The song “Meet the Flockers” by California-based rapper YG opens with these lines:
“First, you find a house and scope it out. Find a Chinese neighborhood, cause they don’t believe in bank accounts.”
Over the following two minutes, YG gives a step-by-step description of a residential robbery: how to scout out the scene, how to break in, and how to discern which items are worth stealing.
“Meet the motherf—ing flockers,” YG calls out during the chorus. “Make some noise if you’ve ever stole something in your life.”
(“Flocking,” for the uninitiated, is slang for burglarizing a home.)
An unofficial music video for the song — produced without YG’s involvement — shows two men breaking into a house, bandannas covering their faces and one of them carrying a gun. As they walk inside, the camera pans to a framed picture of an Asian family.
“Meet the Flockers” drew little attention when it was released in 2014 on YG’s debut album “My Krazy Life.” Critical reviews — generally positive overall — mentioned the song only in passing, focusing instead on the album’s four singles, one of which received platinum certification.
Now, more than two years after its release, a nationwide campaign has emerged to have “Meet the Flockers” banned and YG and his producers investigated by federal authorities.
In the past month, a coalition of advocacy groups and activists have taken aim at the song, arguing it perpetuates anti-Asian stereotypes and serves as little more than an instruction manual for robbing Asian American households.
“We have the First Amendment, but you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a theater,” Cliff Li, one of the main organizers behind the effort, told The Washington Post. “This is teaching people how to hurt other people. This is worse than yelling ‘fire’ in a theater.”
Earlier this month, the coalition successfully petitioned YouTube to remove the song’s music video, calling it “crime-instigating” and saying the lyrics go “far beyond the threshold of speech protected by the First Amendment.” Recently, a petition to the White House to “ban the song from public media and investigate legal responsibilities of the writer” garnered more than 100,000 signatures, meaning the Obama administration will review it and issue an official response, usually within 60 days. The chairman of the Chinese American Bar Association has drafted a similar missive, asking the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to take action “to prevent Chinese Americans from victimization” by the song and its video. Meanwhile, demonstrators have picketed YG concerts around the country since mid-September, carrying signs that read, “Stop cultural violence” and “Respect everybody, respect yourself.”
Why all the sudden backlash?
Some reports indicate that it began last month when surveillance video of a Chinese American woman in Atlanta fending off intruders with a handgun went viral. In the Sept. 16 incident, three people armed with guns broke into the woman’s house late at night; she too had a gun, and she opened fire on them, killing one. Shortly after, “Meet the Flockers” surfaced on the popular Chinese social media apps WeChat and Weibo, sparking wider outrage.
YG hasn’t publicly responded. His booking agents and managers didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday. When confronted by protesters at a recent show in the D.C. area, he simply said, “Protest that,” as reported by The Post.
Given the country’s robust protections on free speech, it’s hard to imagine that any campaign to ban “Meet the Flockers” will get very far. To be sure, plenty of songs have been targeted over far less, but much more explicitly violent works routinely survive censorship attempts.
YG’s defenders contend that “Meet the Flockers” is really an autobiographical account of the 26-year-old’s days as a gang member, not a call for violence against Chinese Americans. As a younger man, YG, whose given name is Keenon Daequan Ray Jackson, robbed houses and even spent several months in jail for residential burglary. He talked about how those experiences informed “Meet the Flockers” in a 2014 interview with FM.
“I just wanted to share the experience [of breaking into houses] with the people, because that’s a part of the culture” YG said. “Especially where I’m from, in L.A., the West Coast, that’s a big part of the culture of a teenager or someone in their mid-20s, that’s what they doin’, they breaking into houses. That’s what I did.”
In an essay for GQ, journalist Esther Wang said YG’s detractors failed to pick up on that point.
“Hip hop is perhaps the only art form whose fictions are confused for truth, and not only charged with inciting violence, but criminalized,” Wang wrote. “Few would accuse Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita of being the prime driver of pedophilia (though it too has been the subject of misguided calls to ban it from distribution). It requires a considerable stretch of the imagination, as well as a certain amount of naivete, to believe that a song released in 2014 is what’s driving crimes against Chinese American immigrants in 2016.”
Still, Wang said, concern over the song is rooted in issues that are all too real for many Asian Americans. The woman whose home was invaded in Georgia said people singled out Asian women in particular for robberies based on the belief that they keep money stashed in their houses. Sacramento has seen an uptick in robberies in Asian communities this year, prompting armed patrols in some neighborhoods. Chinese American communities in Philadelphia have reported a similar surge in attacks.
“The concerns are real, but the response doesn’t only miss the forest for the trees, it overshoots it altogether and lands somewhere in the realm of farce,” Wang wrote. “Calls for censorship, after all, rarely address the issue their proponents seek to fix.”
For Cliff Li, the organizer, the fight against “Meet the Flockers” is part of a broader movement (not his term) among Asian Americans to speak out against stereotypes in popular media and assert themselves when they feel targeted.
Li, an IT worker by day who serves on the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, said Asian Americans have been galvanized in recent years by high-profile protests that have brought people out in record numbers. Among them were the demonstrations in cities around the country earlier this year against the manslaughter conviction of Peter Liang, the New York City police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man in 2014. Many Asian Americans argued that Liang was being scapegoated to compensate for fatal shootings by white police officers.
Li, who was involved in those demonstrations and others, said the idea to protest “Meet the Flockers” came in September at a summit he helped organize in Virginia, during which he said about 30 Asian American activists discussed how to build on the Liang protests. He said one of the attendees showed him the video for the song, which had been making the rounds on WeChat.
Li said he saw it as something Asian Americans could rally around. To spread awareness, he and others started a group called the New Civil Rights Alliance, which has been organizing protests at YG’s shows.
Li said the group will continue to picket concerts until the rapper’s current tour is over. The goal, he said, is to hold people “culturally responsible” for violent content — a move he said includes demands for a YouTube ratings system.
As for YG himself, Li said he hopes he changes his tone and thinks about the “bigger consequences.”
“I don’t think it was YG’s purpose to incite violence and I don’t think he hates Chinese people,” Li told The Post. “But when you view Asian Americans as poor, weak, pathetic people that you can kick around for fun, that is not fair. Our community has this stereotype and we have to fight it or we’re going to continue to suffer that stereotype.”