Tag Archives: digital diaspora

pop culture & media research

ViCKi LEEKX, Cyberpunk, and Me – A Digital Postcolonial Critique

At a coffee shop in downtown Dover, New Hampshire, I get a tweet from The Kominas about M.I.A.’s latest mixtape Vicki Leekx. I follow hyperlink included in the tweet and land on a blog post on MTVDesi that ruthlessly critiques M.I.A.’s mixtape (this post has been removed for some reason). The author claims that Vicki Leekx is the beginning of the end of MIA’s career. Meanwhile, The Kominas carries on a short conversation with its friend @bdvz in Sydney, both expressing support for M.I.A.’s politico-musical agenda. Quickly pointing at another link, I jump to M.I.A.’s mixtape site, created exclusively for her listeners to download her mixtape. A simple website, Vickleekx.com is presented with a design scheme reminiscent of web pages of the early to mid 1990s. A mash up of low-tech-looking images includes on the right, a large spinning globe, and the left, two identical overlapping screenshots of a browser window, a large “ViCKi LEEKX” banner in a shiny visually loud golden font. After downloading and zooming on the “clip art” graphics below the banner, hacking my way through the visual scheme of the website, I discover further graphical details, for instance, the text “United States Federal Reserve System” the embalm superimposed over an image of a globe. Other textual and image iconography of the Internet, I think, represents the polemics regarding freedom of speech and global communication in the so-called Internet age [image below]. Finally I click on the giant red “DOWNLOAD” button on the bottom of the page to download the mixtape file. Now listening to M.I.A. rapping about media freedom and Sri Lankan shoutouts over thirty-something-minute continuous mashup comprised of digital blips and samples of media cliche, I continue to browse the web.

Figure xx: Screenshot of Vickileekx.com, captured on January 12, 2011.

Born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, M.I.A. is a British rapper of Sri Lankan descent whose claim to fame worldwide was her song “Paper Planes” on the soundtrack of blockbuster hit Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle 2008). Daughter of a Tamil political activist, M.I.A.’s music centralizes political themes, especially toward immigrant rights, and expresses an audacity to challenge governmental and corporate authorities. Around the time she released her third album Maya in spring 2010, M.I.A. began to speak up about information politics and Internet censorship. In the midst of the heated discussions about WikiLeaks, over the exposing of confidential governmental and corporate documents via the Internet, the rapper expressed a public support for WikiLeaks. Last November, M.I.A. made an announcement of her (Internet) alter ego dubbed as Vicki Leekx.

Vicki Leekx is not a direct endorsement of, but a project perhaps inspired by WikiLeaks. Similar to WikiLeaks, M.I.A.’s alter ego (and mixtape) characterizes a possibility for social changes through disseminating cultural content on the Internet. WikiLeaks has posed a threat to national security; the U.S., China, Iceland, and Australia have filed lawsuits against the website. It has challenged the internatinoal financial infrastructures maintained by corporate power and control. Similarly, M.I.A.’s “Vicki Leekx” project targets those of media, cultural, and political power. Perhaps her penchant for conceiving of the Internet as a free space is affirmed by her recent battle with media censorship. After finding out that Youtube had pulled her controversial music video of “Born Free”, M.I.A. self-released the video by hosting the video on her website and announcing the link, along with a disparaging remark on YouTube.

More explicitly than WikiLeakx, Vicki Leekx is positioned within a postcolonialist, pro-minoritarian struggle, a political context that M.I.A. has articulated in her music and social media. The term “Vicki Leekx” is a phonetic play on “Wiki Leaks.” The phonetic substitution of a V for a W inflects with a South Asian accent within English pronunciation. In ethnicizing the English pronunciation of WikiLeaks, M.I.A. evokes the less heard colonized subject position of the desi in her project.

M.I.A.’s postcolonialist cyberpunk mission of VickiLeekx should not have come as surprise. The rapper began a music leakage project by hosting un-released tracks on one-off websites with provocative domain names, and then sharing the links on Twitter. She set off this leaking rampage by announcing yesthelittlepeoplewillneverwinbuttheycanfuckshitup.com during her North American tour in September 2010. Equally actively, M.I.A. shares news stories about politics around immigration, war crimes, and refugees from Sri Lanka on Twitter. She sometimes couples news story links with web leakage of un-released tracks. Along with a link to a news story about the asylum seekers in Australia, M.I.A. announced a newly created website called 4THEPEOPLEONTHEBOAT.com. Upon visit, the website automatically streams M.I.A.’s song “You Can Have My Money, But You Can’t Have Me”, and displays 8-bit moving graphics of a suspended spinning globe targeted by four rotating firing guns. In an earlier tweet, M.I.A. explains, “I PUT THIS OUT! I KNOW THE MEDIA GIVES CREDIT TO WHITE DUDES! that white dude playin poker gif is literal.” With this music video site, M.I.A. has crystallized a connection between her network music project and her interest in engaging a new digital cultural warfare for “the boat” people. In December 2010, she provoked her digital mission in explicit terms: “WE GROWIN UP IN MIDDLE OF A DIGITAL RUKUS! THEY CAN TRY TO FUCK US, I AINT PUTTIN ON THE STOPPERS WE GO BE HACKERS.. meds+feds+ in bed !” M.I.A. screams, in all caps, in order to advocate for a cyberpunk revolution among immigrants, refugees, and other subaltern groups that she has shown alliance for in the past (Powers 2010). M.I.A. dropped the mixtape online making the file downloadable after midnight on January 1, 2011. Ten days after she self-released her mixtape, M.I.A. tweeted a picture of children of South Asian descent (Sri Lankan?) huddling around four desktop computers. She dubbed the image as “!V!I!C!K!I!L!E!E!K!X! STREET TEAM ! 11/1/11”.

In a way, leaking a national security document is similar to immigration, a leakage of citizenry. Both instances challenge the borders of a nation-state. Both are symbolic infractions of the integrity of nation-states. Foregrounding a “leaky” logic, M.I.A. has created an immigrant frontier on the Internet via Vicki Leekx and her other music websites. In this cyberpunk space, the figure of the immigrant is spotlighted. It no longer lives in threat or on fringes of illegality. It lives in comfort, legalistically and existentially. M.I.A. is the mastermind gamer-architect behind the design of this space between fiction and reality; in it, the immigrant makes up the legitimate citizenry. More than 160,000 of her followers on Twitter, including me, happily wander within and around it.

This cyberpunk frontier is unlike the Orientliast one as characterized by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in her contribution to edited volume AsianAmeric.Net (2003). Commenting on cyberpunk fiction and films of the 1980s to 1990s, Chun notes the racializing and engendering movements within the cyberspace. She highlights the dynamic of “high-tech Orientalism” in which an American (white) cowboy enters, through an act of penetration, into a disembodied, virtual space of erotic fantasies of the Orient. High-tech Orientalism enables the cowboy to “erase his body in orgasmic ecstasy…such sexual fantasies and conquest, for this orgasmic ecstasy constructs cyberspace…as a solipsistic space” (2003: 15). M.I.A. is not an “Imperial console cowboy” (203:18). Playfully and performatively, M.I.A. identifies herself as a post-national immigrant orphan-child while stating a cyberpunk mission to tear down the imperialist structures.

In Cybertypes, Lisa Nakamura offers a critique of the discourses that characterize, overly optimistically, the Internet as a borderless space in which users, like tourists, can easily consume the culture and image of the distant Other. In this new media terrain, Asians, especially immigrants, are digitally type-casted or “cybertyped” as “exemplary information workers” (2002: 24). “The presence of black and brown faces from other countries, notably Asian ones, encourages white workers to inhabit a virtually diverse world, one where local racial problems are shuffled aside by a global and diasporic diversity created by talented immigrants as opposed to ‘hyphenated Americans.’ This is a form of tourism, benefiting from difference in order to make the American/Western self feel well-rounded, cosmopolitan, postracial” (2002: 22-3).

Not true. Not entirely. The Internet is not one giant blob of space. In fact, there is not one single cyber space, as there are multiple cyber spaces. And there are borders and boundaries—software- and hardware-dependent—that bind and separate these cyber spaces. During my digital field research, I discovered a hard server divide when I was harvesting locale data of the Myspace friends of The Hsu-nami, a New-Jersey-based band. The “bot” (program) that I wrote “broke” in the process of web-mining. In troubleshooting, I found that Myspace is in fact, not as global as it has promised itself to be. The Myspace user networks of all countries in the world exist in a server located in U.S., with the exception of the users of Myspace China. Hosted by a server in China, Myspace China is itself own space apart from the rest of Myspace networks in “the world.”[1]

In my research, I follow Nakamura’s critical race perspective, except that I, as a cybernetic investigator, place my investigative focus on a cultural process, more reparative than hers. I concentrate on the exploration of the alternative terrains and their associated borders reconfigured by individuals of Asian descent. As described in my last post, I have worked, through a set of digital tools, to highlight both global and diasporic particularity, centralizing the perspective of in-between subjectivity of both “hyphenated Americans” and their immigrant friends. What I’m after is not a postracial, but a post-national network built by musicians of various Asian affiliations.

Like M.I.A., I’m an immigrant child who relishes in the post-national space proffered by the Internet. Less a rapper/punk-diva figure than M.I.A., I’m a cyberpunk ethnographer. Or better yet, I’m a cyberpunk cartographer working to reconfigure this space however susceptible to sexual fantasy and imperial conquest. In a way, I am working to reorient the existing fantasies and desires projected by imperial and corporate cowboys. I am taking pleasures in navigating within and mapping a world created and occupied by people like me: marked by category of “Asian,” “immigrant,” or lost somewhere in the cracks between other geographical and social boundaries.

[1] The software disconnection between China and the United States (and the rest of the world) on Myspace is maybe a product of the financial and political relationship between the countries. In order to follow up this inquiry, one could search news stories about company structure and changes of Myspace. For more detail, read David Barboza’s article “Murdoch Is Taking MySpace to China”, April 27, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/27/business/worldbusiness/27myspace.html (accessed on January 13, 2011).


Mapping the Digital Diaspora of a Dissertation Research Blog

At the onset of my field research in summer 2007, I launched a blog – YellowBuzz.org – with the intention to: 1) archive and organize my field notes in textual and audio-visual form; 2) convey my research purpose and progress to informant musicians and the public; 3) self-position as a “participant” in the scene. Since then, I have made over 160 posts, some directly linked and others tangentially related to my research findings about the activities and media of Asian American indie rock musicians. Over the past one and a half years, my field research blog has received attention from both print and online media. Evidently, this blog has constructed a community consisting of musician- and music-enthusiast-visitors with an interest in Asian American and transpacific music-culture.

This past January, I began tracking the blog traffic by using Google Analytics. This service monitors the physical location of site visitors and their interactions with the pages on the site. The geographical data are analyzed in terms of the number of visits per unit of geographical organization such as city, country/territory, sub continent region, and continent. This information is also visualized in the form of an interactive map on which users can zoom in and out of specific locales and find site visit patterns specific to cities, countries, regions, or continents in the world.

Over the last four months, I have been playing with the May Overlay function projecting geospatial patterns of the site traffic on my blog. These interactive moments have helped me imagine interesting questions such as: What is the geography of an electronic community based on the topic of “Asian American music,” the tagline of my blog? What does the geo-spatial terrain of this “digital diaspora” look like? Are there any striking patterns at each of the organizational level namely, the city, country, sub-continental region, and continent? What spatial boundaries are transcended and created in these visualizations? Or, fancifully, how does the digital geography of my blog reconfigure the more general social geography of “Asian America” online or offline?

Today marks a 4-month anniversary of this thought experiment. I decided to take some screen shots of a few of the visualizations that I’ve found more meaningful in Google Analytics. This analysis uses data from a sample of 3,061 site visits collected from January 1 to April 30, 2009. I will highlight a few interesting findings below:

1) Here’s a map of blog visits in various U.S. cities. It appears that the visitors are concentrated in central Virginia (the home of yours truly), New York City, Boulder, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Other than central Virginia and Boulder, these are areas of high concentration of Asian Americans and indie rock activities. I’m not quite sure how to explain the traffic flow from the Denver area (Boulder and Aurora, ranked third and sixth in this map, respectively) other than to link it to the thriving indie rock scene in Boulder and the physical location of an Asian/Japanese music blogger Shay of Sparkplugged.

blog visits in U.S. cities

2) According to this chart, 76% of the site visits have occurred within the boundaries of the United States. Next on the list are Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia, all English-speaking countries with close historical ties to American music. In the continent of Asia, countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore have among the highest number of visitors to my site. I attribute this pattern to my blog posts about U.S.-based artists who have a large following in these particular countries. Specifically, Hsu-nami (of New Jersey) and Johnny Hi-Fi (SF-based) has strong ties to Taiwan; Kite Operations (New-York) to South Korea; Plus/Minus (New York) to the Philippines and Taiwan.

site visits per country

3) This last chart represents the sub-continental spread of the site visits. North America takes the lead (taking 80% of all visits). Northern Europe and Eastern Asia tie as second, followed by South-Eastern Asian and Western Europe. I’m not quite sure how to explain the high number of visits from Northern Europe other than to link it to the popularity of a Taiwanese metal band Chthonic in North Europe. Chthonic has a strong international presence, having worked with producers in Denmark and the U.S. including Rob Caggiano, the guitarist of Anthrax. In 2007, Chthonic toured with the OzzFest and established close ties with Taiwanese-American-led erhu rock group Hsu-nami.

site visits per sub-continent region

So what does this all mean? YellowBuzz, a blog on “Asian American music”, has constructed a global, transnational readership. Asian America in the online digital environment exists beyond the boundaries of the United States and the Asian continent. These observations of transnational crossings work against the geography of Orientalism: a now-classical postcolonial theory referring to the representational control of the non-west by western-produced discourse. The transnational digital diaspora of YellowBuzz has tampered with the so-called east-west binary.

Now if I were serious about pursuing the research on the transnationality of Internet music journalism, I would look for a correlation between blog content and traffic patterns. This would require systematic, post-to-post observations. I would also consider mapping information regarding Internet access and user demographic with the intention to find links between the blog statistics and general Internet sociality. I would also look for statistical and mapping methods more powerful than Google Analytics.

But – to get back to my dissertation that asks: What paths do musicians and their music take as they establish routes crossing territories constructed by nation-states, corporations, international laws, etc? Unfortunately, these visualizations lack the analytical strength to provide an insight on the musicians’ perspective on the scene. They have offered a perspective on media, in particular in understanding the role of a music blog in constructing “Asian America.”

In the coming months, I will be working on a digital humanities project with Joe Gilbert at UVa’s Scholars’ Lab pursuing questions related to the musicians’ side of the story. I hope to unravel the terrain of musicians’ sociality within the transnational scene of indie rock music by mapping out their tours, social networks on (SNS), and record distribution. Meanwhile, I’m experiencing a bout of euphoria loving the fact that I have reclaimed a free market analytical tool offered by Google for my academic(-y) ethnomusicological thought experiment.


This post was originally posted on May 4, 2009 on the UVa Scholars’ Lab Blog and my field research blog Yellowbuzz.


On “Asian American” Digital Identity Politics

Everyday, I receive Google Alerts about any websites, blogs, or news feeds containing the keywords “Asian / American / music” in whatever order and combination that Google search engine finds. Most of the Alerts, unsurprisingly, point to stories related to U.S. politics. Interestingly, around the time of the 2008 Presidential Election, my InBox experienced a minor Google Alert “explosion” with news stories and criticisms listing all the color-based social groups, connecting Obama’s racial politics to the now dominant American ideology of multiculturalism. To my disappointment, none of these news stories included anything substantial information with regards to the Asian American (if there is such a thing) perspective on the Obama and Biden duo.

Is “Asian American” coming to stand in for a keyword, tag (in the speak of blogosphere), or a hip buzzword in our current media environment as digitally informed and constructed? Is there “real content” beyond the textual reference of “Asian” and “American”? If so, how do we assess this content considering the methods of information retrieval, i.e. Google Alerts, and the context of presentation, i.e. hypertextual state of Internet media?

Today, my Google Alerts linked me to a couple of exciting pages of content-worthy materials related to Asian American arts and culture. One of these is a New Yorker article titled “By the Skin of Our Teeth” about “The Shipment”, the new play by Young Jean Lee. The reviewer Hilton Als comments on the Lee’s “irreverent take on racial politics.” Commenting on her 2005 play “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven”, featuring the self-violence of an Asian American female character, Lee declares her attitude toward the state of identity politics in the U.S: “For this project, I decided the worst thing I could possibly do was to make an Asian-American identity-politics show, because it can be a very formulaic, very clichéd genre, and very assimilated into white American culture. It’s almost become part of the dominant white power structure to have identity-politics plays about how screwed-over minorities are. It’s such a familiar, soothing pattern. . . . It’s become the status quo.”

When I read the passage, I thought to myself, “now, here’s a kernel of wisdom” worth pursuing. What does she mean by “identity-politics show”? What consists of this ‘cliché genre’ of formulaic and assimilationist plays? A good content analyst would seek information about the playwright and this play. Before I jumped into my usual mode of performing a search on Google or Wikipedia search on Young Jean Lee, I slowed down and pondered about the path of information that allowed me to arrive at this intellectually compressed bit of information.

The New Yorker tags this article with the following keywords: “The Shipment”; Young Jean Lee; Korean-Americans; Douglas Scott Streater; Race Relations; Asian-Americans; “Pullman, WA.” Google search engines must have picked up this article because of the tag “Asian-Americans.” But search engines are not able to make a qualitative distinction between this article [or other substantive articles] from the sources that simply use “Asian American” as a stand-in for cultural multiplicity and diversity. Unfortunately, Asian America still exists, in the digital environment, mostly under a pile of diversity-bound laundry lists at best, or pornography and ads for mail-order brides or other forms of race-related sex industry, at worst.

The risk of being pigeonholed, tokenized, or even sexualized is no news to individuals of Asian descent in the United States. Playwright Young Jean Lee asserts provocative and vehement critiques for the discursive objectification of Asianness in her 2005 play which opens with a monologue by a woman with the name of “Korean-American”:

“Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents? It’s like being raised by monkeys—these retarded monkeys who can barely speak English and are too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status. . . . Asian people from Asia are even more brain-damaged, but in a different way, because they are the original monkey. . . . I am so mad about all of the racist things against me in this country, which is America. Like the fact that the reason why so many white men date Asian women is that they can get better-looking Asian women than they can get white women because we . . . have lower self-esteem. It’s like going with an inferior brand so that you can afford more luxury features.”

This is intellectually dense, emotionally heavy stuff. But the fact that it’s available in a point-and-click fashion is astounding. Google Alerts prevent information from fossilization. Without Google Alerts, I would find this article somewhere down the line when I do archival search, plowing through databases for historical artifacts. The newness and immediacy of this information would be lost. Also, it would take many more steps to link this article to other articles related to the subject of “Asian / American / music” published today.

The other noteworthy piece Google Alerts linked me to is an interview of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer by RVAjazz blog entitled “Intellect Meets Creativity.” Iyer speaks reflexively about his role as an Indian American musician in the Afro-centric tradition of jazz music: “I’m just fortunate to be able to interact with the music from my perspective, and to reconsider what resonances there might be with my own experience, or with anyone’s. The point is to honor that legacy and not commodify it, but also to learn from it. I think that America was invited to reconsider a lot of this in light of the ascent and success of Obama. Those are symptoms of a larger development in our culture – it’s about who we are and where we are and what time it is!”

The juxtaposition between the New Yorker article on Young Jean Lee’s play and Vijay Iyer’s interview is intellectually curious. Iyer’s perspective on race in America is less dystopic than Lee’s. In fact, his alliance with African American culture and struggle speaks to a larger discourse about race in terms of minoritarian politics, quite contrary to the uncritical multiculturalist orientation. Iyer’s interview could tap into the historical and contemporary moments of Afro-Asian connections formed in anti-racist solidarity.

My research aims to track these moments deliberately and shamelessly, making links and disconnects among them as they occur in real time. Information as such, categorized and recategorized based on similar or dissimilar terms, is generated and circulated at high volume daily on the Internet. Digital technologies allow discourse to flow in disparate, rhizomatic directions. The hypertextual state of Internet media is overwhelming to sort through, but this quality allows information to seep into unexpected cracks and generate surprising juxtapositions. Similar to keywords and tags, identity categories, also reproduce themselves in a semi-irrational, hypertextual fashion in our time. These contradictory patterns as discovered in the digital environment may best represent the schizophrenic style of identity proliferation that would mark our post-identity-politics (or post-Race) age.


This post was originally posted on February 4, 2009 on Yellowbuzz and the UVa Scholars’ Lab blog.