We are ringing in the Lunar New Year (February 1) with the Year of the Tiger. As more than two billion people worldwide celebrate the holiday—also known as Chinese New Year and Spring Festival—we are sharing our own Asian hip hop-centric primer in the form of a good ol’ playlist of songs to channel the traits that define the Tiger Year.
According to Chinese Zodiac experts, superstition dictates that people “take on” the traits of the year’s animal they are born in. The Year of the Tiger, in particular, took place previously in 1902, 1914, 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, and 2010. Laura Lau, co-author of The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes, describes those born in the Tiger Year tend to be “powerful, rebellious, dynamic, adventurous, fiery, impulsive, and unpredictable.” Moreover, they are described as having “strong ethics” and “passionate about causes.”
Here are select songs to channel your inner Tiger:
Tiger JK, Paloalto, 우원재, MAN1AC, Los, YDG, Bizzy – “Love Peace Movement”
Kicking off the list with no other than Korean-American hip hop legend Tiger JK, who returned with his powerful “Love Peace” track last year, which landed on HipHopDX Asia’s Best Songs of 2021 list.
In a series of tweets following the song’s release in August, Tiger JK revealed that he wrote the song after he received a disturbing phone call from his sister in Los Angeles after she and her 3-year-old were “followed and harassed” and told to “go back to your country.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone Korea, he said that the song is about a “catharsis.” “We were working on making music that will encourage and bring healing and then felt that not all songs needed to have a warm and positive message. Some songs are needed to help you release anger when you are frustrated.” He added, “We want a lot of people to listen to this song, get fired up, release that anger, receive healing, and become united together.”
In the “Love Peace Movement” redux version, he enlisted fellow Korean artists and his partner, Yoonmirae, to double down on the message. Fire it up.
Jin – “Chinese New Year”
Jin’s “Chinese New Year” was essentially about the aftermath of his hit debut single, “Learn Chinese,” released in 2003. The record enjoyed gold status in China, following Jin’s signing to Ruff Ryders label a year before. He became the first Asian-American rapper to be signed to a major American record label. Co-written by and featuring Wyclef Jean, “Learn Chinese” has been criticized for its “peddling in Chinese-American stereotypes, invoking reductive imagery without pushing back on it.”
However, one can learn pieces of history from the song. In one line, Jin raps, “We should ride the train for free, we built the railroads,” which refers to the Chinese laborers brought into the U.S. in the 19th century to build the transcontinental railroad for cheap pay under dangerous working conditions.
Years after releasing the track, he reflected in an interview how he did his best to navigate visibility with representation as the only Asian-American rapper with his platform. He said, “With ‘Learn Chinese’ while I was in the studio with ‘Clef and the whole Ruff Ryders environment, I think the intentions were there. The intentions were pure, but the execution may have been where there was a miscalculation, even if you talk about visually, the video, running around and doing karate kicks and sliding on the floor and all that extra stuff… At the time, like I said in the verse, I’m in my early 20s, I’m just having a ball. I’m enjoying it. Whereas now I look back on it, I’m like, ‘Wow, that was such a great opportunity to make a statement and this is the statement that you made Jin?'”
In “Chinese New Year,” he rapped, “… I was barely 21, but that’s not an excuse / I got on my own two feet and walked in that booth / To make y’all proud, that’s what I’m trying to do here / Because for me, every day is Chinese New Year.”
DATO’ MAW – “錢和臉 MONEY & FACE”
Cina rapper DATO’MAW highlights the struggles of representation for the Malaysian-Chinese community in his 2021 single, “錢和臉 MONEY & FACE”—a track that dissects identity, social status, and sense of self-worth. He wrote in an Instagram post, “Most Malaysian Chinese doesn’t [sic] have [a] sense of belonging over here, I just hope that all of us could acknowledge the fact that Malaysia is the country that brought us up.” He went on to say, “There’s no need to compromise or try so hard to try to fit into another country’s culture.” The track follows DATO’MAW as he attempts to balance artistic integrity as a Cina rapper with the need to survive.
Balming Tiger – “Kolo Kolo”
Another music act exuding Big Tiger Energy is none other than South Korea’s self-proclaimed alternative K-pop group, Balming Tiger. Arguably one of their best releases, “Kolo Kolo” is a definitive proof of the depths and bounds of creativity. From its Jabberwocky-esque lyrics and visual likeness to Kung Fu Hustle to the James Blake-invoking soul surprise (sorry, spoiler), it’s the best kind of excellent fun.
JB – “潮共”
Hong Kong-based Filipino rapper is not one to shy away from incendiary topics, and his 2019 track, “潮共,” is an acerbic take on Hong Kong’s hyperconsumerism culture. His songs are, to its core, a thoughtful and oftentimes humorous commentary about Hong Kong society and his place in it.
VAVA – “My New Swag” ft. Ty & Nina Wang
Sichuan rapper VAVA’s smash hit, “My New Swag,” featuring Ty and Nina Wang, was part of Crazy Rich Asians’ original soundtrack. The accompanying visual for the track not only prominently featured traditional Chinese instruments— pipa (琵琶), erhu (二胡), suona (唢呐), ban lei (Chinese clave), and gongs—but also a short piece of the Peking opera Selling Water featuring vocals by opera singer Wang Qianqian.
Dizzy Dizzo 蔡詩芸 – “Wifey”
Talk about self-determination and fierce female empowerment. Taiwan’s Dizzy Dizzo aims to subvert gendered roles (and norms) and takes ownership of being a partner. It’s all about big boss energy, more like.
CL – “SPICY” ft. Omega Sapien, sokodomo, Lil Cherry
Speaking of energy—CL’s powerhouse performance of “SPICY,” with Omega Sapien, sokodomo, and Lil Cherry embody the Most Fly Asian(s) title. “Powerful, rebellious, dynamic, adventurous, fiery, impulsive, and unpredictable”—that they are.
Photo collage: Artists Instagram/YouTube accounts