Latter-day philosopher Terrence Howard once opined that it’s hard out here for a pimp, which may very well be true in a general sense. But for someone trying to launch a career in hip-hop, at least in the world of Hustle & Flow, there’s no better starting point. Stepping on the scene as a diminutive, young Asian-American woman from a relatively comfortable background and style lifted from the Clinton Hill Salvation Army, however — that’s hard.
That was the uphill battle fought by Awkwafina, a New York MC featured in the edifying new Tribeca documentary Bad Rap. (She’s doing pretty well for herself nowadays, with a handful of viral hits, a steady gig as a commentator on MTV’s Girl Code, and a role in this summer’s Neighbors 2 to her name.) She’s just one of the many colorful, charismatic, and dauntingly talented rhyme-spitters appearing in this patchwork survey of reluctantly underground Asian hip-hop. The documentary shines a light on one of rap’s most underrepresented factions and exposes a thriving culture of wit, dopeness for dopeness’ sake, and fraught negotiations between the social and the personal.
With roots spanning from Tribeca Film Festival’s own New York City to the K-Town district of Los Angeles, a roundtable panel consisting of rappers Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, Lyricks, and Dumbfoundead, as well as director Salima Koroma and her co-producer Jaeki Cho, convened for a conversation with Uproxx. In between fits of laughter, the tight-knit group discussed being a minority among minorities, reading YouTube comments, and Chris Rock’s “stupid” Oscar jokes.
After a day full of interviews, do y’all get tired of answering questions about Asians and hip-hop?
Dumbfoundead: Eh, we can talk about it still.
Awkwafina: I’ll talk about it all day!
Dumbfoundead: I’d say it’s not talked about enough.
How do you balance being visible in the public eye as Asians in hip-hop and representing that heritage, with not wanting to be branded that way or otherwise put in a box?
Dumbfoundead: I think that where we’re at, you can’t really help it. If we have to be the dudes that get it going at this early stage, and make a change, then that’s what’s gonna happen. I don’t think there’s any way of avoiding that.
Awkwafina: I don’t think that our kids or our grandkids will exist in a world where we can be labeled as anything but an Asian-American rapper. There could be a major Asian artist, even a mainstream one on the radio, but he’ll still have that aspect about him. We’re a minority in this country, so we can’t really act like we should be here. But we’re American enough that we’re not just bringing Asian to the table, either. We’re bringing what every race is bringing to the table. That’s the plight of this movie: If we’re as American as the next guy, how come? Why is that? And I don’t mean that in a complain-y way.
Do you consider yourselves trailblazers, that you’re making room in hip-hop for the next generation?
Dumbfoundead: [Laughing.] Yeah, so that they don’t have to do the shittier shows! Nah, definitely. Of course we wanna inspire, and if it’s not us, maybe it’ll be like the next Eminem. And that’s happening. Because there are tons of Asian rappers, it’s not like there aren’t any.
It’s about getting the exposure?
Lyricks: It’s about being good.
Dumbfoundead: It’s about being good and the exposure. It’s about speaking as loudly as you can for as long as you can until you can hang with the best of them.
Awkwafina: My dad came here as a young kid. He also doesn’t speak any Asian languages either. You gotta look even closer when you think about minorities. We have different immigrant stories. My dad doesn’t even remember his trip to America, he remembers playing Little League.
Lyricks: As for me, I don’t rap with that in mind, like, “Oh, I gotta trailblaze.” I just wanna rap well. But because I’m Asian, trying to infiltrate a predominantly black genre of music, that itself makes it a movement. I just wanna get rid of the prefix, you know, the whole “Asian rapper” thing. I don’t want leeway, I don’t want understanding, I don’t want that scrutiny. I just want to be judged for my work, not for my skin.
Dumbfoundead: But I’m not fully on that. I don’t care. When you say “Asian rapper” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m easily identified, I’m that motherfucker over there.” I think at the beginning I cared about it more, but now I don’t care about it as much. It’s about me understanding who I am, and being proud of who I am. I don’t think I had that much self-awareness when I was younger. It’s like— What was that Peter Parker shit about responsibility?
With great power comes great responsibility.
Dumbfoundead: Yeah! I can’t lie, I feel kinda responsible.
Awkwafina: If we signed up for that, we’d all fuck up at the end of the day. I can’t save shit! I can’t save hip-hop for Asians!
Dumbfoundead: I come from the battling world, though, so I felt that pressure. I was the only Asian motherfucker in that community, and that shit was like the United Nations! It felt like Street Fighter, everyone coming in from different countries and shit! [Laughs] It felt like that, and I was the most Asian.