Why Being an Asian American Rapper Is So Hard

The new documentary 'Bad Rap' explores the complicated struggles of the Asian American rap scene.
April 15, 2016, 4:00am
Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina in 'Bad Rap.' Photos courtesy of Bad Rap Productions

Early in Salima Koroma's intimate, provocative debut documentary, Bad Rap, the rapper Rekstizzy and his manager Jaeki Cho are having an argument over the direction of their music video. The debate is over one motif in particular, which shows the Asian rapper squirting condiments over the butts of his black dancers. Cho worries some may find it offensive, but Rekstizzy refuses to back down. "Whatever we do, people are gonna talk shit on us, cause we're Asian," explains the charismatic, portly rapper. "It's time for us to not give a fuck about what people think. We have go to all out and just offend them... Everything we do is [offensive]. Me being a rapper is offensive to people, dog."

This type of realness is what gives Bad Rap its bite. The documentary, premiering this Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival, explores the complicated history of Asian Americans in hip-hop and their impact within the genre, following the trials and tribulations of four rappers: David "Rekstizzy" Lee, Nora "Awkwafina" Lum, Richard "Lyricks" Lee, and the main character, Jonathan "Dumbfoundead" Park. As they deal with the challenges of trying to get ahead in the industry—playing small shows, scraping together funds for music videos—the artists battle Asian stereotypes, karaoke-bar gigs, and disappointed immigrant parents in order to do what they love in a space where many believe they don't belong.

It's been a similar struggle for the 27-year-old Koroma who, full disclosure, I've been friends with since 2014. When she first began working on Bad Rap, the preconceived notions were simple: Asians can't rap, and black women like herself can't single-handedly make films. With her insightful and complex documentary, however, she proves both stereotypes wrong.

VICE: Give me a little bit of the backstory on how you came up with Bad Rap.
Salima Koroma: I read an article in XXL about one of K-Pop's biggest stars, G Dragon, and at that time, you never really saw K-Pop artists in urban magazines. So I contacted the person who wrote that article and told him I was doing a documentary, and we got on the phone that night and talked for a while. Jaeki Cho, who is now my producing partner, was like, "Salima, nobody ever talks about Asians in hip-hop, and there are so many Asian rappers who are integral to the history of hip-hop. And I just happen to know [some] Asian rappers."

Working with Jaeki is very interesting because Jaeki is Korean American, and he was very passionate about the history, from the Mountain Brothers, to Jin, to all types of things, and I felt like, Listen, homie, I am a filmmaker, and this movie has to be good. It can't just be about the history, because this also has to be enjoyable .

Did you grow up with a lot of Asian friends?
I did not, no. In college, I just happened to have a lot of Asian friends. When people ask me how I got into K-Pop, I just don't know how to answer because it was something that was very organic when it happened. I liked the music, I liked the culture surrounding it, and I liked how pristine it was on the outside. But when you dug deeper, there was crazy shady shit going on.


How much did your interest in both K-Pop and hip-hop play into your desire to make the film?
I used to write a lot of essays about sociocultural aspects of K-Pop, and one of the things we used to talk about a lot was how K-Pop male bands probably couldn't make it in the US because of the fact that they have this stigma of being too girly or too feminine. That was interesting because what if you're a hip-hop artist? How do people perceive you if you're someone who's supposed to be hard and dope? How do you enter into this hip-hop discussion about hip-hop culture?

When I first started pitching this story about Asian American rappers, the question I always got was, "Where's Psy in this?" Which blew my mind because a) he's not Asian American, and b) it just showed that the idea of what an Asian person is here in America is very monolithic. How can you be hip-hop if that's what your image is?

"To be honest, what hip-hop is perceived to be is the antithesis of what Asian Americans are considered to be in this country."

Where does that come from?
I actually don't know where this comes from. I can say where we see it and how it's been perpetuated. Asians are the model minority. They come to the US, they get into the middle-class jobs—what do they have to rap about? They have everything that they need. To be honest, what hip-hop is perceived to be is the antithesis of what Asian Americans are considered to be in this country. So you take these two things that are so opposite, and you try to put them together, and people don't think it makes sense.

How does it make sense?
You know, you have your Miley Cyruses, your Iggy Azaleas, your Riff Raffs, your Rachel Dolezals. You have all this, and at times, it feels like caricatures of black people. So it's sort of like, "White people have already done it, and now you got the Asians trying to come up in here?"

When labels say, "I don't know how to market this," or "I don't know how receptive people are going to be," who is the audience?
There are different kinds of people who like hip-hop. You have your purists, who are like, "This is what hip-hop is. It's Wu-Tang, it's old-school hip-hop, it's Kendrick, it's J. Cole." You have the people who are sick and tired of hip-hop being appropriated, who are like, "Fuck these Asians. I don't care if you're good or not, this is not your shit." And then you have people who are ready to embrace anything. So you sort of have this fragmented audience that you're trying to market to.

Where do you fall in this?
I almost wish that I was part of a label so I could be like, "Yo! There's this Asian market here that's ready for Asian rappers and their perspectives." I hate to sound cliché, but hip-hop was the story of the streets, what was happening in communities, perspectives of shit that's happening in worlds that you don't know about. As a journalist, knowing how important it is to have these perspectives, [this] is why I feel like Asian rappers have a story to tell. And not a monolithic story, like they're all talking about the same shit, but they all have different perspectives.

If you love hip-hop, and you're just spitting shit that's real to you, then why can't that just be accepted? Just let people rap. I've heard things about me like, "Oh, she's over here promoting this appropriation." I know what appropriation is, I'm woke. So, for me, my whole thing is, are you living your truth? Unlike the Iggy Azaleas, who are making a caricature of what she thinks is black.

"You have the people who are sick and tired of hip-hop being appropriated, who are like, 'Fuck these Asians. I don't care if you're good or not, this is not your shit.'"

Do you think that's the reaction of the black community? Or everybody involved in hip-hop, including white people?
I think the people who matter are those who are the "gatekeepers," because after having spoken to a lot of people after doing Bad Rap , like people on the radio, I've learned that people don't care. If it's dope, it's dope. Even in Bad Rap, we had people who were behind the scenes that were like, "We're not sure how to market this film because who is going to want to watch this?" Which is crazy to me because we've had so much grassroots support, but the gatekeepers don't know how to market an Asian rapper.

Do Asian rappers get away with less because they're Asian?
You gotta be good. You gotta have your hard knocks, and people are going to try to push you and see if you're able to take it. I think that these artists are able to take it, too. That's the one thing about this film. You never see people whining about the fact that a label can't market them or that they can't book a show. No. They're trying to up their game and become that person who will break the mold and make it into the mainstream.

A group like the Mountain Brothers made some dope-ass shit. When I heard about them in your film I was like, "Whaaat?" It makes me kind of rethink, does your race matter?
Here's the thing: Historically, Asians and blacks have not had a good relationship. I'm from California, so I've heard about the LA riots, and I understand how that happened. You had these Korean shop owners who were suspicious of the blacks and that made the blacks suspicious of the Koreans. These stereotypes that blacks have of Asians and that Asians have of blacks, historically, is another source of tension. When I say that Asians are the antithesis to what hip-hop is, I'm saying that in all forms of that concept.

Producer Jaeki Cho and director/producer Salima Koroma

That brings me to another question about Afro-Asian solidarity. It's out there, but we can look at a protest that came from Peter Liang's conviction for murdering Akai Gurley as an example of the tension that still exists between blacks and Asians. How many Asian rappers really understand the extent to which they're taking an art form from another community? And how many of them are actually participating in the shit that's happening to that community?
That is a great question. I think what's really interesting is that most of these rappers, if not all, know more about hip-hop history than a lot of people that I know. Jaeki, my producing partner, learned English through hip-hop. In terms of social justice, this has come up several times, where something like an Eric Garner happens or something like Tamir Rice happens. They're expected to go above and beyond. If you want to be considered someone who is authentic and legitimate about hip-hop, then you gotta care about black people more than black people care about black people.

How many of these rappers are doing it because they think they have to, versus doing it because they actually care?
I have to say that as people of color, we go through the same kinds of discrimination. That makes us very sympathetic to each other. You have a Chris Rock, who can bring out some Asian kids at the Oscars and say whatever he wants to say about them and everyone is supposed to laugh, but when you talk about black people, then no one is allowed to laugh. People see the struggle that African American people are going through—they see it and speak up on it, so they can relate to it. They share the same threat.

Let's talk about you, as a black woman, doing this piece that is comprised of Asians. Did you come at it as a journalist or as a black woman?
I always get the question of, "How did you integrate into the Asian culture during the film?" Or, "How did you relate to these people? You're so different!" And I find that to be a funny question for a few reasons. The first reason being that there is no difference. We had many more things in common than what we didn't. We're all about the same age, and we're all doing creative shit that we're putting our soul into. I love hip-hop the same way that they love hip-hop.

As a black woman, I do feel like an outcast, or I do feel like I am a black, female filmmaker. There are not that many of us.

Growing up, what was your favorite hip-hop song, and what's your favorite hip-hop song by an Asian artist?
Hands down, my first favorite song ever was "If I Ruled the World" by Nas. And my favorite song by an Asian artist—I mean, I don't wanna say I have a favorite song by an Asian artist—but Dumbfoundead's "Are We There Yet" was and is the spirit of what the film is. So, you know, people who are reading this, go listen to that song.

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Bad Rap premieres this Saturday, April 20, at Tribeca Film Festival.