Eugene Ahn is a former lawyer who makes indie geek-rap as Adam WarRock, and has toured extensively over the past two years. His music has been featured on sites/publications such as SPIN, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, PRI, BBC, AV Club, and more. He’s from Memphis and seriously, has never been to Graceland. He has blogged for YOMYOMF before and has released a new EP today at his website. The first music video and single, “City Beautiful,” debuts here:
Relevant to the first single and music video, he’s written a blog post about what it’s like growing up Asian in the South…
Home is a strange concept, especially for someone who’s traveled as much as me. As an indie musician, I’ve performed over 120 times in the past two years across the country. And everywhere I seem to go, no one can believe I’m from the South.
I grew up in Memphis, TN (or more specifically, a suburb outside of Memphis), having moved there at age nine from my birthplace of Pittsburgh. That’s why I don’t have the accent: I learned to speak in the North, but I learned everything else in the South. And while I’m sure I exhibit many of the normal qualities of a nice, Southern boy (I love southern food, I enjoy [most] country music, I know how to bait a hook), I’m sure just as many people look at me and think, “You, Southern?” Being Asian American probably confounds that picture a lot more. I’ve done interviews where people ask what it’s like to grow up as a minority in the South. For a city of just under 700,000 people, Memphis is almost 65% black, which makes the colloquial term “minority” a bit more confusing. I’m sure when you add in the fact that I rap for a living, that makes it even more confusing to people, white and black, even in my own hometown.
I grew up surrounded by Korean people, whether in church or social communities. Yes, we knew people that owned dry cleaners, Asian restaurants, and of course, the convenience store on the not-so-great side of town. Growing up in such an insular community, you’re unaware that there’s really anything different about you from everyone else around. Then you go to school, and you’re all of a sudden thrust into a melting pot of whites, blacks, other races, and for the first time in you’re life you realize you’re different. You’re good at math. Your eyes are slanty. Your skin is yellow. Ching chong, and the rest of it. And from that day on, you’re “different.” You’re not oppressed, you’re not abused, you’re just keenly aware of being different. As you grow up, you learn to game the system. The second someone brought race into the picture, I knew I could get them in a huge amount of trouble with the teachers, and I pounced on that opportunity, taking a huge amount of satisfaction watching them get led away to in-school suspension or detention.
When I was in high school a huge group of Asian students got into it with a bunch of white, Southern guys at lunch over a seat (isn’t it always a lunch seat?). Some racially charged words were traded, and like kids do, a huge brawl was scheduled that afternoon. A group of about forty kids (mostly white) waited at the parking lot off campus. Some Asian kids wholly unconnected with the lunchroom drama were walking to their car, and the group pounced. The two kids were bloodied and beaten badly. Even some non-Asian kids who jumped trying to stop the fight and save their friends were beaten up. We all saw their faces the next day, scabbed and cut on the gravel lot ground, bruised and beaten from the mob, and a racial divide happened. All the minorities, black, Indian, hispanic, rallied and wanted to send a posse after these white kids; while the white guys bolstered their ranks with their friends. At the end of that day over a hundred students were waiting in the parking lot to have it out. The police came and prevented it from happening, and proceeded to patrol our school for the next two weeks until the drama calmed down. This is what happened at the nice school, by the way. The suburban school.
The weird thing was, I knew people on both sides of that divide. I had fallen into the place of “only Asian friend” to a lot of my non-Asian friends, having grown personally and socially. I still knew most of the Asian kids, having grown up with some of them. And I knew a large number of the black kids, having found my hip hop love even so far back as high school, using my nerdery to be able to talk about New York or West Coast hip hop with kids who read The Source and Murder Dog as much as I did.
I left the South for a while, going to college and working for a few years before my burgeoning career as an indie artist took off. When I started my full-time career as a musician, I moved back to Memphis for a few reasons: it was cheap, I had friends there, I knew the lay of the land. But most importantly, it was home. I’d been gone for almost ten years, and being a guy who used to be a lawyer and was now making a living as a rapper, I was most certainly “different” for a whole new set of reasons. And as many times as I got those stupid kids in trouble for preying on those superficial differences, I honestly wish the teachers would have taken a moment in between yelling at them and throwing them into the brig to tell me they were wrong, and that I wasn’t so different after all.
Maybe that’s a hard concept to get across to a little kid. But love it and hate it, the South made me who I am today. I wouldn’t want to be any different than I am now.