Video transcript
@The Arts Unit Art Bites – Stop adjudicating yourself – secondary public speaking – 01. With Justin Lai

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[music playing]

TONY DAVEY: Hey there, Justin. How are things going?

JUSTIN LAI: Hey, Tony. Since you last checked, things have mostly stayed the same.

TONY DAVEY: Excellent. I imagine that's true. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Thanks for coming back to do a final thing for Public Speaking Week, which is to watch your old champion speech and then let us know how it went. But first of all, remind us. Who are you? And what did you do in public speaking?

JUSTIN LAI: All right. So my name is Justin. I did PESA when I was in Year 12 in 2018. I managed to win the state final. Then I went to the national final.

And then, in 2019, I managed to represent Australia at the International Public Speaking Competition where I was the eventual runner up. Great experience. Good times. And, now I just help out with The Arts Unit, which is good.

TONY DAVEY: Exactly right. Plain English Speaking Award is back open, and entries are coming in. And, Justin will very likely be one of your adjudicators as well. Even though you probably won't see him in person. He'll just be watching recordings of you.

But, what he's going to do is watch that 2018 Championship speech and give us a little bit of feedback during it, but also, afterwards, pretend he's the adjudicator and give himself, his old self, some tips about how he could keep getting better. And, hopefully we can all learn from that as well. Sound OK?


TONY DAVEY: All right. In that case, let's start watching. Here we go.

JUSTIN LAI: I think there are some things in life that are genuinely confusing. For example, it might be going to an art museum and looking at an installation made from toilet pipes and bricks. It might be seeing Elon Musk and his rumoured musician girlfriend, Grimes, at the Met Gala this year. I mean, seriously. I don't think anyone saw that coming.

It might be seeing an Asian guy with facial tattoos, jewellery, and loose-fitting streetwear rapping about his favourite convenience store. Well, maybe not the last one.

You see, while it might sound awfully strange and unfamiliar, it's actually been part of an emerging movement which has been steadily gaining momentum over the past few years.

Enter the wave of Asian hip hop. Now, Asian hip hop has typically struggled to break into the Western mainstream. I mean, the closest anyone came previously was MC Jin and his song, 'Learn Chinese' in 2004, a rather, shall I say, one-dimensional view of Asian-American identity in a genre that, well, at the time, was still growing.

Back then, Asian culture was something to be sacrificed and exploited for fame. For lack of a better word, it was expendable, a token with which you exchanged to gain greater access into the social mainstream. However, the dimensionality of certain concepts of Asianness has expanded since then, becoming more complex and true to life.

With the increasing globalisation of the world, one of the most traditional and conservative cultures is opening its borders to a consumable mass media. And, these influences have been very apparent. Sonically, Asian hip hop was influenced from Trap and notably, American sounds, but often incorporates the traditional sounds of oriental music, things such as the harmonising of voices in Chinese opera with plucking of the mandolin.

Culture is something that's now no longer a trade-off, but an inexorable part of this musical identity. And, I think I'm being honest when I say that I love this music because it's bold. Whether it's flexing fashion brands or simply conversing about the everyday, it's a music that is challenging, conspicuous, and most of all, creative.

It's a music that breaks the lines that we've drawn in the sand. It's a music that's most importantly, by its very nature, confronting our entrenched perceptions of Asian people. The very fact that people would find the idea of an Asian rapper so confusing, I think, speaks to that.

Because where rap has typically been a vehicle to voice dissent towards institutions, rappers such as Chinese group Higher Brothers discuss 7-Eleven convenience stores and their conversations on social platform WeChat. On the other end of the spectrum, Indonesian rapper, Rich Brian mimics the lyrics of gangsta rap in his song 'That Stick' because he wants to quote/unquote, 'sound scary.' Close to home, this looks like artists such as Joel Ma and James Mangohig and their show 'In Between Two', dealing with the richly textured lives of Asian immigrants in an attempt to break down stereotypes and to reconcile history.

All these artists paint a picture of what it means to be Asian in a dynamic and globalised world, representation that is sorely lacking in a culture and a lifestyle often deprived of diverse perspectives. But, I think there are many issues with being Asian in hip hop. Indeed, there are many issues with being Asian. Full stop.

And, that's because hip hop is seen as the music of the underdog, the voice of the marginalised. And, as a result of this, we've distilled our perception of these artists into 2 main categories - black and male. To speak out on certain issues, and to glorify a certain lifestyle, there has to be an aggression, an anger, a hyper masculinity that we often perceive exists within African-Americans and everything people perceive Asians to not be.

Writing for NBC News in February 2018, Christina Lee observed that no matter how close these rappers come to mainstream success, they must confront the idea that they don't belong in hip hop. This is a concept that speaks volumes about the issues of cultural representation and of stereotype facing Asian people today. Because the world still views us as the silent majority, passive, unassuming, and often effeminate.

Take a look at previous Asian hits in Western music. You've got the dandy like Psy galloping along to 'Gangnam Style' and more recently, the emergence of Korean music groups such as BTS and Red Velvet, the complete antithesis of what hip hop is believed to be. And, it's often believed that these Asian rappers are simply trying too hard to fit in, that their extravagant lifestyles, larger-than-life bravura, and all-round demeanour are just an attempt to mimic the maximalist successes of more visible Western hip hop styles. That they've been forgoing racial and cultural authenticity in exchange for a quick dose of fame.

There's a hypocrisy that emerges here. Asian hip hop that is deemed too Asian is quickly rejected by Western audiences. But, when it parrots black culture and traditional rap influences, then cries of cultural appropriation come to the fore. I think it's kind of concerning that the problems Asians face have a degree of universality to them, because society is happy to box us into certain identities that westerners are comfortable with.

I mean, that's certainly not the first time that that's been the case. Just think about your stereotypical Asian career paths - your doctors, your lawyers, your scientists. Think about how less than 5% of leadership positions in government, universities, and top companies are held by people of a non-European background. Think about how Pauline Hanson warned about how 'the honest suburbs of Australia were being swamped by Asians.'

It's a familiar tightrope to walk, ladies and gentlemen, the thin yellow line between standing out too much and not standing out at all. And, I think that's the problem with a music world all too unreceptive of contemporary Asian hip hop. We often forget the universality of the genre and its ability to provide a voice where there often is none.

For African-Americans, it was an opportunity to speak out against trenchant social injustices. And, for Asians, I think it's become the fight against the stereotype, against the hegemonic perceptions that deem us quiet and weak. Because when was the last time you saw an Asian guy with coloured hair and tattoos? I mean, when was the last time you saw an Asian artist of any sort on 'Sunrise' or 'Today' instead of your typical doctors and mathematicians?

The dialogue needs to extend beyond simple representation, because we need to rethink the way we perceive Asians, not only in music, but in society as a whole. This sort of music isn't some cheap and tokenistic method to turn to the spotlight, but instead a way to involve ourselves within the global race dynamic, within cultural relativism, and within mainstream media representation.

At a time where the line between race and culture are beginning to blur and to break down, why should we segregate and enforce stereotype? Popular constructions of Asianness and blackness only continue to hold us back from negotiating a truly multicultural society. And, hip hop has become the bridge between cultures that has transcended continents, the flag under which 2 vastly different societies can exist under.

It's led to a fascinating convergence, a melting pot of different ideas and sounds, all mixing to create a truly multicultural music. So, maybe the next time you see something that you would consider genuinely confusing, for example, the new single by an Asian hip hop artist that you not necessarily have heard of before, I think you should give it a listen. Understand that it's born from a respect and a reverence of the genre, but, I think, most importantly, a desire to break the mould. And, who knows? Maybe you'll discover something that you haven't before, and something that you like. Because in a world that reckons all Asian people still look the same, maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.




TONY DAVEY: Still a spectacular speech to listen to. Fun times. Plenty to cringe at, obviously, if it's you giving the speech.

JUSTIN LAI: Obviously.

TONY DAVEY: So, if you were the adjudicator and you could go back and give a little bit of feedback to your much younger self - well, not much younger self - what kind of stuff would you tell you?

JUSTIN LAI: Well, considering it's me critiquing myself, I'm going to be much harsher than someone, you know, like, in the video itself you have adjudicators talking about it. They have enough praise to say. And, I'm not going to deal with any of that.

I, instead, will be talking about things my younger self definitely should have avoided, and stuff that people at home, or people endeavouring to write any kind of speech, can work on. I think the first one is having a better introduction and also having a better conclusion.

So, what happens in a lot of speeches that people like a cyclical kind of structure. That is to say, they introduce a concept at the beginning as a framework, and then end it, and like, close the knot really nicely. But, you need to make it, like, connect well with the idea of your speech.

So, this idea, that I think I was leaning into, was this sort of humorous introduction about things that I found really weird. But, then that's such a huge jump into the idea of, oh, but like, Asian people rapping is weird. And, that was a really tenuous kind of link.

So, in terms of introductions, I think that you really need to get more into the kind of core concepts of the speech at heart. And, then if you can, have a personal introduction, but one that delves more into the ideas of what you're trying to talk about, rather than one that is making some sort of superficial link and is used just for sort of laughs.

And, your conclusion, I think that your conclusion is important to some degree. But, I think that if your introduction sucked, your conclusion is also likely to suck. So, you just need to make sure that your intro is really good. And, you can sort of pick up bits of your introduction and put them in your conclusion, because you'll have elaborated on the ideas so much more throughout the body of the speech, that you just take bits of it and cannibalise a little introduction at the end and in the conclusion at the end.

I think importantly, you want to lean into the introduction with the kind of - the right attitude. So, I always do my introductions as humorous. I think my impromptu was also like, I try to be funny. I thought that, you know, being funny was a great way to sort of disarm the audience, make myself a bit more relatable, rather than someone who was, like, sort of just being, like, sermonising to everyone and be like, oh, this is bad.

I tried to be personal because a lot of my topics were very personal. But, I think that any kind of attitude is a good attitude for a speech. So, if you're trying to be sincere, you're trying to be honest, you want to tell a great personal story.

I think Sophie in this competition had a really sort of really sort of sincere speech about her grandparents. So, that kind of introduction is one that you can also lean into. There's no right way to do it. I think that what you want to do is identify what is best for your speech, and just run with it and be confident with it, but also know where you need to sort of stop and maybe change things up.

So, yeah, introductions are a must. They make or break your speech. And, lucky it didn't break mine. But yeah. I will just say that for sure.

The second one is don't use, like, huge buzz words all the time. So, I noticed this a lot with me. And, when I was doing my research and I was doing all this stuff into, like, what does representation mean? What is, like, pop culture? What is sort of identity politics? I was doing all this stuff, and I was looking into sort of these terms, like, oh, cultural relativism. You know, things like representation.

And, I think explaining those terms is a really important part of negotiating a speech and negotiating a topic that is quite unfamiliar to most people. And, I got credit for doing a speech that was, like, unfamiliar and people didn't understand. But, sometimes you just hear these words, and you say to yourself, I kind of didn't know what that meant, but I'm just going to roll with it.

You never want to do that. You want the audience to be crystal clear on literally everything you're saying. And, you want them to understand what you're saying, so that they can understand the greater questions of your speech, like, why is this happening? Why are Asian people pigeonholed into these kind of categories?

And, you can't do that if you're just saying, oh, buzzword, buzzword, buzzword, buzzword in a way that is like, OK, I'm smart, but I'm not necessarily being smart to the point where my audience gets that I'm talking about something that they should care about. You're just sort of this inaccessible wall between you and the audience smart. And, that's never a good thing. Public speaking is all about trying to connect with your audience and explain things to them in a way that they haven't necessarily been explained before.

So, really investigate words, their effects, break them down if you can. Just provide definitions and examples of them. But, if you're going to use a word, try not to use too many in the speech. Try to use several key ones. So, representation is a really great one. And, just use it several times in a speech without ever confusing the audience about what it necessarily means.

The last one I would say is better and more specific examples. The way that I think examples were used in this speech, for example, I talked a lot about, like, you know, people rap about stuff that is, like, irreverent and, like, everyday. And, that's great. It's like Seinfeld. It's crazy. It's cool.

But, I think that much more to the sort of contentious areas of the speech, for example, cultural appropriation, things like, you know, does this sort of silence black culture? I think there were much better examples in sort of play that you could have been using.

I did have a lot of those examples. There was a really prominent example about this guy who, like, co-opted the n-word as part of his name. And, that was something that created a lot of controversy. And, he eventually changed the name out of respect.

But, I think that kind of semi sort of scandal, semi-contentious issue would have been great to use because it grounds the idea that this is not just something that is fun and funky, but something that has actually run into a lot of sort of difficulty and controversy. And, that's the reason why you need to have that conversation.

So, I think that in terms of finding examples about stuff that is problematic in the speech, or things that you want to look at as issues, that is really important to do, because otherwise, people just sort of see you talking about conceptual issues. And, they're like, that has no relevance to the real world whatsoever. It's just a framework. It's a theory that has no real effect on people. That means what you're talking about is basically just you being smart to yourself in a room, rather than you saying, 'OK, look at the news. That's happening. This is happening. This is happening.'

What I can tell this is not just a framework, a theory. This is something that happens and affects people.

And, then I would say, just do better research. Like, I had several examples that were just not fact-checked. I think that, you know, mentioning a group like Red Velvet, they haven't been relevant in about 40, 50 years. I'm exaggerating there. But I think the point here is to say that you need to make sure that you're talking about groups and things and examples that are true. because nothing is worse than getting told that you actually just messed up a fact after you've sort of authoritatively delivered a fact.

So, it is a bit funny. But, I think it's just really important to use the right information, just correctly. Otherwise, you might risk getting called out on it. And, being called out on it is just not fun.

But, in terms of that, yeah. I would say those are the 3 big pieces of, like, feedback I would give myself. Because overall, I've got a sentimental attachment to the speech. I really like it.

But, those are the things that just kept me up at night. Every time I would watch that speech I would just think those 3 things over and over again in my head. Don't say this. Don't say this. Don't say this.

And, I do have the national copy. But again, that was just recorded shakily on phone. And, it has a lot of better stuff, but it's like unusable. And, no one should ever see it because that deserves to remain in the past.

But, yeah. That's the feedback I would give myself, basically.

TONY DAVEY: I'm impressed. That was harsh, but useful and smart and yeah, I'm pretty sure everyone can learn from that stuff. Especially the intro stuff.

And when I talked about intros and conclusions a little bit earlier in the week, we were like, it needs to be enjoyable and approachable and like a joke or a, you know, an anecdote. But, probably forgot to mention how important it is that it actually teases the issue itself and links into it really well, and doesn't feel tacked on. Yeah.

You mentioned that you changed the topic of the speech.

JUSTIN LAI: Oh, yeah.

TONY DAVEY: So, what was it by the end?

JUSTIN LAI: Oh, it was much better. I loved it. It was called 'Rapresentation.' I thought it was, like, the funniest thing. It made way more sense than this idea of the thin yellow line, which I thought, 'Oh, yes. I've seen that in a movie somewhere. I'll just co-opt it.'

I came up with that ...


JUSTIN LAI: I came up with the first title, I think, when I was sitting down at the sort of local round, because I hadn't thought of a speech topic yet. So, I said, oh, whatever. And, I just sort of ran with it.

The thing is with - what always is funny about, like, sort of the way that PESA works is that I just never got called up on any of those things until the state final, which is lucky, because I mean, I probably should have been called out at the local final. But, it was just like -

TONY DAVEY: Well, I mean oftentimes at the earlier levels they're calling out more fundamental stuff than, like ...

JUSTIN LAI: Yeah. Yeah.

TONY DAVEY: ... the topic that you chose.

JUSTIN LAI: But it is - that is true. But, I kind of - you just need to get that hit a little bit kind of early on, so you get the sense to change it out of you. But again, that's just my own sort of personal bias against myself speaking.

TONY DAVEY: Well, yeah. But also, it's like ... It seems like a silly thing. And, I'm often, like, who cares what the topic of the speech is, right? You're listening to the speech itself.


TONY DAVEY: If you call it 'Rapresentation,' it does kind of make it clearer where you're going from the beginning. You can get away with a slightly less attached intro.

JUSTIN LAI: Exactly. Yeah.

TONY DAVEY: Like, it probably helps the intro if it's called 'Rapresentation.' Anyway. I'm impressed. And, that was excellent, excellent feedback.

All right. So hopefully we'll see you out there adjudicating and doing fun stuff soon. Thank you so much for sharing all of that. That was brilliant, Justin.

JUSTIN LAI: No worries.

TONY DAVEY: Stay safe out there.

JUSTIN LAI: You stay safe too, Tony.

TONY DAVEY: Cool. See you, man.

JUSTIN LAI: See you.

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