Can you name an Asian rapper? While hip-hop is rooted in African American culture, it has spread globally. Director and producer Salima Koroma paired up with fellow producer Jaeki Cho to explore the world of underground hip-hop, profiling four Asian American rappers, including BUST favorite Awkwafina. Bad Rap, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows the journey of rap battle legend Dumbfooundead, outrageous Rekstizzy, Lyricks, a rapper with Christian values and Awkwafina, who blew up after her hit, “My Vag” went viral.
Bad Rap takes the audience on a journey through hip-hop culture. From watching live shows, rap battles, to consultations with world renown record labels, Bad Rap shows us the lack of visibility of Asian rappers within this community. Rappers Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy and Lyricks are faced with stereotypes that may be blocking them from reaching fame. Or perhaps they haven’t been marketed properly?
I had a chance to speak with director Salima Koroma and rapper Awkwafina days before Bad Rap premiered. We discussed hip-hop, appropriation and what it’s like to be kicked off a roster because your hit song is “My Vag."
Can you tell where this project began, and why you decided specifically to cover rappers Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy, Lyricks and Awkwafina?
Koroma: It started off with a conversation [producer] Jaeki [Cho] and I had. We talked a lot about about hip-hop because Jaeki and I were hip-hop fans and hip-hop writers. We kind of started talking about how hip-hop is translated or manifests within different communities, whether it be the Asian community, the black community, or the white community. I thought, It’s so fascinating how identity in hip-hop comes together, right? Who can say what? What kind of images can you have if you’re a woman vs. if you’re a man? So I thought that this would be a great story to tell. How we found four characters was very organic because the four of them are friends. The first day that I met Dumbfoundead was the first day I met Awkwafina and that was at a show at Irving Plaza in New York City. The foursome is almost perfect because they represent different obstacles, different triumphs, and different stories.
Awkwafina, in an interview in Bad Rap, you say that Asian women are either hypersexualized or completely desexualized, that there’s no in-between and that you couldn’t be marketed without your music. Could you expand on that?
Awkwafina: When it gets into the Asian rap world, people kind of assume right on the surface that you are struggling because you’re Asian and no one listens to you. The second stereotype of that layer is that you get looks because you’re Asian and a woman and stick out. I saw the Bad Rap pride, and I kind of knew the things that Dumbfoundead was saying, like, Look at women in porn, she’s doing what she’s doing because she’s Asian. I’m not Nicki Minaj, my brand is very specific and it’s not sexualized at all. It’s kind of unfair for people to say, You’re just doing well because you’re a woman. If it was just me, without good music or any music, it wouldn’t have been the same. To not acknowledge the music and the fact that I am an Asian woman is just ignorant.
In Dumbfoundead’s press interview at the rap battle, he was asked very bizarre, racially charged questions that had nothing to do with him or the rap battle. Do you relate to that experience? Are you asked questions about your ethnicity before you’re asked questions regarding your music or your creative process?
Awkwafina: I have been sheltered from the battle world because the battle world is incredibly aggressive. You have to have a thick skin to be in that world because it’s super macho. I think for me, the only time I’ve gotten upset about questions is when they’re like, What’s it like being Asian? I’ve definitely gotten subtle and insidious kind of racist questions. I’ve performed shows where I’ve gotten, How is she doing this right now? I think that the unspoken racism is a little scary too.
Salima, after Jaeki introduced you to these rappers, do you think that Asian stereotypes are something that rappers continuously have to battle, that they’ll be labeled as an Asian American rapper before they’re labeled a rapper?
Salima: I don’t know the answer to that, specifically, but I will say in my experience, any time we have something about Bad Rap on YouTube or on Facebook from a broader community, a lot of what we hear in the comments are just really racist things. Beyond racist. And I actually didn’t even know that this was a big thing until I started doing this film. Doing this film really opened my eyes to the racism that Asian Americans live with in hip-hop. We have people that won’t even look at the trailer, read the headline and say, Fuck these Asians. So this is something that I’ve observed. In terms of being an Asian rapper, maybe Awkwafina can speak more to that.
Awkwafina: I definitely see why you say that because you almost know what it’s like. From my first video, “My Vag,” that went viral, you start to realize that New York and Los Angeles are basically tiny islands on the coasts of the United States, and you realize they're not the general consensus. How are people voting for Trump? How are people so racist against immigration? And it really is the middle of the country. I think what people forget is that people are fucking racist and Asian people are completely intimidating to certain people. They focus their anger, that I didn’t realize existed because I grew up in New York City, and in New York City we don’t talk like that. In the YouTube universe, it’s about trolls and something about the Asian state that is so provocative. I get the clicks, but I also get the hate that came with the clicks.
Awkwafina, in regards to Dumbfoudead, you said, His longevity is something that I might not be able to have. That was two years ago, and a lot has changed in two years. Do you still feel this way?
Awkwafina: I’ve always been really envious of the rappers that were able to go into the studio with three written songs, and they pretty much just kind of show up, do the song, and then leave. When I start out a song, I just sit there and write a song that was designed to stay on the Internet and be funny and go viral. That was, at the time, my main focus in music. At the time, I wasn’t acting, I wasn’t in movies, and I think that my longevity will be coming from that world more than music. The ironic thing is that my heart is in the music. It’s not in TV, it’s not really in movies— that’s where I’m gonna go to get money. But in terms of music, that’s where my heart is and what I’ll always want to do. I think what Dumbfoundead has created for himself is that he has hits, and at the time, I didn’t see myself having an illustrious career like he did.
Awkwafina, comedy goes hand in hand with your music. What are your influences in music and comedy, and is music exclusively your medium for comedy?
Awkwafina: When I was growing up, I listened to a lot of underground hip-hop and my favorite rapper to this day is this guy Necro. He was able to use words that a lot of people can’t use in a flow, and underground hip-hop is where I found that people were using lyrics in a way that was so creative. I think in hip-hop, there’s a lot of anger and a lot of passion to get out, and that’s what I grew up listening to, kind of venting through hip-hop. The only thing that was missing was a relatable element. There was a Ja Rule song that I listened to in junior high school, and there was this line where he goes, I interrupt on aid, but that wasn’t what he actually said. I remember thinking, Oh my god, he has AIDS and he’s venting to his friends. That’s amazing.
When I was young, I started working in this independent video store in the West Village, so I was 16 and I was working alongside all these NYU drop-outs, and I think that kind of culture showed me a lot of different kinds of mediums. And I grew up watching Margaret Cho with my grandma and my dad. I didn’t have a lot of Asian idols, but I remember watching Comedy Central at the age of six or seven, I remember watching SNL and MadTV when I was like six and getting those jokes, where I was talking with my friends, and they would not get them at all. So I remember always having a sense of humor when I was really young and using that.
Salima: I have to interrupt — You said Necro and not a lot people know who that is.
Yeah, I don’t know who that is.
Salima: There’s this misconception that you [Awkwafina] and other Asian members don’t know your hip-hop history or don’t have any affinity for hip-hop and just want to feed off the hip-hop culture.
Awkwafina: Yeah, that’s easy to say. I actually got really mad about that recently because we have the right to hip-hop. I’ll never say that it’s our music without first admitting that it’s black music, and it’s really music that came out of being in a society where you’re looked down upon. It’s a passionate complaint music. I was at Williams College last year, and I was being asked these really intense questions about cultural appropriation, about being Asian and how Asians are model minorities and we’re not allowed to do hip-hop because we never had that experience. And the truth is, is that I grew up in a very multicultural community, so in that way, I wanted to be a part of the hip-hop community that was a part of Queens. I was on a panel and I was like, Why are me and Dumbfoundead getting roasted and CL is not? We don’t get the numbers, we don’t get the money like they do, but we get all of the roasting.
Are you saying that your music is looked upon in the hip-hop community as a form of cultural appropriation because you’re Asian and that it’s wrong for you to be in the hip-hop community at all?
Awkwafina: From some people, yeah. I get my own slack because hip-hop elitists are not going to take a song like “My Vag” seriously. There are undertones of misogyny in the industry. They aren’t going to take “Queef” seriously. They’re going to put me in that box. I’ve been kicked off rosters with hip-hop artists because I have a song called, “My Vag.” So I think that’s a second level where I think we’re always going to have to deal with the appropriation, but I think it becomes appropriation when you don’t acknowledge that it’s black music and you don’t acknowledge where it came from and that you don’t acknowledge that it is borrowing in a sense. But I think that there’s a way to do that correctly and a way to do that where the cultural appropriation argument is actually true. I don’t think that any of us are appropriating culture or that any of us are claiming it to be our music. We just want to partake in it. We want to be able to do that in a way where it’s okay. We grew up on this music.
Salima, do you think that these rappers have not reached astronomical fame yet because they’re Asian American or because of marketing issues, or other issues?
Salima: That’s a hard question because there’s a lot of answers to that. The first thing I’ll say is that I really want to make clear that Bad Rap is not 81 minutes of whining and complaining why they’re not in the industry. I think this is a fun, cool, informative look at a different world and a story that hasn’t really been told. That’s the other thing. I think that I’ve asked the same question to every single artist in person when I was doing this film, and the answers ranged a lot. If you ask Dumbfounded, he’d say, I haven’t made that one song, so he took it all on himself. If you ask Rekstizzy, he would probably say the same thing and then add, You know what? A lot of Asian rappers are not good. If you’re trying to be the first of anything, you have to be really, really amazing. When Eminem came and was one of the first white rappers, he was phenomenal. He couldn’t have been just mediocre and then made it to where he is. All the stars have to align and there has to be someone really, really good.
Visibility is extremely important. What is your hope for Bad Rap in terms of visibility?
Awkwafina: I think the idea of visibility is something that kind of gets out of New York. I think with Bad Rap at the Tribeca Film Festival, it’s a very niche festival. Even though it’s one of the biggest festivals in the world, it’s still niche, and I think the idea of visibility that I learned from being on TV is reaching outside of New York and outside of California. And once that happens, that’s the kind of visibility that Asian American rappers need. We’re still going to be niche, even though we’re in Tribeca, it’s not going to reach the middle of the country. And it doesn’t have to be any of us four, it just has to be somebody.
Salima: When I first started creating this film, it was a 40-minute version for my Columbia graduation. My dad is like an old school African, straight from Sierra Leone, only listens to reggae, could give a damn about hip-hop. When he finished watching this film, he called me a couple days later and asked, Salima, how are those characters doing? How’s Rekstizzy doing? I want them to succeed so much. I want them to do well. And this is coming from a man who does not care about hip-hop music. He cares about the characters. When people watch this film and leave the theater, I want them to not just care about the characters and their music, I want them to feel that sort of universal feeling of wanting to be part of something or wanting to belong to something. I want them to come away from the film relating to that and relating to the idea of people fighting for what they want to be a part of.
Image via badrapfilm.com
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