Monday, July 29, 2013

Jay-Z's Historic Performance at Glastonbury

I'm currently perusing Decoded by Jay-Z, what I would classify as a seminal text in the ever-expanding literature on hip hop history. Reading an insider's perspective from a rap behemoth offers fresh insights on the creative process that I previously hadn't contemplated; how, for example, "a 'dumbed down' record actually forces you to be smarter, to balance art, craft, authenticity, and accessibility" (130). Littered with lyrics to illustrate this point that even songs appealing to the lowest common denominator have multiple layers, it's changed the way I listen to club bangers, Jay-Z, and his latest album, Magna Carta... Holy Grail, perhaps his most hedonistic-themed album to date. Anyways, I digress.

I wanted to share a moment of hip hop history as described by Jay-Z in his book. This moment captures the tension between race and culture. In contrast to the conservatism of other artistic subcultures, Jay-Z embodies the wide and inclusive appeal and reach of hip hop endemic since its roots...since Afrika Bambaata released "Planet Rock" in 1982 and ushered in waves of rockers, wavers, and European tourists from uptown to downtown dance clubs where he and the Soulsonic Force would perform. According to Jeff Chang, "Planet Rock" was "hip-hop's universal invitation, a hypnotic vision of one world under a groove, beyond race, poverty, sociology and geography" (Can't Stop Won't Stop, 172). Here, in a display of uncanny wittiness to open his set, Jay-Z defiantly breaks down stereotypes of what music can and should be played at an English rock festival. Hova not only shows how ridiculous his baiter sounds in his elitism, but also how silly, or rather anachronistic, his music sounds in the 21st century. A historic moment indeed.

In Jay-Z's words:
In 2008 I was invited to play at the Glastonbury Festival in England. I took the gig because it was a chance to knock some doors down for the culture. It's a huge festival, one of the largest outdoor festivals in the world. It started i the seventies and mostly featured rock music, even though the definition of rock music wasn't always clear--what do Massive Attack, Radiohead, the Arctic Monkeys, Bjork, and the Pet Shop Boys really have in common? Well, here's one thing: None of them rap. When it was announced that I'd be headlining Glastonbury, Noel Gallagher of Oasis said, "I'm not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It's wrong." That quote that went around--"I'm not having hip-hop"--said a lot, like he had a veto...
...As planned, I played that show in front of 180,000 people. I stood backstage with my crew and we looked out at the crowd. It wasn't like any other crowd I'd played. There were tens of thousands of people staring up at the stage but it might as well have been a million--bodies covered my entire field of vision. We were under a dark, open sky. Their cheers and chants were like a tidal wave of sound crashing over the stage. It was awesome and a little ominous.
Before I came out, we played a video intro reel about the controversy that included Gallagher's quote that I had "fucking no chance" of pulling off Glastonbury. Then I walked out on stage with an electric guitar hanging around my neck and started singing Oasis's biggest hit, "Wonderwall." It went over big. Then I tore through my set, with my band, a band, by the way, that's as "Rock" as any band in the world. The show was amazing, one of the highlights of my career. It was one of those moments that taught me that there really is no limit to what hip-hop could do, no place that was closed to its power. My purposefully fucked-up version of "Wonderwall" put it back on the charts a decade after it came out, ironically.
The whole sequence felt familiar to me--that same sense of someone putting their hands and weight on me, trying to push me back to the margins. Telling me to be quiet, not to get into the frame of their pristine picture. It's the story of my life and the story of hip-hop. But the beautiful thing at Glastonbury was that when I opened with "Wonderwall," over a hundred thousand voices rose up into that dark sky to join mine. It was a joke, but it was also kind of beautiful. And then when I segued into "99 Problems," a hundred thousand voices rocked the chorus with me. To the crowd, it wasn't rock and rap or a battle of genres--it was music. (163-166)

 The Introductory Video Played before Jay-Z Entered the Stage:

The Opening Minutes to Jay-Z's Performance:

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Our Jackie Robinson

In my two years of coaching high school boys' basketball, I have encountered exactly two Asian players at the varsity level. Last year in the playoffs, when we played against one of them (a starting point guard), our point guard was told to sag off on defense, over-help on defending other players, double the post when needed, and give this Asian player all the space he wanted for a shot. From purely a coaching standpoint, the very thought of leaving a point guard undefended is anathema to the profession. It's like, no, IT IS handing over a free win to your opponent. All this in a loser-go-home, do-or-die, playoff game. For those who don't follow the beautiful game of basketball, the point guard is a team's primary ball handler and decision maker, the quarterback for the team and the coach on the floor. Even if the point guard is not a good jump shooter, you've got to play honest defense on him because 1. any varsity guard can surely take it to the rim for an easy lay up or pass to an open teammate off the drive, but, more importantly, 2. we need to pressure the pass inside and prevent their offense from setting up. Shockingly, our varsity coach's counter-intuitive strategy paid off and by the end of the game, the crowd erupted into a jeering session of Jeremy, Jereemy, Jereeeemy every time their point guard touched the ball. This poor kid was obviously rattled and pressured by our lack of pressure, passing up not only open jump shots but also open lanes for drives. Instead, he quickly passed the ball to a teammate every possession and disappeared from the offense, giving us a de facto five on four defenders' advantage.

That Asian athletes don't get respect from opponents should not surprise anyone. Every time I play pick up basketball with unknown players, I am always the last pick. To put it into perspective, then, making it on a 4A varsity team and get respectable minutes is an extremely rare accomplishment in itself. Prior to last year, asking someone to name a professional Asian basketball player was similar to asking them about any other commodity on the market: Yao Ming and Barbies, both Made in China. Broaden the question out to Asian athletes in any sport and it would sound much like Japanese car imports: Ichiro Suzuki Motors. As successful as these Asian athletes got in North America, even they were the exotic exception to the rule in their respective sports. When their stints were done, those athletes went back home and the athletic floodgate did not open like the brain drain of computer technicians, engineers, and doctors from Asia. For many young Asian Americans, those athletes were glimpses of what our race could achieve when opportunities were given, but also a reminder of the stark reality that those gifts, when offered on the rare occasion, were only to Asians abroad. Those Asians did not struggle in the same way from childhood on against a culture dominated by blacks and whites and a society with expectations for you to become a Model Minority. We were still, to invoke The Dark Knight, looking for our hero, not the hero we deserved, but the one we needed to overcome the initial barrier of racist exclusion against Asian Americans in professional sports. Someone who lived under institutional racism and overcame; someone who went unpicked or undrafted yet broke through; someone who could not escape home after the run was done because home is here. 

February 4, 2012, should be a date that is forever engrained among Asian Americans, for that is the day we got our hero. Our Jackie Robinson. That evening on basketball's biggest stage, at Madison Square Garden, bench warming, soon-to-be-demoted-to-the-D-League, Asian American Jeremy Lin came off the bench with 25 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds to carry the underwhelming New York Knicks, then on a two-game losing streak with an abysmal 9-15 overall record, to victory over the Nets. The next six games, with Lin inserted into the starting lineup and without their injured superstar Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks emerged victorious. And with 136 points in his first five starts, Lin set the NBA record in that category.

I am truly perplexed at some of the reactions I get from Asian Americans regarding Jeremy Lin. Many simply don't care; they are not sports fanatics and give a blase oh, that's great that he made it. Another reaction I commonly hear is he's nothing special for a point guard. He's not as athletic as D. Rose, as smart as Tony Parker, as clutch as Kyrie Irving, or as shot-savvy as Stephen Curry. Jeremy's overrated and commits too many turnovers. All these responses reflect a greater ignorance among Asian Americans towards the racism in not only sports culture, but the system in general. Many Asian Americans buy into the model minority stereotype because unlike other racial stereotypes, it is perceived as positive and endowed with its own perks. They don't realize or care that the stereotype was perpetuated to divide and conquer people of color, to reinvigorate the myth that America was equal, post-racist or colorblind by counteracting the image of militant blacks revolting on the streets with the image of docile Asian immigrants working professional jobs, and that it continues to reinforce a racial hierarchy that maintains capitalism. In other words, many Asian Americans internalize these racist stereotypes about themselves and accept that they are physiologically inferior to other races in order to ascend the corporate ladder and live the American Dream. They don't appreciate the enormity of Jeremy's impossible climb because they never faced what it was like to dedicate one's life to breaking a racist stereotype and being free to do what you love in spite of the odds overwhelmingly stacked against you.

When the system entitles a large proportion of Asian Americans to maintain its racist division of labor, it's difficult to view Jeremy Lin as our Jackie Robinson. But his very presence on the floor challenges social roles and racist economics in general. More specifically, his presence challenges the racism of professional sports, the social Darwinist assumptions of the Asian body, and the complacency and softness of Asians. He represents the spirit of Asians that is currently suppressed under the system, a spirit of revolt both in mind and body, a spirit of toughness, intensity, and leadership both on the court and on the streets. He is not the hero we deserve, but the one we desperately need when so many of us willingly play the assigned role.


The first time I heard of Jeremy Lin was through the New York Times. Over the course of the last NBA season and a half, I've experienced with Lin what many do in the course of an extended romantic relationship. The sheer thrill of the encounter; love at first sight. I remember e-mailing the Times article from my work computer to personal account, then printing out a dozen copies or so to keep and hand out immediately upon returning home. The honeymoon period. For the remainder of the 2012 season, I religiously followed Jeremy and the Knicks, going Linsane in the membrane every time he set foot on the floor. The discovery of faults in the other; the disappointment and let down in that it didn't turn out as expected. After being awarded an unspeakable three-year, $25 million contract by Houston for his performance over just 26 games as a Knick, expectations were sky high but Jeremy's first full season in the league ultimately underwhelmed. The break up. Towards the end of the season, I consciously stopped defending Jeremy to all my players whom I coached who had been attacking him all season long. I accepted the inevitable; his numbers were down, his effort was inconsistent, and my admiration of him suddenly died. Reevaluating the relationship from afar and getting back together again. Linsanity may not happen again and Jeremy may not currently be among the top starting point guards, but this past season was only his first full season. And as I will mention in the following paragraph, he played on a team that devalued and disrespected his best assets. Already with smarts beyond his years, Jeremy has a remarkably high potential and will only learn from his mistakes, but unlike those players, he will also have to deal with the racism of the league and the pressure of being a historic figure, the first Asian American in the NBA.

As a warning to my non-basketball readers, this section of the post is technical. I do not think that the Houston Rockets is a good fit for Jeremy. He is devalued by the coaching staff, and this has translated to his teammates not trusting him with the ball down the stretch of the season despite being open on the perimeter. The Rockets offense primarily runs through James Harden, a former Sixth Man of the Year and who emerged as a superstar last season for the Rockets. The most common play is this: Jeremy would take the ball up court and hand it off to James Harden or Chandler Parsons, who will come off a high pick and roll with Omer Asik. Jeremy will then rotate to the weakside corner and sit there for the remainder of the offensive possession. Once in a while, he will get the ball but he is the fourth or fifth option for scoring. In short, the Rockets don't run offense through a point guard, even though James Harden actually led the league in turnovers last season. It appears as if Jeremy were expendable to the Rockets' coaching staff, and towards the end of the season, even though Jeremy started games, he barely played second halves and frequently didn't play in the fourth quarter at all, despite having strong starts. This is all the more confusing because Jeremy played more aggressively as the season waned, transporting fans back to the excitement of Linsanity, and Lin shot an impressive 40% from three-point range in his last 37 games. His usage rate was ranked 38th among point guards, which situated him along backup point guards in terms of minutes per game. Despite this, he averaged 13 points and 6 assists a game, which are average numbers for starting point guards. Ironically, when James Harden was out on illness or injury, the coaches reverted back to point guard play and leaned on Jeremy, who averaged 22 points and 7 assists in those games, including a 38-point performance against the San Antonio Spurs. This is a double standard to which many Asian Americans relate. You are invisible to us unless we are shorthanded and you are needed. You better rise to the occasion in these rare opportunities or be forever forgotten.

When Linsanity happened in New York, Jeremy was the primary ball handler and, like smart point guards, excelled at involving his teammates on offense. In his first week of playing with Jeremy, Tyson Chandler's numbers climbed up to 14 points and 9 rebounds. Steve Novak became a three-point sensation overnight after Jeremy's aggressive drives would pull in help defenders, leaving Novak open for the three-point shot from a Lin dish. Defensively, during the Linsanity stretch, the Knicks climbed up to #1 in both PPG and FG% allowed. Having an unselfish teammate to run the point and allowing everyone opportunities to score on offense encouraged and enabled everyone to play their hardest as a team defensively.

With Dwight Howard coming to Houston next season, Jeremy will likely see less of the ball. D12's teammate this past season, Steve Nash, claimed that Howard did not want to run the pick and roll. Considering that Houston Coach Kevin McHale was an elite center, Houston may mix more post up play for Howard, which could leave Jeremy stacked on an overloaded weakside corner as the last option for scoring. Finally, I'm reading a plethora of articles advocating that Patrick Beverly, who closed many of the games last season, should start over Jeremy. Beverly is not an offensive threat to opponents, but considering that Jeremy was not seen as or assigned by his coaches the playmaker role, it's conceivable that Beverly gets the nod as the starter.

Though he possesses both, Jeremy is not our hero because of his skill or ability. It is the continual challenge he faces, the reminder to all Asian Americans that despite accomplishing something, nothing is guaranteed for the future. Having proven himself in New York, he signs with Houston only to find his talents misused and unappreciated. Now, the league devalues him and he is stuck on the same team where he must struggle to maintain minutes, let alone the starting position. He is a reminder to Asian Americans that though many of us may have it good, our social roles are confined. When we challenge it, as Jeremy does, we must work ten times harder than the next person whose skin color equates to a professional or social advantage. We cannot afford to have an off day in performance without a barrage of criticism or depreciation in status. Whenever we see how hard Jeremy works on the floor, the plays where he sacrifices his body for a defensive charge call, and the hard falls that frequently accompany his flights in the air while making a contested layup, we should know that he's doing it for us, for our future generations, to allow us to be perceived as something other than a cookie cutter model minority. And that's why I am humbled and smile whenever someone who plays me in basketball calls me after my hero, our Jackie Robinson, Jeremy Lin.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Racist Anti-Racist

Oxymorons. Gotta love them. I strive to become one. Oxymorons are about defying stereotypes, turning conventions upside down, proudly flaunting contradictions, and being human. The line between an oxymoron and a moron is day and night, red pill and blue; oxymorons laugh at the face of criticism and judgment, morons are by the book, seek order and fit in.

At first glance, there is nothing inherently oxymoronic about sports culture. The couple years before coaching, I spent my time exclusively around political leftists and organizing circles, debating the merits of anarchism versus Marxism or united front versus popular front, all the while building organizations to fight against *insert fucked up issue here* (citywide budget cuts, workplace oppression, illegal detention centers, police brutality). Like reading a line from a script by a revolutionary playwright, personal introductions ran like I'm anti-racist, third world feminist, for workers' liberation, for democracy from below...oh yeah, did I mention that I'm also for queer and trans liberation, how silly of me to forget. As the months went by and I became involved in new campaigns, it seemed like I would add more adjectives in my self-descriptive introductions. It was preaching to the choir, or to those new or apart from the scene, what the fuck? I knew more about Huey Newton and Malcolm X than Michael Jordan and Lebron James. The idea of sports culture repulsed me to my core. Everything about the culture went against my 'revolutionary ascetic': the elitism of jocks, the hierarchical militarism of coaching, the homophobia, the machismo, the privilege. This culture created the bullies who drove me suicidal and depressed in my younger years.

Naturally then, when I joined the coaching staff of a high school basketball program, these stereotypes rang true. Like a lone ship battling against Poseidon's vicious storm, I felt like having to navigate myself in a sea of 'morons'. The heaviest anchor weighing me down was the racism that I both saw and felt. The school I work at is situated in the North End of Seattle, economically better off than Central and South Seattle. According to Wikipedia, 60% of the school is white and only 9% black. On the ground, the ratio of whites to blacks feels even more pronounced. The basketball program reflected these demographics.

The first impressions I got from the head varsity coach didn't exactly assuage my feeling. With film favorites like Team America and Scary Movie, the man is crude humor epitomized. Apart from comics by profession, this coach packs more humor line-by-line than Slim Shady when he is not instructing. The catch is, like Trey Parker and Matt Stone, there are no bounds for him, and, race is, when I'm around, a go-to topic of his. All my facial features, from mustache to eyes, have been subject to the laughs of all players. When he needs a computation of number of hours that players should be conditioning per week, I'm the go-to guy during practice. Aren't you Asians supposed to be good at these things? During one of our pregame talk sessions, while waiting for our varsity guys to gather around, he drew a penis to the side of the white board. Spotting it, one of the players asked him what the drawing was. He said it was an amplified projection of my penis, but he needed a magnifying glass to view it because it was so small. No limits for him, but he is funny and, to his credit, indiscriminate on his targets. He'll make fun of little kids at Hoop Camp to their face as he will his newly born daughter. I expect you guys to deny all penetration in the paint, like I will deny penetration to my daughter when she's all grown up on her prom night. Who the fuck really says this? Think the classic Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction and The Boondocks cast as Coach Carter and you'll get a sense of who this guy appears to be on the surface. Suffice it to say, my anti-racist proclivity, hardened through the previous couple years of organizing, made me feel extremely uncomfortable around him and reinforced the 'moronic' one-dimensional culture of sports that intimidated and drew me away.

Actions speak louder than words. I have always heard and used this adage in the context of a person who walks the talk and practices what they believe. Activists who talk the talk but fail to walk are disdained as 'armchair revolutionaries' or worse, 'mactivists' who mistake picking up women for organizing with them. Pastors frequently remind congregations that faith without actions is dead. There's a reason why organizers and pastors repeat this theme. The 'cause' requires intense dedication but the practitioners often meander, setting limits to their walk (as long as it doesn't involve too much of my money or time). So it came as a complete shock when I discovered that the principle was also true when words ran entirely contrary to one's actions. To knowingly say one thing, but to do another. A true oxymoron.

And that is exactly what the head varsity coach is. An oxymoron. A walking contradiction. For under the veneer of a frat boy-who-never-aged racist jokester was an anti-racist man in practice. Coaching basketball has been the most challenging activity of my life. Last year, my first, was the most difficult. Since I had minimal exposure to the game of basketball prior to coaching, I underwent a literal baptism under fire. The parents were brutal. One in particular would get other parents rallying against me during games, snickering at me and giving me dirty looks whenever opponents scored. Others would, in a typical Seattlelite fashion, passive aggressively give me looks, offer to volunteer their coaching experience, and/or fail to acknowledge me altogether. After an away game in which we were blown out by the opponent, the parent refused to allow their son to ride home on the team bus (a mandatory policy), bluntly telling me that I needed to learn how to score against that particular zone defense that shut us down before their child should have me as their coach. A few nights later, the parent went directly to the varsity coach (whom I was beside at the time) and told him that I should not be a coach in a reputable boys' basketball program, I had no experience, I was a babysitter when the job required a leader, and that all I did was yell at the kids without purpose. I'll never forget the coach's response. Here's the deal. When you say that Veryl's doing a poor job, you're saying that I'm doing a poor job. Is that what you're saying to me, m'aam? Because that's what I'm hearing. That shut the parent up for the rest of the season and prompted them to join the passive aggressive jeering section of the audience.

This one experience was NOT an anomaly. Parents at the varsity level questioned his ability to run a successful basketball program because of my hiring. His job was on the line and the school administration was involved. I still don't fully understand why I was offered the coaching position, and, like the parents' attitudes last year, to this day I think it was a crazy hire. Him and I recently conversed about this and he told me, I don't say this to many people, but Veryl, you're the type of guy I would lose my job over. I don't give a shit what others think. I know what I'm doing. I'm all about effort and attitude, and you've got those both.

In my time organizing with anti-racists, the quality guys who walked the talk were the ones who listened to me and trained me to be a leader. It was important to break the perception of the model minority, and I credit them for my transformation from a docile yes-man to a free-thinking public speaker. This coach has done no less. In a profession dominated by anything but Asian, he stood alone defending me against valid complaints and redirecting my focus from the haters to the learning process and the growth. He inspired confidence in me, believed in my character and potential instead of judging my skin color, saw through and willingly broke the stereotypical projection to which I actually embodied having no athletics experience, and in the process, allowed me to experience and achieve something I had never even dreamed of doing. I absolutely love the game.

Some morons turn out to be oxymorons. Perhaps they never were, and I was the moron in thinking so. This year has been a markedly different experience, with many of last year's crop of parents coming around and supporting me. As I become a better coach, I hope to shatter more stereotypes among athletes, parents, and others I meet. It is the life force of an oxymoron. But I will never forget the racist anti-racist who started it all.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

First Impressions

Growing up, I was taught to 'Never judge a book by its cover.' I bought into my parents' idealism, rooted in the Christian principle that the big G-O-D up there judged a person on the inside. Through my elementary school years, I never wore Nikes, Reeboks, or Jordans. I wore turtle necks and wool sweaters during the cold season, and multicolored boxer-like short shorts when it was hot. I remember looking in the mirror before school one morning at my Asian hair, haphazardly stuck up on the back of my head (a feature that defines my mornings to this day), complaining to my mom about how ugly and disoriented it made me look. But mom, other boys my age had straight hair. I naively believed her when she told me that my hair would straighten out by the time I went to school. I didn't get my first pair of Nikes until 7th grade, and even then, they were the $19.99 clearanced ones from JC Penny's. For the next few days, I proudly wore the brand with a huge grin on my face, as it was leaps and bounds ahead of the Payless shoes I had previously worn, until my classmates made fun of them during PE. Nice girl shoes, chink. They were purple with a flowerly design on the heel. My attempt to assimilate, as it were, miserably failed. Someone had to make the next uncoolest kid at school seem cool--You're welcome, Everett.

I'm not sure why I applied that principle to my life for as long as I did. Looking back, I was always judged by my skin color before I even uttered a single word. Because no one really listened to me, I didn't think my words mattered. I moved to Virginia Beach exactly one day before middle school started. During the first day of school, I sat alone way up in the nosebleed section during a pep assembly. Little did I know that I would be the overture to the assembly, but before the formal festivities began, a group of boys approached me, taunting me before pushing me around. Fucking chink, youse go backa to China. Ching chongy ching chong. That was the second time I cried in public, and right on cue, kids from the lower sections of the bleacher turned their heads and laughed. I remember looking at a teacher in the lower section, telekinetically crying for help, only to see a chuckle on her face. I got my ass kicked for the first time later that afternoon.

High school in the Pacific Northwest wasn't substantively different. By the time we're full-fledged adolescents, stereotypes predominantly influence how one perceives you. It became second-nature to me to live by the stereotype. In hindsight, it was the safe option, the survivalist option, not to defy it and to use it to my advantage. I got straight A's, I won the International Baccalaureate student award, I excelled in piano and violin, and I mostly kept to myself. I was the Model Minority.

Over the last few years, I've been learning to challenge and actively smash the model minority myth. I don't want to be a robot defined by the creation of a racist society. I don't want to be constrained by a label and denied opportunities to experience, to grow, to find out what I can achieve and who I could be. That is the first impression I want to leave after each new encounter.

Three years ago, I had never been around sports as a spectator, let alone playing it, but now, I coach a couple 4A high school sports. I am the only Asian who coaches boys' basketball in the conference. It's been a crazy ride from there to here and I've got quite a few stories to tell and reflections to impart.

I have never written a blog before (although I've contributed quite a few entries for other blogs), but lately I find myself drowned in many thoughts with so much to say. To all who stumble along my blog, greetings and much gratitude. This will be a regular part of my life, so I look forward to conversations to come and new people to meet.