Rich Chigga has to be either the dumbest name in the history of rap music or the smartest.
In the attention economy that currently runs the internet, it’s an eye-catcher. That’s absolutely what you wanted in the early going of 2017. That’s when Donald Trump’s impending inauguration made it clear that offensive trolling had become a viable promotional tactic. Anyone looking to pivot 15 minutes of fame into a lucrative permanent position in the eternal outrage engine only had to say or do an offensive thing, weather the inevitable storm thinkpieces and Twitter death threats, pretend to backpedal (or, alternatively, double down) and profit was sure to come. That’s probably exactly what Brian Imanuel was thinking when he settled on his pseudonym — an ethnic slur portmanteau of “Chinese” and “n—a” used to degrade “Black-acting” or “ghetto” Asian people.
I shouldn’t need to list all the reasons the name is offensive, but this being the internet, of course I do, so here are just some of them. It’s offensive because it demeans both Asian people, reducing them to simply Chinese despite their actual nationality, diminishing and disrespecting all the many cultures that make up the Asian continent, and Black people, for reasons that should be painfully obvious by now. It implies that there’s a way to “act Black,” which is usually associated with ignorance, crime, and intellectual inferiority and that Asian people ought to be above such behavior. By ostensibly performing as a rapper, the Jakarta, Indonesia-born Imanuel mocks the very idea that Asian folks should even demean themselves to participate in even a parody of what is traditionally a Black cultural genre.
Which is why his name change, to the mononym Brian, rings hollow. He can feign ignorance if he wants, but if he can learn to speak English largely from watching rap videos on Youtube, he could surely pick up enough cultural references to understand why such a thing would be offensive. Certainly, he gleaned enough to cook up “Rich Chigga” as a rap name. Perhaps realizing that his fans and critics alike would have been able to figure this out is why he instead chose to double down, saying he was trying to “diminish the word’s power.” Now he says, via a social media post on January 1, that he was “naive and made a mistake.”
Except a mistake is a one-time occurrence, a misstep in judgment that you seek to correct immediately after realizing the error of your ways. You don’t try to profit from it. You don’t try to profit from the apology, as Imanuel did with his post, which doubled as a link to his newest single, “See Me.” And you certainly don’t wait twelve whole months to do so, after releasing seven-plus singles over the course of a year, some of which have yet to be renamed on your Youtube channel (“Dat Stick” and “Seventeen” as of this writing). During that year, Imanuel tweeted that, “Rich Chigga is a f*ckin’ corny ass name. Why did I think it was ok? Why did I let this happen?” but didn’t change it until New Year’s Day, almost 21 months later.
It can’t be a mistake or a cultural miscalculation when hismusic label, the Oakland, California-based 88 Rising, was directly involved in the marketing of that persona. Of course, he has no control over whether all the other outlets that posted interviews or profiles will retroactively update their archives to illustrate the name change. Whether they were struggling to come to terms with the slur and Imanuel’s right to its use, trying to hold him accountable, or just shedding light on an unknown rising artist despite his unfortunate nomenclature, they did the hard work of evangelizing so he didn’t have to. Now it’s too late, the damage is done, the cost is counted, and now he has 1.5 million followers on Instagram, 1.11 million on Twitter, and nearly a million subscribers on Youtube, all because he was willing to follow through on a racist slur as a persona for shock value.
Let’s be clear, here. Brian Imanuel and 88 Rising changed his name because “Rich Chigga” served its purpose. It pissed off enough people, got enough people talking, to generate a following without the long, hard slog of doing so through talent and hard work. Now it needs to go before it becomes a bar to further growth, which was the real goal all along. It was all just a joke. ‘Rich Chigga’ was a cruel, intentional joke played at the expense of hip-hop and its fans to allow him and 88 Rising to skip the hard work of building a following organically, only to be discarded when he got too big to continue to take the risk.
Here they were, making fun of hip-hop and the people who grew up in and loved the culture from inside, with the added bonus of making money from our collective consternation. While we were hand-wringing and arguing with each other whether or not it was “okay” because Imanuel is technically a member of an ethnic minority in the US, he and his label where laughing all the way to the bank, when we should have been ignoring them all along. The joke, it seems, is on us.