Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness. By Nitasha Tamar Sharma. (Refiguring American Music.) Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. [xiv, 351 p. ISBN 9780822347415 (hardcover), $84.95; ISBN 9780822347606 (paperback), $23.95.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.
Hip Hop Desis is an exceptional book; it is the first ethnography of an atypical subgroup of South Asian Americans who have made hip hop an integral part of their lives through their work as MCs, DJs, lyricists, and journalists. Sharma illuminates why and how these extraordinary desis (South Asians) choose to assimilate "downwards" by modeling the racial pride of America's black minority instead of adopting the racial silence of their own "model minority." Eschewing traditional analyses of relations between Asian and African Americans, Sharma convincingly shows how desis' embrace of hip hop disrupts existing social divisions, and generates new possibilities for envisioning a "global race consciousness."
Chapter 1 focuses on the construction of what Sharma calls "hegemonic desiness," or notions of ethnic authenticity that collegegoing desis impose on co-ethnics to create "communities of sameness." Sharma challenges ethnicity as a productive response to immigrant exclusion by pointing to the irony of its anti-black racism and the problem this poses to hip hop desis, who are sometimes derided as "rotten coconuts" (brown on the outside and black on the inside). This intolerance for difference in the ethnic community is partly what draws some desis to the anti-racist messages of hip hop. However, instead of rejecting their desiness and mimicking blackness, hip hop desis dialogically craft alternatives to hegemonic desiness through what Sharma terms "ethnic hip hop," or hip hop that is neither ethnically exclusive (because it uses a recognizable form of black popular culture), nor fully assimilated or "Americanized" (because it uses South Asian languages, sounds and themes addressed to the ethnic community) (p. 85).
Though insightful for the way it exposes the workings of ethnic authenticity inherited from the first generation, Sharma's notion of hegemonic desiness fails to illuminate how the conception of authenticity for the second generation might differ from that of the first. Second-generation desis are shown as simply "replicating ethnic, class, religious, gender, and sexual divisions from the subcontinent" (p. 50, my emphasis); they "graft first-generation ideas onto their social worlds, thereby re-creating reified notions of ethnicity around which they formed their social cliques and politics" (p. 58, my emphasis). But just as desis can be criticized for being too black, they can also be criticized for being too ethnic ; the term "f.o.b." or "fresh off the boat" comes to mind (see Karen Pyke and Tran Dang's " 'FOB' and 'Whitewashed': Identity and Internalized Racism among Second Generation Asian Americans," Qualitative Sociology 26, no. 2 [ June 2003]: 147-72). This is where a discussion of hip hop would have been useful-not just as a politically progressive alternative to ethnic authenticity (pp. 41-42), but as a mainstream form of popular culture that second generation youth use to assess the "fitness" and belonging of desis in America. Although Sharma discusses hip hop's appeal for mainstream desis in later chapters, here hip hop is discussed only in relation to the criticism it receives for being inauthentic (p. 64).
Just as hip hop desis craft alternatives to ethnic authenticity, they also "make race," the subject of chapter 2. Utilizing the ambiguity of their racialization in the white-black dynamic of the United States, hip hop desis "take on the identities that signify a group seemingly unlike themselves" (p. 111), or engage in what George Lipsitz has described as "strategic antiessentialim" (Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place [London: Verso, 1994]). …