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Hapa Music is Black and Brown

Jhené Aiko and the Problem of Multiracial Self-Representation

Photo courtesy of The come Up Show.

At the 2018 VH1 Mother’s Day music tribute concert titled, Dear Mama: A Love Letter to Moms, Grammy nominated singer and songwriter Jhené Aiko recited this poem she wrote for her mother, Christina Yamamoto, a woman of African American and Japanese ancestry:

“I found another grey hair today but I was not bothered at all. I feel like I earned it. I’m better, I’m wiser, I’m leveling up overall. I am becoming my mother, my beautiful mother, who taught me with age, comes might. I'm becoming my mother, my beautiful mother, she is love in the flesh, what a sight.”

Afterwards, Aiko and her young daughter, Namiko Love, serenaded the audience with an original song Aiko wrote titled, Sing to Me. The performance was a touching display of affection between three generations of women, and as such, offers an opportunity to reflect on the role Aiko’s mother’s racial heritage has played in Aiko’s musical career. After all, she is her mother’s daughter.

Jhené Aiko Chilombo was born in 1988 in Los Angeles to Christina Yamamoto, a woman who is African American and Japanese, and Karamo Chilombo, a man of mixed-Black and Native American ancestry. Aiko is one of five siblings who grew up in a multiracial and tight-knit family from Ladera Heights, a Black middle-class enclave in south Los Angeles. Aiko’s sister, Mila J, is a singer, songwriter, and dancer herself.

Aiko’s music is often described as soulful and atmospheric. She embodies a soft-spoken yet unapologetic street credibility that has made her a favorite “hook singer” for many rappers. She has sung hooks for Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and 2 Chainz to name a few. However, Aiko is a successful solo artist as well. Her second solo album, Sail Out, peaked at number eight on Billboard charts in 2013 remaining on the charts for forty-six weeks and the album’s radio hit, The Worst, remained on Billboard’s hot 100 for twenty weeks in 2014. While her third solo album, Souled Out, spent ten weeks at the number three spot for top album sales in 2014. Her most recent album, Trip, released in 2017, spent fifty-seven weeks on Billboard’s top R&B album charts.

In interviews, Aiko often discusses the influence rapper 2Pac had on her early musical tastes explaining how the rapper’s later albums compelled her to be multi-dimensional—embracing contradictions and different perspectives while also using her talent to send a message. Aiko also draws, however, on her multicultural Japanese and African American background to achieve the concept of multi-dimensionality, making her music and artistic persona distinctively Hapa.

The word Hapa originated in 19th-century Hawai’i borrowed from the English word, half, and was later used to describe people of mixed-Hawaiian heritage. Hapa Haole referred to those who were part Hawaiian and part non-Hawaiian, typically white European. Within the past few decades the term Hapa has been used to describe people who identify as part Asian or Pacifica Islander and part non-Asian, usually white. However, Hapa does not only signify mixed-Asian racial identity, it also conveys a sense of belonging to a broader community of mixed-Asian people.1

Aiko’s maternal grandfather, Tadashi “Teddy” Yamamoto, was born in 1937 in Hawai’i. In 1940, the Yamamoto family moved to southern California. During World War II, the family was sent to the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona, one of two camps located on Native American reservations. The family departed the camp in the spring of 1944 and settled near Compton, a part of LA made up of predominately working-class Black families. In 1958, Teddy married an African-American woman named Essie Pecot. Speaking about her grandfather, Mila J has explained, that although Teddy was Japanese, growing up in Compton made him a “G,” meaning he had creditably amongst his Black peers.

Historically, Black and Japanese Americans in Los Angeles have lived in close proximity to one another since both groups were excluded from living in white neighborhoods. As historian Scott Kurashige describes, after World War II, Black and Japanese residents continued to live in close proximity but much of the racial landscape of Los Angeles had been reconfigured, bringing a “new sense of unity and difference” that would ultimately set each group on “different historical paths.”2 For those who have origins in both historical paths, the sense of unity and difference can materialize in meaningful yet contradictory ways.

Jhené Aiko is a part of a small but seemingly growing cohort of multiracial and multicultural performers who are embedded in African American and Latinx communities yet subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, remind audiences through their music, performance, and public personas that they are “different” and thus unique. In the hyper-competitive music industry, being different is an asset, as 2 Chainz reminded us in 2012. To stand out from the rest who are also striving to top the charts, difference is indeed, capital.

By drawing on their Hapa identity while situating themselves within historically Black and Brown musical and cultural aesthetics these artists are contributing to what ethnomusicologist, T. Carlis Roberts calls the “new Black” movement in music, a trend that embraces broader definitions of what it means to be Black and Brown. According to Roberts, “Not only has this process resulted in more visible diversity in media and other social realms, it has productively worked to unseat the Black–white dichotomy as the paradigm of racial conversation.”3 Musicians like Aiko are unseating several racial dichotomies.

Jhené Aiko’s Hapa identity is on full display in the two music videos she released last March for the song, Never Call Me, featuring LA rapper Kurupt of Tha Dogg Pound. In the first rendition, Aiko makes use of almost every cliché in Japanese Orientalism including: Kimonos, Samurai culture, the conical hat, and koi fish. The term Orientalism is used in both academic and popular discourse to describe the various ways white Europeans and their descendants have imagined the East, a place of exoticism and difference, yet inherently inferior to the West. Simply put, Orientalism broadly refers to the stereotyping of people of Asian descent.4 

For women of East Asian descent Orientalism often materializes in overtly sexualized images that fetishize their supposed racial difference. Aiko is undoubtedly drawing on Japanese images to honor her racial and cultural heritage, but at times it feels as though she is engaging in a process of self-orientalization that has the potential to reproduce harmful stereotypes of Asian women.

However, Jhené Aiko is a performer, and her music videos are meant to promote her album through a stylized visualization of her music. According to Rebecca Farley, in the video Jhené Aiko is “Izanami no mikoto, a Shinto goddess who specializes in creation and death.”5 Aiko assumes the spirit of Izanami to seek revenge against an ex-lover, a Black man. The final scene is a spectacle of Black grief, as a weeping mother tosses sand off of a beach cliff, presumably meant to be her son’s ashes. The song’s hook, “you should have called me,” is no longer a quip a jilted lover might say to someone who has caused them pain for not calling, instead it becomes a declaration of life or death: you should have called me, because I could have saved you.

Izanami no Mikoto is not just a Shinto goddess, but the Shinto goddess from which all other life was created. In Japanese mythology, she, along with her male counterpart, Izanagi no Mikoto created the Islands of Japan. The legend of Izanami no Mikoto dates back to the two oldest existing works of Japanese mythology, the Kojiki, from 710 CE, and Nihongi from 714 CE.6 Drawing on a highly stylized image of Izanami no Mikoto in her music video, Aiko is staking a claim in Japanese identity, one deeply rooted in history.

Still, the video is unsettling in many ways. In addition to the Orientalist caricature of Aiko’s Japanese heritage, the inclusion of a Black man’s funeral is especially egregious given this country’s history of murdering Black men with impunity, then forcing the mothers to pick-up the pieces, and grieve while the world watches. Those who are paying attention know that “the condition of Black life is one of mourning,” as Claudia Rankine has described, and Aiko’s music video feels far removed from the national, indeed global, movement for Black Lives.7 

In the second video for, You Never Call Me, described as a love-letter to Slauson Hills where Aiko grew up, viewers are dazzled by palm trees, flashy cars, and the relaxed vibe and effortless groove that is LA cool. The video aptly subtitled, Slauson Hills Edition, is reminiscent of 90s rap videos where Black and Brown folks are seen hanging out around town on another sunny day in LA. The ominous spirit that haunts the first video is noticeably absent in the second. If the first video for, You Never Call Me, is an expression of Aiko’s multicultural heritage, the second video is an expression of her LA roots.  

American popular music is inextricably tied to the history of racial and ethnic formation in the United States.8 The visibility of performers like Jhené Aiko challenge mainstream notions of Hapa identity that are rooted in the traditional Asian/white dichotomy. Hapa identity is indeed Black and Brown, as Jhené Aiko and others in this series demonstrate. But can its music pay homage to the multi-dimensionality of being Asian and Black or Brown without capitalizing on displays of Orientalism and Black suffering?

 

Notes:

1. There is much debate about the various uses of the term, Hapa. Some in the Hawaiian community view non-Hawaiian use of the term a form of appropriation that further erases Hawaiian people’s experiences, history, and language. For the purposes of this essay, I use Hapa as an analytic term. For more on the debate, please consult Nina Porzucki, “How the Hawaiian word 'hapa' came to be used by people of mixed heritage,” World in Words, PRI, September 15, 2015; Akemi Johnson, “Who Gets to be ‘Hapa’?” NPR, Code Switch, Aug. 8, 2016; and Alex Laughlin, 'Half Asian'? 'Half White'? No — 'Hapa' NPR, Code Switch, Dec. 15, 2014.

2. Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton University Press, 2010), 3-4.

3. T. Carlis Roberts, Resounding Afro Asia: Interracial Music and the Politics of Collaboration (Oxford University Press, 2016), 4.

4. For a brief discussion of orientalism see this video by Professor Evelyn Alsultany and the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/ideas/videos/when-will-we-stop-stereotyping-people/p06p97cr?playlist=the-a-z-of-isms.

5. Rebecca Farley, “Jhené Aiko Literally Has A Funeral For Her Ex's Ego In The "Never Call Me" Video.” Refinery 29, March 20, 2018.

6. R. C. Lutz, "Izanami-no-Mikoto." Critical Survey of Mythology and Folklore: Love, Sexuality, and Desire (Salem Press, 2013).

7. Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black life is One of Mourning,” New York Times, June 22, 2015.

8. Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (University of California Press, 2005), 26.

 

© 2019 Sonia C. Gomez

hapa Jhené Aiko multicultural music singer songwriter

About this series

“Hapa Music is Black and Brown” is a blog series that looks at the racial politics of multicultural Japanese American musicians. The first blog in the series features Jhené Aiko, while the others will comment on Chicago-based rapper Towkio, musician Judith Hill, and one of the most famous enka singers, Jero.