Black-Asian Relations in “Fresh Off the Boat,” Wu-Tang, Bruce Lee, and Manhood

Two phrases stuck out to me while watching Fresh Off the Boat episode, “The Shunning”:

“Real life isn’t a rap video, Eddie.”-Emery

“I couldn’t just search ‘Asian Kids who like hip hop’!”-Eddie

Not to mention the vast amount of hip hop that makes up the show.

There seems to be the naive idea by Kid Eddie that black culture automatically makes one cool. That seems to be the running thought with a lot of people nowadays (looking straight at the biggest offender of all time, Iggy Azalea).

Of course, I’d never put Eddie’s child-like admiration up there with Iggy Azalea; it would seem that Eddie grew out of his naivety and made his hip hop bravado something that’s authentic to him and his experiences. But Kid Eddie’s love of black music culture hits on something that I’ve noticed a lot of. A LOT. That is the idea both black and Asian people have about one another’s “cool” factor.

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We clearly see why Eddie thinks hip hop and rap are cool. As he said in the pilot, he adhered to it because it spoke to the minority’s struggle. Since he said that, I assume he knows the real truth behind groups like N.W.A and the stories rap, particularly gangster rap, were trying to convey. The rappers who made this music were trying to give people a look at America they might not have known about. They were talking about the police harassing them for no reason, trying to stay out of gangs before the gangs got them, and the lack of resources in their community due to all the money going to the suburban (i.e. white) parts of the city. It’s about the invisible telling their story.

It would seem that it’s this element that really made hip hop and rap stick with Eddie hardcore. As we can see just from this show, not to mention the lack of Asian faces in American entertainment in general, that the Asian American experience includes dealing with the invisibility America inflicts and wanting your story told. For Kid Eddie, getting his story out there includes using the guise of black music culture.

On the flip side, black people have used the guise of Asian culture to get their stories across. I have an uncle who used to live and die by kung-fu movies. There are groups like the Wu-Tang Clan and Dru Hill who often use Asian iconography and named their albums Enter the Dru and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), both references to Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Sisqo (the lead singer of Dru Hill) and RZA (one of the most famous members of the Wu-Tang Clan) go even further. Sisqo named his solo albums Unleash the Dragon, Return of the Dragon, and Last Dragon. RZA, on the other hand, has listed Bruce Lee as a huge inspiration and has had a hand in Afro Samurai and co-wrote, directed, and starred in The Man with the Iron Fists, a total mashup of rap and kung fu/wire-fu sensibilities.

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I think Bruce Lee connected with a lot of black people, especially black men, because of Lee starring with his pupil, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in Game of Death and  Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon. Seeing how blaxploitation films were popular during the time both these films were made, I’m thinking that Game of Death and Enter the Dragon spoke to black America because it not only introduced Bruce Lee and his martial arts mastery to the world, but because it also put minorities in the lead roles, something that was still relatively new, even with the success of blaxploitation films like Shaft and Super Fly.

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I’m not a guy, but I think that perhaps some of what black guys see when they watch a kung-fu film is a way for them to reclaim some of the manhood that was lost to them thanks to American society. Who wouldn’t want to be able to have the ability to be kick someone’s butt and look cool doing it? The blaxploitation films also gave black men the image of manhood they’d been looking for. The films took Sidney Poitier coolness up another level and included fighting, guns, and basically taking back the right to live. Both sets of films came after the civil rights movement, in which black men felt they were finally able to live in their manhood, something they weren’t allowed to do without risking getting killed. (Some would say that black men still have to fight for the right to be a man.)

If there’s any critique that can be made about Poitier, its that some of his characters existed within the realm of respectability. If blaxploitation films were made today, they’d say something to the effect of “F your respectability politics! I’ve got class and I’m going to punch you in the face and not even feel guilty about it! That lack of adhering to society’s expectations is what made blaxploitation popular, and I think that’s what also made kung-fu films (especially kung-fu films with black characters) popular with black men. This love goes all the way up to contemporary times, like 1985’s The Last Dragon starring Taimak, combining the classic kung fu movie style with blaxploitation, 2000’s Romeo Must Die starring Aaliyah and Jet Li, and 2010’s The Karate Kid with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan.

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The funny thing is that both races take cool elements from each other and use them to escape their own feelings of oppression or discomfort. Many black guys have huge collections of kung-fu films and/or practice martial arts (like Wesley Snipes). Kid Eddie, and I’m certain many other Asian kids, grew up listening to rap and idolizing rap and R&B artists (take for instance, all of K-pop). Both Eddie and the black guy who sees Bruce Lee as an idol are both trying to attain a level of manhood that America won’t allow them to express. Kid Eddie wants to be taken seriously by America, so he turns to rap. A black kid somewhere wants to be taken seriously by America, so he begs for martial arts lessons. Both want America to hear them whether or not America thinks its ready for them.

These are just my opinions, but I’d been pondering this for a while. What do you think about Fresh Off the Boat and its hip hop infusion? Give your opinions in the comments section below!