Rap's freshest face is Asian American

By Alona Wartofsky | Special to The Washington Post
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NEW YORK - Jin is a rapper.

He is also an Asian American. His parents emigrated from Hong Kong and settled in Miami, where he was born and raised.

"It's a double-edged sword, honestly," says Jin, 22. "I would be lying if I said I didn't want all the press coverage, but at the same time it does get frustrating 'cause I haven't done one interview in the last three years where my race wasn't brought up. It kinda makes me wonder - are you really interested in the fact that I rhyme and I'm talented, or are you interested just because I'm Asian?"

But Jin, whose full name is Jin Au-Yueng, isn't playing down his heritage. He once squashed an opponent in a freestyle competition with the rhyme "I'm Chinese, now you understand it/ I'm the reason that his little sister's eyes are slanted/ If you make one joke about race or karate/ NYPD be in Chinatown searchin' for your body."

His biggest hit to date, "Learn Chinese," attempts to skewer Asian stereotypes with lyrics such as "This ain't Bruce Lee./ Y'all watch too much TV." The song's video opens with Jin delivering Chinese food as he announces: "The days of the pork fried rice and the chicken wings comin' to your house by me is over." The video also depicts karate chops, hands-clasped greeting bows and Chinatown gangsters.

"Learn Chinese" is not the only the track on Jin's long-delayed debut album, "The Rest Is History," that refers to his heritage. In "Here Now," he raps: "Five-six but I stand tall,/ Built for war, sort of like the Great Wall of China/ Hear my footsteps like Yao Ming's behind ya."

The autobiographical "Love Story" describes parental disapproval of an interracial teen romance. "Same Cry," maybe his most ambitious track, touches on Tiananmen Square, SARS and China's one-child policy.

"Throughout the album, there's a lot of influence to me being Asian and, you know, that's just because I am Asian," says Jin. "I think that's what hip-hop is all about - all of the most successful artists have been real adamant about who they are. And that's who I am."

He pauses. "Not to say that's all I am. But it is who I am, so I'll certainly embrace it."

Two years ago, Jin appeared on the weekly "Freestyle Friday" rhyming battles on BET's hip-hop program "106 & Park." He won seven weeks straight before being retired to the show's Hall of Fame. On Jin's final week, he vanquished his challenger, and then reached into his jacket to pull out a sparkling Ruff Ryders medallion - a dramatic announcement that he had been signed to Ruff Ryders, the hip-hop label that launched DMX, Jadakiss and Eve.

Jin, who was raised in an ethnically and economically mixed section of North Miami Beach, got into hip-hop by listening to the radio. "I heard LL Cool J, Naughty by Nature, even Kris Kross," he says. "Then I started going to the record store and demanding, like, 'Yo, what's the newest artist out?' ... Eventually that made the transition from listening to starting to write my own rhymes ... and then the hobby just turned into my life."

Jin's parents, who owned a series of moderately successful Chinese restaurants, expected him to go to college. By 17, Jin had other plans.

Like Eminem, who honed his battle rhyming while fending off white-boy barbs, Jin developed freestyle skills by defending his background. "I would like to say I lean toward the witty side," he says. "But sometimes not everybody sees you as witty. They just see you as obnoxious Jin." A family tradition also shaped Jin's technique. "There's always a lot of wisecracks, joking in the family, so I picked it up from them."

The Au-Yueng clan was deeply shaken by Sept. 11, 2001. Within weeks, Jin's parents relocated to New York to be closer to Jin's grandparents, who live in Chinatown. The move brought Jin to the capital of hip-hop.

He worked the rhyming circuits, battle rapping against street-corner crews that compete in Times Square and going against the more socially conscious underground performers known as "backpack" rappers. The following year, he landed his spot on BET. "That was a life-altering experience," he says. "It was the catalyst for everything."

As soon as Ruff Ryders co-CEO Joaquin "Waah" Dean checked out Jin on "106 & Park," he knew he wanted to sign him. "When Jin is under pressure, he performs very well," says Dean. "... He can use your environment against you. He can use the guys you come with, the people in the crowd, name brands, the stars in the audience - he'll use what you say against you. That's the key. Whatever you say, he can take it, reverse it back to you, and deliver it." Of course, there was something else Dean noticed. "We have never seen an Asian rapper lay it down the way he does," he says. "If you never seen Jin, you'd think he black, a regular rap artist. ... He sounds like he belongs in the game."

This fall, Jin won the "Fight Klub" lyrical sparring competition at the annual Mixshow Power Summit, a hip-hop industry event in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Says Dean: "I'd put him in the ring with anybody right now after what I seen in Puerto Rico."

With all the hype surrounding Jin, there has been much speculation about why his debut album was delayed repeatedly. (It was released Oct. 19, and debuted at number 54 on Billboard's album chart.) Jin blames "politics" between Ruff Ryders and Virgin Records, which closed a joint-venture agreement last year. His publicist at Virgin says Jin kept recording new tracks as he attracted better and better producers, including Kanye West and Wyclef Jean.

Earlier this year, Entertainment Weekly ran a story headlined "Jin's Bad Rap." The piece, which described him as "gimmicky" and "culturally insensitive," also criticized the "Learn Chinese" video. "The video doesn't just confront race and racial stereotypes; it verges on exploiting and perpetuating them," scolded the writer.

But in a recent Village Voice review, Janet Tzou praised Jin's use of pejorative terms for Asians, writing: "Jin's visceral rage and proud swagger reclaim these slurs the way black rappers use 'nigga': he makes them his own."

It's inevitable that different people will interpret Jin in different ways.

"It's all upon the person that's watching it. They decide if I'm embracing it or exploiting it. On one hand, people might be like, 'Yo, this guy doesn't even know his own heritage. He doesn't even know who he is. He thinks he's black.' ... Then on the flip side, you have those that be like, 'Uh, he's always mentioning that he's Chinese, always talking about being Asian. Nah, this guy is just a gimmick,' " he says.

"At the end of the day, if I can look myself in the mirror, and not be like, 'What the hell is wrong with you?' that's really all I can do."

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