“What music by an Asian American have you listened to or do you listen to?”
“Keith Ape, I listened to a Keith Ape song recently.” Complex Magazine Deputy Music Editor Damien Scott replies.
“He’s not Asian American.”
“Oh he’s just Asian? Well, then none.”
How many Asian American musicians can you name? And no, Keith Ape, a top South Korean rapper, does not count. Since Asian Americans are underrepresented in media, even some people working in the music industry might fail to distinguish between Asian American and Asian talents, both of whom are still seen as outsiders overall.
The new music documentary Bad Rap explores the forgotten history of Asians Americans in early hip hop, along with the careers of four current Asian American rappers: Rekstizzy, the religious Lyricks, the Dumbfoundead, and hipster darling, Awkwafina, as they attempt to achieve mainstream appeal. These rappers have inspired many of today’s popular Asian American media influencers, including YouTube sensations Fung Bros, rap group Far East Movement, and singer Jay Park.
While talented in their own right, the rappers highlighted in Bad Rap recognize how they are often viewed as Asian first, and as rappers second. Hip-hop and rap are often characterized by hyper-masculinity, which stands at odds with how Asian Americans have often been perceived in American society: as obedient, submissive, the Model Minority. The very existence of Asian American rappers raises eyebrows in an industry dominated by African American men.
As Asian American rappers, Rekstizzy, Lyricks, Dumbfoundead, and Awkwafina’s work raises questions about cultural appropriation, considering the long history of routine cultural theft and exploitation of African American music and fashion in American culture. The film doesn’t delve deep into where barriers are drawn between cultural appropriation and exchange. However, many Asian Americans rappers, such as those depicted in Bad Rap, feel a sense of exclusion from the genre because their raps are perceived as inauthentic because of their Asian American identities, even if they feel that they’re rapping about a culture they come from.
“I’ve never heard a rapper spend so much time dissing other rappers’ pussies.”
Awkwafina is arguably the most successful rapper profiled in the documentary. In addition to her music, she is a co-host on MTV's Girl Code Live, was featured in Neighbors 2 and is set to star in the upcoming all-female Ocean’s Eight in 2018. Awkwafina rose to fame in 2012 with the viral music video, “My Vag”, a comical feminist anthem celebrating pussy.
Despite her unique style, quirky personality and growing following, Awkwafina too was characterized first and foremost by her race. A famous New York Magazine headline published in 2013 asked, “Can an Asian Woman Be Taken Seriously in Rap?” Awkwafina not only challenges conventions of rap culture, but also escapes the confines the fetishization that has historically characterized media representations of Asian American women. While Asian women have lately received more visibility in television and film, and frankly, porn, they’ve typically been reduced into two stereotypes: either hyper-sexualized or infantilized. Awkwafina refuses to be either, instead embracing a confident and nonchalant attitude.
However, in Bad Rap, fellow Asian American rapper Dumbfoundead also argues that Awkwafina’s success can be attributed in part to the wider visibility of Asian American women as opposed to male Asian American artists like himself. As Dumbfoundead argues, a quirky, petite Asian American woman rapper is easier to market to mainstream American audiences than a male rapper, a challenge that Asian American male rappers have strived to overcome.
“In a three way battle, like Jackie Chan, Ip Man and Jet Li, who you got?”
“Mother fucker, I’ve worked ten years to get away from questions about Jackie Chan and Jet Li.”
Bad Rap also addresses the friction that also comes from stereotypes facing Asian Americans, and particularly Asian American men. Asian Americans, and especially Asian American men, have been stereotyped as obedient, unsexy, and effeminate. The film’s most complex figure is Dumbfoundead, a Los Angeles Koreatown native who made a name for himself in the city’s rap battle scene. Through years’ worth of compiled clips, Dumbfoundead’s rap battles reflect how little visibility Asian American rappers have in the Los Angeles rap scene, and the inability for rappers like him to be recognized beyond their race. Most of the lines hurled against Dumbfoundead in these rap battles reference the same clichéd Asian stereotypes, along the lines of rice, slanted eyes and bad driving, yet the crowds still cheer for it. But while fellow battle rappers use these stereotypes to demean him, Dumbfoundead returns with more personal and inventive rhymes, reflecting his creativity and unwillingness to be limited by stereotypes of his race.
Dumbfoundead, while a personal favorite of Drake and an outspoken critique of whitewashing in Hollywood, is still bombarded by reporters asking questions about his race unrelated to his music. Out of the four rappers highlighted in Bad Rap, the documentary takes the most intimate look at Dumbfoundead ‘s rocky transition from battle rapper to full-time musician, as he opens up about his frustrations and insecurities about his own music and success.
Bad Rap sheds light on the difficult task facing Asian American rappers, to represent their communities while attempting to find their own niche in the rap world beyond their Asian American identity. These four artists refuse to be limited by their race in a world that continues to view them as outsiders, both in the genre and in society.
Bad Rap exhibits the ways in which the marginalization of Asian Americans in media has held back the careers of these rappers, but it fails to delve into how their identities inform their music or their evolution as artists. For a film that centers on barriers facing Asian Americans, Bad Rap lacks a thorough exploration of their complex roots or the ways they can be overcome these obstacles. Bad Rap is only the first step towards a wider discussion about music, diversity and identity, but it did definitely introduced me to some new artists to follow.