In a N.Y.C. diner one week after her 25th birthday and only one year after shooting her first music video, rapper Nora Lum, aka Awkwafina, is interrupted mid-sentence by a seemingly inebriated woman freestyling about “Asians doing our thing.” She’s a fan. This sort of thing is happening more and more these days.
The Forest Hills, Queens-based rapper and producer first caught the Internet’s attention last fall with her video for “My Vag,” a song about “having a vagina and being cocky about it” that’s a hilarious send-up of Mickey Avalon’s infamous track “My Dick.” The song’s lyrics, particularly the line, “A vagina is 50 times better than a penis,” have caused many to label the song feminist, but Awkwafina hesitates when asked about that descriptor. “When you define feminism in the most politically dense way, and then dissect the song word-for-word, the crassness of the content will offend some people,” she explains. “That being said, there is something strangely empowering about just overusing the word ‘vagina’ in a rap song.”
While the risqué track garnered the disapproval of a few members of her conservative Chinese and Korean family, Awkwafina’s got the support of the person who matters the most to her. When her mother passed away when she was just four years old, Awkwafina’s
paternal grandmother stepped in to help raise her, and the two are extremely close. “She’s, like, my best friend,” she says. “She’s supported everything, every crazy idea I ever wanted to do. She’s my number one fan. My grandma loves my music.”
“She’s supported everything, every crazy idea I ever wanted to do. She’s my number one fan. My grandma loves my music.”
Although the video wasn’t filmed and released until last year, Awkwafina actually wrote “My Vag” when she was 19, not long after she started creating beats on her laptop. (She still produces all her own material.) “Music was the only thing I always knew, from an early age, I was good at,” says the LaGuardia High grad who auditioned for the prestigious arts school by playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the trumpet.
She’s caught on quickly for an artist who’s been pursuing music full-time for less than a year, a fact Awkwafina admits may be attributed at least in part to the novelty of being an Asian American woman in an art form dominated by African American men. But whatever the reason, she’s got something corporations want, so she’s now cautiously considering a myriad of offers from networks and brands. “I don’t want to be a joke. I don’t want to sell out. It’s too early for that,” she says. “I don’t care how much I’m going to get paid. What am I going to do after that? I’ll be Carrot Top.”
While her songs incorporate comedy, Awkwafina doesn’t want to get pigeon-holed and hopes listeners can distinguish between a rapper who infuses comedy in her songs and a comedic rapper. Just as “My Vag” could be accused of being feminist, her follow-up single, “NYC Bitche$,” in which she raps, “New York City, bitch/That’s where I come from/Not where I moved to on mom and dad’s trust fund,” could also be perceived as a humorous take on the larger social issue of gentrification. Does this mean that the woman who made us fall in love with lyrics like, “My vag, bounce like J Lo’s booty/yo vag, like James Lipton’s booty,” will eventually get heavy on us? Not if Grandma has something to say about it. “Whenever I tell my grandmother I’m working on music, she’s like, ‘It better be funny,’” says Awkwafina. “‘Don’t make love song. If you make a love song no one’s gonna like it. It has to be funny.’ I’m like, ‘OK, Grandma.’”
By Sabrina Ford
This review appears in the Aug/Sept 2013 issue of BUST Magazine with Janelle Monáe. Subscribe now.