Jamming with Andrew Yang: Rap and the Model Minority

March 26, 2020, updated April 27, 2021

Although businessman and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang preferred to ignore it, his campaign attracted a large number of disaffected Trump voters from the alt-right. At first glance, Yang and the former Trumpsters seemed like strange bedfellows given rampant racism among that part of his base, but closer examination reveals an odd symbiotic relationship.

With his “MATH” hats (Fig. 1) and claims to “know a lot of doctors” because of his Asian heritage, Yang often evoked the myth of the “model minority,” that is, the idea that racism does not exist in the United States because some individuals from marginalized communities have made good on the American Dream, working themselves into the middle- and upper-classes. This myth treats all non-white racial and ethnic groups as the same, and ignores the specific legacies of slavery, immigration, settler colonialism, and discrimination that have faced Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern, Indigenous, and other non-white Americans. It also allows former Trump supporters to claim they are not racist, because they do indeed support a non-white candidate: Yang. The ways Yang is made to stand for a generalized idea of “minority” is demonstrated in the original songs and videos his alt-right supporters have posted on YouTube and similar sites. These employ signifiers of a non-specific “Asian-ness” along with Blackness. Such videos allow these supporters to “prove” they are not racist, while still using imagery and sounds that embody damaging stereotypes about Asians and other people of color.

Figure 1 Andrew Yang in his trademark “Math” Hat

This strategy of reframing cultural artifacts in parodic or subversive ways has much in common with alt-right-generated media supporting Trump. In 2016, the alt-right embraced memes, even claiming that they propelled Trump to the White House; Trump-supporter Jay Boone told This American Life “We memed [Trump] into power. We shit-posted our way into the future.” Christine Harold calls this strategy “culture jamming,” that is, redeploying the images, sounds, and language of popular culture in subversive ways to muddy or change the meaning of the original signifiers.[1] Such “rhetorical sabotage” (to use Harold’s term) formed a large part of the alt-right online strategy, as supporters reframed apolitical cultural artifacts such as Pepe the Frog or the musical Les Misérables to support their agenda.[2] The alt-right arm of the #YangGang in turn tried to jam the jammers, wresting these signifiers away from Trump and applying them to Yang. Indeed, characteristic images of Pepe the Frog and “the Chad” meme are rampant in this segment of Yang’s support.

Tim Gionet’s “Yang Gang Anthem” is emblematic of this style, particularly when it comes to music. Gionet, who goes by “Baked Alaska” online, was a high-profile Trump supporter whose original songs and videos garnered him a significant following. But after being banned from Twitter and his subsequent public falling-out with fellow troll Mike Cernovich, he distanced himself from the alt-right, surfacing recently as part of the #YangGang.[3] His “Yang Gang Anthem” resembles videos that have emerged from this new segment of the electorate from creators like Panther Den, 1791, AndrewYang2020, Laddie McLass, and Andrew Yang for President 2020, most of which employ the overtly racist and sexist imagery associated with the alt-right.[4] Gionet’s anthem uses many of the same ideas, albeit in a much subtler and milder form.

Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, “Yang Gang Anthem”

The visual track of “Yang Gang Anthem” consists of jump cuts of Gionet in three different locations: dancing around a small suburban backyard and pool; against a concrete wall; and walking around a city block handing out money, apparently demonstrating the benefits of Yang’s proposed universal income. The video begins shots of an attractive woman in a sailor blouse and pleated miniskirt are interspersed, presumably representing Gionet’s fiancé—he repeats the line “my bitch got a wedding ring”—but we never see her face (Fig. 2). Gionet raps about Yang’s virtues over a sample of Russian rapper Slava KPSS’s (“Glory of the Communist Party”) track “I will sing my music.” The loop features a bell- or chime-like timbre over a trap beat of syncopated subdivisions played on a hi-hat.

Figure 2 Screenshot of “Yang Gang Anthem”

Many of these images and sounds are indelibly tied to Yang’s race. The young woman resembles the anime character Sailor Moon (Fig. 3), recalling other #YangGang videos that include images of scantily-clad female anime characters. This speak to Yang’s Asian heritage, despite the fact that Yang’s parents are from Taiwan and anime is Japanese. Such a view of “Asian-American” as an undifferentiated conglomeration of Asian identities speaks to the assumptions that all non-white cultures are the same. Furthermore, the simple melody in the chimes evokes the idea of a music box. Especially when paired with the image of the school-girl, this plays into stereotypes that Asian women (especially East Asian women) are child-like, sweet, docile, yet sexually available. The image further reinforces Yang’s heterosexual masculinity, which is subject to stereotypes of emasculated Asian men. The appearance of the child-like Asian figure of femininity casts Gionet in the role of red-blooded heterosexual male. Such a person would have no time for “sissies.”

Figure 3 Sailor Moon, Volume I, Japanese Edition. By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34261215

Gionet’s trap-based beat is also crucial to this formulation. It marks a stark contrast with his Trump videos, which feature a more singer-songwriter style dominated by piano accompaniment and auto-tuned vocals.[5] These videos are racially unmarked, or at least racially heterogenous. Auto-tuned vocals, for example, are associated with Kanye West, but also Cher and Ke$ha. [6] Gionet’s slightly nasal timbre and clear Alaskan accent, however, mark him as white. But in “Yang Gang Anthem,” the husky vocal timbre and the hi-hat pattern mask the accent and evokes Black sonorities. Gionet’s movement—putting his face close to the camera lens, downward chopping motions of his arms—also evoke the Hype Williams video style of the early 1990s.

Gionet is jamming hip hop culture (both music and imagery), using it to add a whiff of Black “cool” to the otherwise nerdy Yang, and to prove both the candidate’s and his own pop-cultural relevance within his newly formed, putatively more diverse worldview. As hip-hop is more associated with Blackness than with Asian-ness, this speaks more to Yang’s status as a person of color rather than anything specifically Asian, and the trap-based beat recalls photoshopped images of the candidate with dreadlocks and grills that proliferated online during the campaign. By associating Yang with hip hop, Gionet further reinforces Yang’s masculinity, drawing on the style’s associations with black masculine cool. This is not a new political strategy; President Obama’s “complex cool” arose in part from his careful engagement with hip hop culture, and Yang himself used Mark Morrison’s classic hip hop track “Return of the Mack” as walk-on music during his rallies.[7] Such images and sounds are not associated with Trump in these alt-right communities, suggesting two underlying racist assumptions: Yang’s masculinity needs reinforcement because of his Asian heritage, and that his skin-tone is “dark” enough for him to borrow those qualities from hip hop.

The video’s racism reflects an odd side effect of the model minority myth: the idea that if you support one non-white ethnic or racial community, you support them all. Figures who criticize Black, Indigenous, Latinx, or Middle-Eastern Americans often point to successful Asian Americans as proof that people of color can succeed in the United States, and that those who don’t are responsible for their own misfortunes. Thus, Asian becomes an acceptable alternative to white, acting as a stand-in for “acceptable” modes of otherness. Support for them is offered as proof that the one producing these video and memes is not racist; indeed, Gionet’s video ends with him giving money to and sharing a hug with a Black woman in a cringe-worthy act of charity.

The symbiotic relationship between Yang and the alt-right speaks to the dangers of the model minority myth. These concepts of undifferentiated “brownness” gloss over the specific struggles not just of different ethnic and racial groups, but of individual communities of Asian immigrants. Gionet’s non-racist racism reduces the idea of “Asian” to a few ostensibly positive prejudices (attractive yet child-like women, economic affluence), and counters a few others (emasculated men) with stereotypes borrowed from other marginalized communities (over-masculine Black men). All of this obscures the more insidious underlying assumptions about what it means to exist in the United States without white skin.

Naomi Graber

[1] Christine Harold, “Pranking Rhetoric: ‘Culture Jamming’ as Media Activism,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21, no. 3 (2004): 189–211. 

[2] I discuss this phenomenon in “Do You Hear the People Sing? Theatre and Theatricality in the Trump Campaign,” American Music 35, no. 4 (2017): 435–45.

[3] Soon after Yang dropped out, Gionet returned to supporting Trump.

[4] I have elected not to link to the videos here in order to prevent more traffic directed their way. However, they are archived in the Trax Database.

[5] “MAGA Anthem” does have a hint of the trap beat deep in the texture, but it is not as prominent.

[6] On the racial heterogeneity of autotune, see Jonathan Bogart, “Keep tickin’ and tockin’ work it all around the clock,” in Best Music Writing 2011, ed. Alex Ross and Daphne Carr, 6–19 (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2011), 8–9.

[7] On Obama and hip hop, see Michael P. Jeffries, Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 202–5.

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