Lyrics Born. Credit: Mark Chua

Social justice and hip-hop often go hand-in-hand. Hip-hop veteran Lyrics Born has always used his platform as an artist to air social issues that are meaningful to him. From displacement to economic inequality, and political engagement, the Berkeley native has been able, seemingly effortlessly, to maintain a balance between entertainment and community activism to get his message across to a worldwide audience. 

Toward the end of the Trump presidency and at the beginning of the COVID-19  pandemic, the U.S. saw an increase in anti-Asian sentiment nationwide. Locally, there was also an uptick in Asian hate-related crime. Stop Asian Hate demonstrations were held across the region, and activists advocating on behalf of this demographic group brought more mainstream attention to this often overlooked issue. 

Berkeleyside checked in with Lyrics Born to discuss his musical influences and the work he is doing to fight AAPI hate. The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell us about your upbringing.

I was born in Tokyo and moved to the United States at 2 years old. When I got to the U.S. we first lived in Salt Lake City, and when I was 6 I moved to Berkeley.

I was in second grade when we settled in Berkeley. I attended Thousand Oaks and Berkeley High, and graduated from St Mary’s High School, but I still live in Berkeley to this day. I’m a Berkeley dude through and through. 

Many of your songs have social-justice themes, touching on topics like racial equality and economic empowerment. Who are artists who have influenced the music you make?

It’s been artists like Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Public Enemy, KRS-One, Boogie Down Productions, and De La Soul. I took all my cues from those artists, and they really helped me shape my worldview.

Obviously, I did it my own way, as far as socially conscious music, and using music as a tool to communicate I definitely learned the fundamentals from those greats. 

The response to the song “Anti,” which you produced with Cutso, has been overwhelmingly positive, at least if you read the YouTube comments. Why do you think this song was able to strike a chord?

I think because it’s true. I’m not speaking about fictional events. I’m speaking about things that are actually happening. It’s been a very turbulent period in American history right now, and there’s a lot of blatant, documented racial and ethnic inequality, particularly in this instance, and in the context of this song, against Asian Americans. It’s not hard to see. Things are being captured on video and on social media. It is something that has been bubbling in our community forever, since we’ve touched these shores. But there’s definitely been a spike since the outbreak of COVID. It’s something that affects us and concerns us. It’s always been on our minds, but now we are on even more heightened alert. 

When making a song that addresses anti-Asian racism, do you think it is more important to inspire an audience who is working toward this cause or to raise awareness for those who may be uninformed?

I think all those things are important. But I didn’t think about it in those terms when I was writing the song. When I was writing the song, my only goal was to speak my truth, and however that’s received, that’s how it is received. 

I think it just needed to be said. It is important that people know how we feel, that they know it’s going on, both inside and outside of the community. You would always hope it is received in a positive way, but the main goal is that the message is dispersed. 

You previously said that you feel Asians, historically, haven’t been a respected group, but that’s starting to change due to an increased presence on social media and in pop culture. What additional strides do you feel still need to happen?

I think for us as a group, we need to be more vocal. We need to advocate for ourselves more. I think culturally, in the past, what our parents did was keep quiet, keep their heads down, and think everything would take care of itself. But my generation and our generation recognizes that if you don’t speak up or advocate for yourself, things won’t improve. Not in America, that’s not how it works. I think for us as a community we need to continue to be seen and be heard. 

Outside of the community, we need to hold leadership accountable to help us and our communities stay protected and stay safe. If leaders aren’t able to do that, then there needs to be a change in leadership. It is also important to reach out to other communities to build bridges, build ties, and build love, and educate each other on who we are. I think that’s incredibly important. 

Can you tell me more about your connection to Stop AAPI Hate?

One of the things I’m really proud about with the song “Anti” is we started a pay-what-you-want, donation-based campaign with BandCamp where all the money that we raised was donated at the end of May, which is AAPI month, to Stop AAPI Hate. To me, Stop AAPI Hate is one of the most important organizations right now that is helping to educate and advocate against exactly that — stopping AAPI hate. I’m really excited to do that. Within a month we were able to raise nearly $8,000. 

There’s been public discourse about tensions between Asian and Black communities. What’s your view on this issue?

America has a racism problem — in my opinion it all stems from this notion of white supremacy and our proximity to whiteness. It’s really heartbreaking to see us fight each other like that. Anti-“fill in the blankness” exists in every community. There’s anti-blackness for sure in the Asian community, there’s anti-whiteness in the Asian community. It depends who you talk to or grew up with and how you were raised. Certainly, those sentiments exist in other communities as well. That’s the county we live in, and, unfortunately, we have been very focused on how we differ. We have not been focused enough on who we actually are as respective groups, our histories, our mutual aspirations, our mutual struggles. There is a group of people in this country who are very satisfied with the status quo and are happy to see us fight amongst each other because it maintains a standard of living for that group. It’s very unfortunate and I think we need to build with each other. 

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D'Andre Ball is an education professional and freelance writer based in Berkeley. He enjoys covering Bay Area hip-hop culture and writing about artists throughout the region for local and national media...