Culture shock

// A still from the Thai reality TV show “The Rapper”

One of my earliest memories of hip-hop involves riding in a school bus with my classmates on the way back from Scout camp. We were around twelve or thirteen years old, and a song was blasting on the radio. It was the hottest song of the moment: “Ta Lueng” (meaning “immodest”, or “cheeky”), by the group Thaitanium, one of the first hip-hop acts in Thailand. There wasn’t much to the song except for a catchy hook about sidling up to hot girls and trying to cop a feel, but it caught on like wildfire; before long, it was playing everywhere — in shopping centres, in nightclubs and even in classrooms between lessons.

For many of my generation, our understanding of hip-hop was quickly associated with the rise of Thaitanium. Hip-hop became the “hip” young thing, the edgy genre of music we felt was offensive to or misunderstood by the older generation. Listening to it felt like misbehaving, like finally being one of the cool kids. We had no knowledge of how hip-hop was born or how much it meant to the African American community before it became a global art form. We knew nothing of the likes of Rakim, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def or Tupac Shakur. To us, hip-hop was just dudes in sunglasses and gold chains, flanked by scantily clad women — dudes allowed to say bad words and outrageous things in their songs.

One of the most popular shows on Thai television last year was The Rapper, the country’s first mainstream talent show for aspiring hip-hop artists. Similar in format to The Voice and X Factor, the new reality TV series sought to find “Thailand’s first ultimate rapper”. In it, four rap coaches have the option of “choosing” a contestant by pushing down on a pedal. Then the two producers — Joey Boy, considered the godfather of Thai hip-hop, and Khanngoen of Thaitanium — decide which coach’s team each contestant will join. As the rounds progress, contestants get the chance to reveal more about their lives, stage their own performances and showcase their freestyling talent.

For many people, especially the older generation, The Rapper is their gateway into hip-hop; it’s the first time this genre of music has been made accessible to everyday Thais. The usual rags-to-riches talent show formula makes it easy for people to get swept up in the “journeys” of the contestants as they pursue their dreams. Unlike previous singing competitions, however, the show presents something new and refreshing: with rap, contestants can present deeper concepts and express themselves more fully.

Of course, The Rapper is still heavily contrived. Viewers have to sit through the exaggerated comments of coaches, producers and hosts, as well as wince through several performances by contestants who obviously learned to rap by watching YouTube videos in their bedrooms. But what makes the show most problematic is exactly what makes Asians’ complex relationship with hip-hop problematic: most of the time, we readily embrace the aesthetics of the genre while remaining ignorant of or prejudiced against the culture that birthed it.

To what extent can hip-hop culture be our culture? To what extent can we be a part of the genre while disregarding its rich and meaningful history and its significance to the black community? When there are contestants who wear dreadlocks and pronounce their rap names in a Jamaican accent, who slouch around the stage and spit “yo, yo, what’s up?” into their microphones like they’re Drake, you can’t help but cringe. Is it possible for us to engage with hip-hop without appropriating another culture? Do we have the right to engage with it at all?

As the Thai hip-hop scene slowly moves into the mainstream, no one is expecting it ever to be as rich in musical and literary artistry as the one it originated from. But we can ask that it develop beyond the aesthetics alone — the gold chains, the dreadlocks, the sunglasses — and that it reflect, however minutely, the authenticity and innovative spirit that made the genre special in the first place.

Pim Wangtechawat is a Bangkok-based writer

March 14, 2019