Your introduction to Nora Lum’s rap moniker may have been last August, when casting for Ocean’s Eight began to take shape. In January, a widely circulated teaser photo finalized the roster: Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, and … Awkwafina. “Who the fuck is Awkwafina,” asked someone on Reddit, neither the first nor the last person to wonder how this odd name found its way onto such a coveted guest list.
Who the fuck is Awkwafina? If you’re an Asian American of a certain age, you were probably already familiar with Lum’s alias, given that she is one of the few active Asians in American entertainment. (Also: that name.) The 28-year-old rapper, born to a Chinese American father and a Korean mother, grew up in Queens and attended LaGuardia High School, a.k.a. the Fame school and alma mater of Nicki Minaj. In 2012 Lum had her breakout on a delightfully crass song and video (“My Vag”) that thoroughly deserved its mini-viral success. Awkwafina, the brand — bespectacled, biting, sarcastic, slightly obnoxious — was born. It soon begot an NYC guidebook, a role on MTV’s Girl Code, and a whimsical web talk show. Then, a burgeoning film career, first in 2016’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and now in Ocean’s Eight and the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best seller Crazy Rich Asians.
On the phone from Malaysia, where she’s currently shooting Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina talked about her name, bonding with her Ocean’s Eight castmates, and her role in Bad Rap, the illuminating new documentary about the trials and tribulations of Asian American rappers.
Your character in Crazy Rich Asians is called Peik Lin. What can you say about the role?
It’s a pretty big role. I’m a fan of the books. What I realize now that I didn’t realize when I got the part is that it’s Harry Potter–esque in the way that people have read this book. They completely fantasized the characters in their minds, so they have an idea of what these characters should look like. So I realized that there was pressure there, like you don’t wanna let people down, you wanna play the role as flawlessly as possible. So that involves reading the book and trying to understand the life of these people. Living in America, we just see the tip of the iceberg: We see the crazy rich people that are in Beijing, all the young guys that are riding around in Lamborghinis. But you know, there’s a whole culture of this, so as an American, you have to understand that.
I just read this quote in a Variety article: “Ludacris won’t win an Oscar. Chris Bridges can.” On that note, are you going to continue to bill yourself as Awkwafina? Or are you gonna switch to your real name at some point?
Well, I think that the ability for a musician to use their real name is a privilege, so you have to be in a certain class of musician to even have that advantage. It’s something that I thought about, but it is a privilege — a privilege that I don’t have. I feel like if I use Nora Lum, people would literally think I’m a different person. Which has its ups and downs, but I think a lot of aspects of Awkwafina bleed into the roles I’ve been taking in movies. So I don’t think that it’s inaccurate, you know?
Unless you star in like, Schindler’s List 2 or some shit.
Yeah, unless I star in some kind of heavy drama, I feel like Awkwafina wouldn’t be appropriate, but I think at this point it’s really just helping the brand.
I saw on your Instagram that you have a chair on set with “Awkwafina” on it. That’s tight.
That always means a lot because you look at that name and you remember when you chose that name for yourself and what that meant to you at that age when you chose it, and then seeing it actually materialize and used in reality is very profound. So it’s really cool to see my name on call sheets and see my name come up when I’m on TV. I chose that name for myself when I was 15 years old, so it’s nice to see it actually being recognized, you know?
When they first announced the casting for Ocean’s Eight, it put your name on a whole different level. Did you feel the effect immediately after that announcement?
Yeah, I did. And I think in that cast of women, I stuck out like a sore thumb. People were a mixture of either curious, confused, maybe angry, or even just open to it. One downside about using the name is that I got a lot of comments that were like, “Who names their kid ‘Awkwafina’?” I was in a Daily News article and it was like, really “stupid” rap names, and I was one of them. It kinda sucks when people are like, “What kind of stupid name is that?” But also, they’ll never forget that name. So it works in my favor, I think. Even if people make fun of it, it’s fine.
I read in your Nylon interview that you may have a group chat going with some of your Ocean’s castmates.
Yeah, you know, I feel like I don’t wanna go on the record with that because—
It’s a private space.
I don’t want people to be like, “Well, if we hack Awkwafina, we’ll have all their numbers.” But I’ll just say this: I came into that really just expecting to worship these women and not really expecting anything more to come out of it than the professional work relationship. But you know, we became friends. And when you’re working that closely with a group of women for so many days, you just become close. It just happened. And I think, especially with these women, they were open to becoming close. Everyone was very warm.
Were any of them familiar with you prior?
I know that they had watched my video. I think at some point, Sandra Bullock would show people my video —
“My Vag,” yeah. So that was really cool. I mean, it’s always a little embarrassing when people are like, “I saw your video.” But you know, if they liked it, that’s cool.
You’re one of the four principal characters in Bad Rap, a documentary about Asian American rappers that hits streaming services on Tuesday. When you reflect on the experience — both being in the movie and watching it now — what are your thoughts?
It puts you in a very vulnerable position when you become the subject of a documentary, because your life turns into a narrative. When you’re watching it as yourself, it’s quite emotional. And I definitely could see how my career surpassed various stages, and it becomes emotional. When I first went into that documentary, I had no idea that I would even continue doing Awkwafina, you know? It was a career that was completely new to me that I felt I was blessed and completely lucky to have to the point where I didn’t trust that it would be a lasting career.
In the doc you even say at one point that you could already see the end of your career coming.
Yeah, I definitely felt like it was something that was such a dream and a little-kid wish that it couldn’t last because life doesn’t work that way. It couldn’t be that good. What happened was not that I became luckier, but I learned that it is a career and it is a job and you have to work to preserve it.
Do you have similar anxieties about your career since you’ve transitioned into acting? Or is it different because you’re now part of ensembles and no longer a lone wolf?
When you sign up to do movies or TV, you are signing up to be part of a collaborative effort. It’s something that you lend your personality to and you try to be as useful as you can, under the umbrella of a larger project. When you’re a musician, and especially the way that I was a musician, I was doing it alone. I asserted every kind of creative control I possibly had and I still to this day feel very reluctant to give creative control to anyone about my music career. So I would rather see my music career fail under my creative direction than completely surrender my music career to somebody that will essentially just make a fake Awkwafina.
I will do music until people are yelling at me on YouTube and not buying my music or not listening and hating on it. I will continue making music because that is what I’ve been doing since I was 16 years old. I would get on the computer, produce beats, write songs. It’s been a passion for me since I was young, so I’ll never let that go. But acting is a privilege. I’m lucky to have the acting job that I have. And I also can’t dictate how many jobs I’ll have in a year or what job I’ll have. They’re completely up to the universe at that point. Whereas music, I have control over that, you know?
Right. It reminds me of a scene in Bad Rap when Dumbfoundead is talking about your career and the advantages of being an Asian American female in entertainment versus an Asian American male. Race is a big theme in the documentary, but there’s also gender.
My perspective on music right now is that it changes so quickly that if I released the song “My Vag” today, I don’t think it would have done well. That’s how quickly the music landscape has changed. And I also think that, in the movie, it kind of paints these guys as feeling as if their careers are stagnant, but if you look at what’s going on with Dumb’s career, and if you look at what’s going on with Rick’s [Lyricks] career, they’ve advanced more than I have ever in my music career. Dumb is coming up with an album release in Korea, he has major features, he’s done incredibly well the past year. Year of the Ox has emerged as this incredible force to be reckoned with. They’re not struggling. I won’t be able to achieve the kind of success that they have right now.
And it’s not even a complaining thing — this doesn’t even have to do with being a female, this has to do specifically with Awkwafina. It’s hard to fit Awkwafina into a music landscape because she is out there and you have to actually really like her. It’s not digestible music for a mainstream audience. It’s very particular. So I’ve kinda given up on marketing Awkwafina for the masses. I decided I’m gonna continue making weird music, and my small niche fan base that is still with me to this day will continue liking it and I think people will continue to be confused by it. If I wanted to be a mainstream artist, it’s going to be hard.
You mentioned your fellow Bad Rap cast members Dumbfoundead and Lyricks, so you’ve clearly been keeping up with their careers. Has it been inspiring to watch them from afar?
It’s incredibly inspiring — as a friend, first of all, because Dumb and Rick are literally like my best friends. One incredibly rewarding thing about Bad Rap is that I became close with people that are going through similar things — especially friends that are Asian, too, and that are also in the business. For Rick, from day one, I noticed that he had a talent that was completely untapped. And so seeing that it’s recognized now is incredibly inspiring. And for Dumb, I’ve always kind of looked up to him as an older brother but I continue to because he’s gonna open doors for us before I can or really anyone can. And it is inspiring, and there’s really no animosity, there’s really just all love and support.
The fourth Bad Rap cast member, Rekstizzy, is currently auditioning for the Korean rap reality competition Show Me the Money. So if he wins that, it’ll be great too.
Oh, you know, even if Rekstizzy doesn’t win Show Me the Money, they’re gonna remember Rekstizzy. He will be someone that comes off of that cast with a bang.
So speaking of making Asian friends in the business, I’m guessing that being part of the Crazy Rich Asians cast has been a great experience.
Yeah, I mean, this is something that as an actor, and especially as an Asian American, that I never imagined would happen in my lifetime: a complete Asian American cast telling a very honest Asian American story. There’s no stereotypes in this. It’s a completely honest story. I think Asian Americans have obtained a kind of solidarity where we can watch a movie like this and be like, “Oh my god, this story is made for us.”
When the cast and I go out, I look around at them and I realize that we’ve all worked in settings where we were that Asian in the cast. Whereas now that dynamic doesn’t exist. We’re just actors. And our characters are just characters. So it’s really nice. It’s really cool.
Is Constance Wu as woke in real life as she is online?
Oh, Constance is incredibly woke. We have incredibly woke conversations.
She’ll get you out of the paint with the quickness if you say something bad about Asians or miscast an Asian role.
Constance is real, and she’s incredibly smart, and I think it’s really important to have Asian female icons that can go onscreen and represent Asian women, but then offscreen come to their defense and be able to talk intellectually about political things. It’s an honor to be working with her on this because she’s definitely very iconic for our generation.
So you filmed Ocean’s Eight and you’re shooting Crazy Rich Asians until July. Have you mapped out the rest of 2017?
I’m blessed for everything that’s happened to me, like I didn’t expect my life to be good, you know? I always expected to work at an office job where I wasn’t creatively fulfilled but just going through the motions. And what I’m doing right now is awesome, so I just hope that it continues to gain momentum and that I’m able to do what I want to do. Next up after this, Comedy Central has ordered an Awkwafina pilot, so I think right after this, I’m gonna hit the ground running and try to make that as good as I can.
Is that based on your talk show?
No, this is a new story. It’s a scripted series. The fear is that you don’t know what’s gonna be on the docks a year from now, but that’s also a good thing because it leaves you in a place where you’re hungry. I think right now I’ve been given a special opportunity, so I wanna do the best with it.
Would you be doing that in New York?
Yeah. I mean, it’s gonna be an authentic Awkwafina story, so obviously it has to take place in New York, you know?