Passing or Covering? Social Transcendence through Music

Today in my seminar Music in Asian America, a student presented a chapter from Deborah Wong’s book Speak It Louder. The issue of passing impressed deeply upon my students. This question refers to the practical invisibility, historical and current, of Asian American artists within the music industry.

The student presenter asked her peers: Is it enough (for a formerly silenced ethnic minority) to “simply be there” in the music industry? Or should the artists address aspects of race and ethnicity in their musical output and image?

One student argued for the latter. She commented on the importance of contextualizing music with social meaning, ensuring that the right ethical messages are heard in the reception of music. Another student discussed the potential political work done by sheer visibility. She used the example of Obama: The iconicity of a minority president could empower minority individuals, especially among children.

In the chapter, Wong considers the Mountain Brothers’ (Philadelphia hip-hop group circa 1990s) methodical veiling of their names, pictures, and other indications of their Asian American ethnicity as a form of passing. The MB won a Coca-Cola-sponsored contest while concealing their ethnicity. She writes, “The Mountain Brothers passed that ultimate test, but they ‘passed’ (in at least two ways) because they knew the rules of hip-hop authenticity and were savvy enough to abide by them — on their own terms” (252).

So the MB passed and excelled within the musical standards of hip-hop. But what does this mean in terms of race and ethnicity? The word “passing” implies a hard line between betraying the minoritarian cause (of collective freedom) vs. assimilating to the majority. I think there’s a middle space between the two. Wong points out this space in her analysis, asserting that this passing is far from selling out. She gives the MB credit for creating a social space for themselves in the industry. “This social space is racialized in particular ways: as Chris Wang [of the MB] said, it’s Asian American because they are. Yet of course it is, and isn’t, that simple. This aural space is defined by Asian American voices making musical sounds that they are careful to claim as their own, through performance” (253).

Maybe because of Jim Crow segregation, “passing” is associated with upward social mobility. It implies a transcendence beyond a race-defined minority status into a majority status. I’m not interested in accessing whether the MB’s passing as a legitimate hip-hop act has earned for themselves an honorary membership within the culturally black community, in spite of their outside status.

What seems more useful in this example is perhaps the notion of musical passing – a form of aural expression that allows the sound-maker to be heard without being seen. Music allows the possibility of a colorblind reception: anyone can sound like anybody. Sound is not naturally bound to any race-related embodiment of phenotype, although artists make choices, deliberately or not, based on what they perceive as meaningful. While sound may be meaning-ful, it mediates meanings. This (moment of) semantic opacity is worthy of reflection.

I want to think deeply about this quality of opacity or mediation, allowing it develop into a theoretical apparatus that may help me articulate something that I’ve had a hard time conveying since the onset of my dissertation project: a (imagined) state of race-free liminality, or liberation, as described by many musicians that I’ve met in my field research. They often speak of their discomfort with the term “Asian American” as a designation for their music and/or ethnicity. In writing, I have interpreted it as a gesture of refusal to pigeonhole oneself. But I think there’s more to it than that.

A race-free sonority can be utopic for racial minorities. For minority artists, the cage built by racial meanings is still looming. This cage imprisons individuals of color in the reception of their image. To utilize this race-free sonority is to sell out. It is a worry-free presence in comfort. Perhaps this liminality suggests a moment of agency in face of a world where conversations about race mostly exist as a subtext – where people skirt around the topic of race, where people only talk about race in accusatory or threatening moments of outburst.

So, how progressive is this sonic race-free liminality? Is it liberatory for only the artists? How does this liberatory state translate itself in sonic reception? Is it merely a momentary state of self-indulgence considering the age-old fight for equality? Does an audio-scape create social change? I can’t answer these questions right now. But I think I will spend a long time trying to answer this question.

Rather than passing, maybe a more useful term is “covering,” as suggested by Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at Yale. In the preface of his book Covering, Yoshino writes “Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” Individuals cover their stigmatized traits in their daily life. “Covering is a hidden assault on our civil rights.”

The notion of passing seems insufficient in capturing the complexity of how my informing musician-colleagues relate to the world. Maybe they cover more so than pass. If that’s the case, then playing music is an ongoing struggle with the covering and dis-covering of one’s traits, construed as different or stigmatizing in this imperfect world.

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