existence. A perfect way to join in the spring merriment (didn’t the protagonist in Nausea do something similar? Walk around parks whilst contemplating the emptiness of existence? I can’t remember. That book made me nauseous. *heheh*).

To paraphrase, host Brooke Gladstone was addressing this idea of nihilism and its seeming renaissance in popular culture today. ‘On The Media’, as you might expect, is a podcast that analyses the media and its use of language. The general consensus was that in today’s age we are constantly bombarded by negativity. It’s no wonder that people are turning to nihilist thought.

In particular, Gladstone and her guests were discussing the notion of nihilism being ‘cool’. New York writer, philosopher and cultural critic Eugene Thacker was one of these guests, with a particularly interesting story to tell! His pessimistic book ‘In The Dust Of This Planet‘ experienced some peculiar cultural transmission. Analysing horror film and literature as a modern manifestation of nihilist thought, it was a niche publication in a niche area of study. Keeping true to his nihilist nature, he basically published it and went on to his next project without any afterthought.

However, it just so happened that the title of his book somehow found itself on the back of a high-fashion grunge jacket, emblazoned on Jay Z’s back in his video announcement of the Run world tour. It is indeed an attention-grabbing phrase. But it begs the question, “What makes nihilism so cool?”.

jayz-dust

“It’s like he’s aiming at the sun”

There are several strands of nihilism to consider. Moral (the denial of all sense of ethics and right or wrong), political (the rejection of all political and societal norms as norms), ontological (the rejection of…well, everything), epistemological (the rejection of any sense of absolute truth), and the one we’re all most familiar with, existential nihilism (this physical life is all there is, and we’re just random collections of atoms clinging to a rock hurtling through the infinite abyss of cold, dark nothingness). So which one do Jay Z and Beyonce belong to?

Embracing nihilist thought can be a crippling, depressing thing. But it’s not their mortality nor meaninglessness that makes them cool. It’s their response to that despairing abyss.

Gladstone highlights thoughts from French philosopher Albert Camus saying that nihilism isn’t the end of the journey. It should be the beginning: “Camus said that accepting the absurdity of everything around us is just one step; it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful. the best response is to rebel. Rebel against death, create life on your own terms. Build it for yourself”. Or from the man himself:

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

The Rebel, 1951

Granted, this was a political treatise, focusing more on the French revolution and the cyclical nature of tyrannical dictatorships, but the sentiment is the same. Artists like Jay Z and Beyonce are marching through a frenetic, hyper-visual world with a brazen swagger that many of us could only hope to emulate. That’s what makes them ‘cool’.

Another popular artist known for his own nihilistic leanings is David Fincher. Audience’s recent fascination with Gone Girl is testament to the fact that we are attracted to this idea of nihilism. There are no happy endings in Fincher’s films. The characters are always morally complex (sometimes even amoral). Coupled with Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch’s deliberately cold scores, the end results are uncomfortable, but always gripping viewing.

Mmm. That Rosamund Pike though…

Fincher’s films (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, etc) confront us with the insignificance of our dramas, the horrors we wish to avoid, and realistic unhappy endings. For the most part, Fincher’s films are critically acclaimed and make good box office. It’s clear that his art is reflecting life. And audiences are continually drawn to such dark subject matter.

Maybe it’s a coping mechanism. We yearn to know we’re not alone. We acknowledge that life is short and seemingly meaningless at times. We will die. We will one day return to the dust of this planet. Rooney Mara isn’t going to come save us, no matter how badass her haircut.

We can’t all be Beyonce and Jay Z, brazenly waving semi-automatic weapons in the face of impending apocalypse. But how do you rebel? How do you carve out your little slice of existential pie?

The podcast that sparked this whole blog post began by asking whether the language of the media today is steering the current zeitgeist towards a unique modern flavour of nihilism. Channeled through hip-hop stars, pessimistic art and overwhelming world news, it would be easy to think that yes, we are experiencing a curve toward the abyss.

However, Gladstone concludes with an unexpected reference to a millenia-old text. The Bible:

“One fate comes to all alike, and this is as wrong as anything that happens in this world. As long as people live, their minds are full of evil and madness, and suddenly they die…Yes, the living know they are going to die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward; they are completely forgotten. Their loves, their hates, their passions, all died with them. They will never again take part in anything that happens in this world.

Go ahead—eat your food and be happy; drink your wine and be cheerful. It’s all right with God. Always look happy and cheerful. Enjoy life with the one you love, as long as you live the useless life that God has given you in this world. Enjoy every useless day of it, because that is all you will get for all your trouble. Work hard at whatever you do, because there will be no action, no thought, no knowledge, no wisdom in the world of the dead—and that is where you are going.”

– Ecclesiastes 3 (GNT)

So saith King Solomon, wisest man to ever live. The same questions, and recommendations have been made for thoousands of years. We might have the new context of hip-hop, the internet and dank memes, but essentially, it’s nothing new. And hey, that very well might be my new favourite Bible verse. “Enjoy every useless day of it, because that is all you will get for your trouble”.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Humans have faced nihilistic thought since the beginning of time. We’ve just learned to label it more recently. From Socrates to CS Lewis, the thought of our temporal nature has been present like a constant hum. It’s definitely interesting to consider how nihilism informs popular culture and our perception of it. Just don’t let it overwhelm you, forcing you to stop before you’ve even had a chance to start your rebellion.

On The Media is a podcast by WNYC and I recommend it! 

Listening to: I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside by Earl Sweatshirt. I recommend it! As I was rambling about who knows what up there, it occurred to me that nothing exemplifies millennial/Gen Y nihilistic tendencies like the music of Odd Future. Maybe I’ll write about that another time.

Fobs and ABCs

Fresh Off The Boat is blitzing screens and critics’ keyboards the world over. How exciting for Asians to finally have a primetime slot on telly! I’m currently wrapping up an op-ed for the next issue of Future Perfect* that will delve in deeper detail on the topic, but I’m using this as a bit of a sounding board, or like a director’s commentary on the DVD that no one ever really listens to.

Anyway, here are a bunch of Asian Australians and Asian Americans (in alphabetical order) that you need to be aware of, creating culture and challenging the establishment/stereotypes in their own little way.

  • John Cho – Harold of Harold and Kumar fame. Now he’s Mr Sulu on Star Trek.
  • Dumbfoundead aka Parker – from the streets of K-Town LA, this guy made a name for himself in rap battles, and made a return to the battle stage after a 5 year hiatus. You can watch it here. Also, Korean Jesus is my jam.
  • Daniel Dae-Kim – I had a dream about Lost the other night. Jin was still exclaiming “Others! Others!”. Currently owning the screen on CBS’ popular Hawaii Five-0 reboot.
  • Eddie Huang – don’t let his hip hop lingo fool you. This man has a sharp intellect, and an uncompromising palate. My new hero, really. Watch this 12 minute presentation on his experience reading books and ‘hustling’.
  • Benjamin Law – Sydney-based writer, journo and screenwriter. About to rock SBS with a series based on his raucous 2010 memoir The Family Law.
  • Lawrence Leung – Melbourne-based comedian who once snubbed my request for a photo when I was standing in line at Shanghai Street Dumplings. He currently has a series called Maximum Choppage about kung fu in Cabramatta. idk. Haha.
  • Justin Lin – this guy directs Fast and Furious. Represent.
  • Jeremy Lin – Linsanity has all but died down. But Lin is currently on the Lakers.
  • Nora Lum aka Awkwafina – Shot to internet fame with her viral rap song My Vag. But on the side, she also opines on Jezebel.
  • Mychonny – Youtube buffoon that my sister can’t stand, but I always enjoy his videos. I haven’t watched them in a while, but I think he’s got a film coming out soon or something. This one about his dad being a ‘boat person’ is surprisingly insightful and poignant.
  • Grace Park – cylon and Hawaii detective.
  • Tokimonsta – LA-based DJ/producer. Love her beats.
  • Penny Wong – It’s Penny Wong. ’nuff said.

Anyway, there’s a bunch of people that aren’t Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. It’s by no means exhaustive, but just a few off the top of my head. What 2nd generation ABCs do you think we should be taking notice of? Comment below. Click subscribe. Thumbs up for blue and black dress.

*In the 2 years since the last blog post, me and a bunch of other fools started a print magazine. Go and order one. We deliver worldwide! Issue 3 is due late March.