Rap, R&B and Writing: Adrian Khactu Finds Inspiration in Music

In 1997, Adrian Khactu, Instructor in English, had a brush with fame as the designer of album art and posters for Kai, a Bay Area rap group whose cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” became a local radio hit.

Raised in California by parents who emigrated from Vietnam, Khactu found an unlikely passion for rap music. But to Khactu, his interest in rap was a natural extension of his love for the Motown music that his parents exposed him to at a young age.

“When [my parents] first came into the States… they wanted to immerse themselves in American music at the time. They didn’t like rock and roll, but they loved Motown, so when I was growing up, I heard mostly Motown music, which was great but an odd soundtrack to grow up to,” said Khactu.

Initially attracted to the soulful sound of the music, Khactu later became fascinated with its political themes.

“In grad school… I became more interested in [Motown singer] Marvin Gaye’s attitude’s towards the Vietnam War and Vietnam in general. His whole album ‘What’s Going On’ was a major touchstone for me,” said Khactu. “‘What’s Going On’… breaks him out of this [clean-cut] mold. It’s his first protest album and [the first] protest song that Motown made.”

As Khactu grew older, he became interested in rap music, which often shared the spirit of political activism that drew him to Motown.

“Growing up in California, rap was more than just another genre of music,” said Khactu. “There was definitely a political basis to rap and hip-hop. Not only was I was taken with the power in these [song] lyrics, but [I also] was taken by how multi-racial and inviting the R&B scene was at that time period.”

Khactu became involved in hip-hop in a variety of ways, including performing and creating cover art.

“I was in a lot of bands all throughout college, everything from R&B to soul [and] pop. This was [the] tail end of the grunge area. We were a part of this Bay Area hip-hop and rap, multiethnic and multiracial [music scene],” said Khactu.

Khactu’s passion for music has directly influenced his main artistic focus: creative writing.

“The power of music spoke to me. Music has really influenced my own reading and writing. I’m more drawn to novels that have more of a lyrical, musical taste to them… I dabble in a lot of different arts, and I think that’s fine. I think that it’s great to gain proficiency in one art, but I also think that it’s very easy for students nowadays to come into a place like [Andover] and automatically get characterized like, ‘Oh, you’re a jock, you’re a math person, you’re an artsy person,’” said Khactu.

Khactu is currently working on a novel inspired by both Marvin Gaye and his parents’ immigration story. He was first inspired to write the book while teaching in Dalat, Vietnam, where many of his students were familiar with an eclectic range of American popular music.

“One of my students was talking about Motown and I had on my iPod the Marvin Gaye ‘What’s Going On’ album, so I streamed it for my class. I like to use songs to explain how language works in different ways. When you listen to an old soul album like ‘What’s Going On,’ you have a different set of images associated with it, but all of a sudden, I had images of Dalat, a hillside, a French station in the middle of the Vietnam and I thought it was a very interesting juxtaposition,” Khactu said.

Along with music, other forms of popular culture had a significant impact on Khactu’s writing as well. He loves everything from reality shows on Bravo Network to “fancy high-row Oscar rated movies.” His academic research is based on how film and visual technology has affected how people think of race and sexuality.

“My argument in my research is that as visual technology improved through the late 1800s and the early 1900s, it made people think about race in a different way – from a very biological phenomenon, like the one-drop rule, miscegenation, essays that are about tainted blood and these really racist writings from the 19th century. All of a sudden in the 20th century, the concerns are about visibility and passing and whether someone looks authentically like one race or another. I think that the rise of visual technology and the rise of film helped codify that for writers,” said Khactu.

Khactu’s long-lasting love for protest music parallels his interest in written works by members of minority groups.

“My academic work is drawn to writers from the margin, writers who aren’t normally represented, who are protesting against the mainstream to be included whether they be of color or international writers from different backgrounds or women writers throughout history… Sometimes I think that those insistent voices are the greatest strength we have in American literature,” said Khactu.