Avatar Young Blaze is probably the most polarizing figure in Seattle hip-hop and not because he tries to be. By all accounts, he’s a hard-working young cat who grew up hard in the Central District with a love and knack for gangsta rap (though he doesn’t describe his music as such). He reps his ethnic roots proudly, just like anyone should (dude is Russian), and rarely makes a big deal out of the fact he’s a scrawny white kid playing quite successfully in a game dominated by blacks and Latinos.
The expectations and preconceived notions about the emcee are all bestowed by those bearing witness to Avatar’s hustle. When the general populace hears a white kid spitting hard over trap music, the immediate reaction is to reject and question validity. The obvious f-cked up thing about this is the implication that whites could never be gangsters, but blacks and Latinos always are (thank you, Institutionalized Racism).
I hesitated to even make an issue out of this since these truths have all been posited before and by folks with far greater eloquence and expertise. But admittedly I’m still getting comfortable with Avatar’s ever-increasing presence in Seattle rap’s landscape and certainly with his voice inside this particular sub-genre. My experience with hip-hop continues to be intensely personal at times, so consider this post part of my own awkward form of racial reconciliation therapy.
Thankfully my ace-in-the-sleeve in instances like this remains the fact that I’m not white. As a Korean-American it’s much easier for me to dissect the stereotypes and imposed perceptions of the power structure (read: White America) on people of color, simply because I suffer from them personally. I know that fear as a result of racism occurs in degrees. The level of false menace that America detects from people of color is hierarchical, with black and brown folks hovering somewhere near the top of the scale and yellow people coming in a distant third. Asians are the model minority, after all. We don’t tote guns and knives, we pack calculators and smartphones. We aren’t a threat to steal your car or your jewels, but we will snatch all the good computer jobs.
We don’t make gangsta rap music, but we will play every got-damn stringed instrument better than you.
Now here’s a false standard that hip-hop music (especially as it exists in Seattle) can help solve. Local emcees like Logics and Language Arts (aka. La), and non-Town artists like Bambu and of course Jin, buck the assumed trend of Asian men as emasculated, non-threatening figures. It’s likely they have to work twice as hard to garner affirmation from those that determine the status quo (white and otherwise), but their presence in the rap game is an assist to the greater cause of diverse representation. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they are torchbearers for every one of us who suffer marginalization as a result of being Asian. Not to say we should be proud there are Asian gangsters committing the same atrocities as other races, but the ironic twist is that the acknowledgment of their existence is itself an indication of progress.
The problem with America accepting the term “white gangsta rapper” as anything but an oxymoron is that the philosophical chasm necessary to cross for acceptance is a far greater trek than the one associated with “Latino gangsta rapper” or even “Asian gangsta rapper.” In the end, White is Alright continues to be the accepted maxim and that is often unfortunately the case even with people of color (hello, Internalized Racism).
Of course, personal experience has much to do with our perception of the world. People whose only exposure to minorities is through television and other forms of media will formulate their standards based on such. I grew up in an incredibly rural setting with very little racial diversity and subsequently have had to learn virtually everything about non-white races (including my own) later in life. That process has been a perpetual un-matriculation of everything I came to accept as truth.
Fortunate to my cause is the fact that I don’t possess white skin, a physical essence of being that I’ve ironically come to refer to as a “handicap” in conversations about this subject. In the often frustrating and stagnant process of racial reconciliation, I’ve taken solace in the fact that it is indeed a handicap for most white folks, one that prevents them from seeing beyond their false reality. By this definition, people of color will most assuredly always be more philosophically advanced, and I find some amount of petulant satisfaction in that.
As far as Avatar goes, I appreciate his hustle in the rap game. I’ll always believe that, fundamentally, we all deserve the fruits of our hard labor and struggle, regardless of the color of our skin. I’m also perversely satisfied, however, that a white rapper finds it much harder to gain acceptance within some realms of hip-hop, regardless of his or her personal experience. It’s a complicated and perhaps unfair stance to take, I know, but Avatar and other rappers like him shouldn’t take it personally. In the end, the consequences of racism aren’t about one or two people, they’re about everyone.