I went and copped the chopsticks. Put em in my bun just to pop shit.
Pop culture has always had an odd obsession with Asian stereotypes. The latest addition is Nicki Minajs single Chun-Li. Named after the popular character with the Spinning Bird Kick from Street Fighter II, its a self-empowerment anthem that uses the fighter as a reference for Nickis own prowess as a rapper.
It has, however, led to Nicki being accused of cultural appropriation for adopting an Asian persona and using stereotypical Hong Kong film music in her song. More than that, it inspired the #ChunLiChallenge on Instagram, with users taking photos of themselves in chopsticks and other racist Asian garb.
As written by David Yi in Teen Vogue, It might seem acceptable for non-Asian people to wear a piece of what is deemed as Asian culture to recreate a social media video, but it speaks to a larger issue about how social media commodifies groups and cultural identities. The #ChunLiChallenge only further highlights how easy it is to flatten an identity to certain stereotypes or cultural markers. In this case, it allows mistreatment of Asian culture to flourish. Its been nothing short of disheartening to see Nicki continue to present a reductive version of Japanese culture, which shes been accused of in the past, too; in 2017, there was her H&M collaboration with emblazoned sweatshirts and tees with Kanji characters and Japanese motifs like cherry blossoms and paper fans. Previous tracks have included references to geisha and samurai, and shes also cosplayed as a Harajuku Barbie persona.
Theres always been an odd uncertainty when it comes to cultural appropriation in pop music. Its usually marginalized groups being exploited by a dominant grouplike white people in black face or wearing Native American headdresses at music festivals. But black people historically have not oppressed Asian people. Can cultural appropriation even exist when there are no power structures that divide both groups? Is it actually a true form of cultural appreciation rather than appropriation?
After all, Minaj is much different from Gwen Stefanis Harajuku era.
In 2014 Eliana Dockterman wrote in Time, on the occasion of Stefanis musical comeback, that she has never answered for her appropriation since it occurred in the pre-cultural awareness era: the pop culture world wasnt vocal enough on Stefanis appropriation of Asian culture for personal gain. Sure, 2004 was a different timebut it isnt localized to that era: Stefani has a Harajuku Lovers line of fragrances and a Harajuku Mini fashion line for Target. Her obsession with the culture walks a very thin line between admiration and appropriation. Its easy to wonder if Stefani had a hand in inciting what has now become a common cultural practice of white female pop stars using other races as props.
Maybe to understand it we should look to comedian Margaret Cho, who compared it to blackface. Even though to me, a Japanese schoolgirl uniform is kind of like blackface, I am just in acceptance over it, because something is better than nothing. An ugly picture is better than a blank space, and it means that one day, we will have another display at the Museum of Asian Invisibility, that groups of children will crowd around in disbelief, because once upon a time, we werent there.
We have a responsibility now to respect other cultures, and if we want our own to be, we should do the same. Of course, Minajs misstep is a far cry from other rappers who fetishize Asian culture sexuallylike Drake (let the lights dim sum), or Kendrick Lamar calling himself Kung Fu Kenny, or Donald Glover joking about dating Asian women on his albums, or even the level of Madonna or Katy Perry going full-Aloha a la Emma Stone.
It ultimately comes down to treating other cultures with reverence and respect, rather than reducing them to a hollow pop-cultural aesthetic.