No matter who we are or which small corner of the universe we live in or come from, we cannot seem to escape stereotypes. The very word “stereotype” is one which every Asian American man, woman, and child eventually hears and learns about as they encounter society and everyday life. It might mean being good at math, growing up to be an engineer, having strict parents, being stingy, or being a horrible driver — in short, your average, geeky, kung fu fighting “straight A student”. But stereotypes are not solely about race. Any one of us can be stereotyped for our gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or even the life that we were born into. We may not be able to destroy stereotypes completely, but we can sure break out of stereotypes. Female rapper HeeSun Lee is one of those individuals defying stereotypes and breaking boundaries.
We may not be able to destroy stereotypes completely, but we can sure break out of stereotypes.
HeeSun Lee is living proof that stereotypes do not have to define us. As a female rapper making her way in the hip hop industry, there are plenty of stereotypes that could shape and constrain the image she shows to the world. Society tells us that a female rapper must be “sexy” by dressing a certain way, looking a certain way, and rapping a certain way. The hip hop scene was birthed from African American culture and has, for the most part, been dominated with sex, drugs, and violence — this stands in sharp contrast to the positive messages that Lee shares through her rap songs. Moreover, as a woman who is also Asian American and Christian, there are additional beliefs that society holds about what kind of individual she ought to be.
As a baby, Lee was placed into South Korea’s foster care system and later adopted by a Chinese American couple from Staten Island, New York, where she grew up. She broke the stereotypical expectation for individuals who have been through the foster system by choosing to bring God glory through her rap music, rather than being on the streets abusing her body and wasting her God-given potential.
On stage, Lee delivers raps at a rapid-fire pace, one lyric after another, expressing thoughts that are not only positive, but also bold and filled with truth. “It was a good way to express myself. It was an outlet,” said Lee of her venture into rap music. She had grown up writing poetry in high school, which eventually led her to rapping. When she began writing rap lyrics, Lee went to her friends for feedback and, when they gave a positive response, she continued to work on honing her newfound talent. Rather than simply creating rap songs so she would be known or praised, writing rap gave Lee a place to share her personal thoughts and experiences.
Writing rap gave Lee a place to share her personal thoughts and experiences.
After completing college, Lee had second thoughts about her pursuit of a career in rap music, but God continued to open doors for her to rap. These opportunities taught her to be obedient to God’s instructions and His calling for her life. But more than that, it made her stronger. “It taught me to have confidence in myself, not just as a rapper,” Lee says.
She confessed that she does not want to be labeled primarily as a Christian rapper and is not “preachy” because that comes with its limits as well. Labels come with limitations on who Lee is able to reach with her music. Instead, she just wants to be known as a rapper, so that anything she raps — whether songs about God or her experiences — will be heard by all people, and not only by Christians.
Fueled by the desire to see female rappers portrayed in a different light than what is currently shown by the media, Lee released her sophomore album, unapologetically titled, “Stereotypes”. She calls her listeners to have the boldness and courage to end the judgments, prejudice, and hatred, which have festered in society for far too long. The rap song “I Break Stereotypes” featuring MC Jin is among the tracks. In the lyrics of this track, Lee proclaims, “I’m a mother, I’m a daughter, I’m a rapper, and I’m a Christian!” and reveals that she wants to change the game for female rappers, helping them to feel empowered and respected, rather than falling into the trap of socially predefined roles.
She wants to change the game for female rappers, helping them to feel empowered and respected, rather than falling into the trap of socially predefined roles.
It’s easy to see that Lee wants to get rid of stereotypes, but she also recognizes that stereotyping is a universal issue that won’t be gone for good anytime soon. She states that it is not about getting rid of all these stereotypes, but rather about breaking them and not allowing them to limit an individual’s talents, dreams, and goals. The fact is that stereotypes exist and will always continue to exist. That is just the way the world is — but that fact doesn’t have to stop us from doing whatever we dream of doing or becoming.
We must also accept that we ourselves have been feeding and perpetuating these stereotypes over time. We are part of the destructive cycle. Lee wants to tackle these stereotypes by showing others that if it is possible for her to break out of stereotypes of female rappers and women in general, then it must also be possible for others to do the same, regardless of what society constantly tells them. Rather than allowing social constraints to tear people down with oversimplified and overgeneralized opinions and ideas, people need to fight against these stereotypes and overcome them.
Lee says “Putting labels on anybody limits where they can go.” Nobody wants to be just a label; we all want to be someone different and unique with “that special thing about us”.
What is interesting for Lee is that, when she performs, her biggest challenge is not overcoming the stereotype of being an Asian American rapper but the stereotype of being a female rapper. The fact that she is Asian American actually garners surprise from the crowds and gives them reason to pay attention to her raps and lyrics. When faced with pressures to conform to society’s stereotypical image of a female rapper, Lee said, “I would never compromise my message and who I am.”
I would never compromise my message and who I am.
Lee overcomes the challenges she faces in the hip hop industry by knowing her identity and staying true to the person that God has called her to be. Through her music, she demonstrates that even the underdog who others least expect to “make it happen” can triumph against the odds. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but Lee believes that all the hardships will pay off. As she looks back on her career, she is grateful for all that she has been through. Her advice: “Show them what you’re about and let your talent speak for itself and they’ll respect you for that.”
For Lee, the journey to break through stereotypes is far from over and continues to challenge her on a daily basis. As a wife and mother, Lee is still figuring out what it means to balance these identities with her identity as a female rapper. Fortunately, she has a husband who supports her career and a daughter who enjoys her music. She believes that “if God wants you to do it, He’ll make it work out.”
Ultimately, Lee wants others to see her on stage rapping and be inspired by her performance. She wants others to see that if she can break out of the stereotypes set up against her, so can anyone else. She knows that this is not easy for anyone, but believes that if God leads them, it’s a journey well worth the trouble.