In December 2011, Carson Daly sees a music video for a song called “Are We There Yet?” and decides to feature it on his nightly talk show, Last Call. Daly introduces the artist who made the record as “a Korean American rapper named Dumbfoundead.” Daly invites Dumbfoundead on to tell his story, and the rapper recounts his lifelong journey from Argentina to Los Angeles, from battle rap to a buzzing commercial single. Rags to riches, one hopes.
When he revisits the segment years later in the documentary Bad Rap — which hit iTunes on Tuesday — Dumbfounded balks. “I hated being called an Asian rapper,” he says. “I’m an American cat.”
Bad Rap follows four Asian American rappers who’ve enjoyed various levels of niche success in recent years. Alongside Dumbfoundead, a decorated battle rapper, there’s Awkwafina, who grew up in Queens and blew up online when her 2012 viral single, “My Vag,” made headlines for its irreverent celebration of … well, I mean, it’s right there in the song’s title. There’s Rekstizzy, a wise-guy New Yorker who prides himself on oddball song and video concepts. And then there’s Virginia native Lyricks, a hip-hop sentimentalist whose songs often reveal and explore hyphenated-American angst. In attitude and musical style, these four rappers are all pretty dissimilar to one another. Still, their fortunes are entangled. Bad Rap presents them, together, as a referendum on the state of the Asian American rapper.
The stars of Bad Rap have made greater headway than most other Asian American rappers. Dumbfoundead has an illustrious battle-rap career behind him, and the documentary includes footage of Drake stanning for him at a prefight press conference at a King of the Dot battle in 2015. Since the doc wrapped, Awkwafina has nabbed a role alongside Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, and Rihanna in the forthcoming Ocean’s Eight movie, and that’s by far the biggest look that any of these rappers have achieved in popular culture. Still, they’ve struggled to achieve the broad sort of success that so many rappers dream of: gold and platinum albums, Top 40 singles, sold-out national tours, all that jazz. As Asian Americans navigating a black genre — as extreme outsiders — they’re all in the same boat.
For such a distinctly American art form, hip-hop is surprisingly durable — and malleable — abroad. It flourishes in every hemisphere it touches. The Korean rapper Keith Ape’s viral hit, “It G Ma,” made waves stateside, and that song was just a sample of a larger scene in Seoul that has embraced contemporary trap sounds but otherwise developed its own economy of styles and personalities. From Seoul to Reykjavík, there’s no global shortage of homegrown hip-hop. These scenes are so far removed from hip-hop’s formative context that they go largely unnoticed by U.S. rap fans and critics, leaving these foreign markets free to reimagine hip-hop’s tropes and conventions toward whatever ends they please.
In the U.S., however, there’s a distinct scene for every major city and region, and so the scrutiny and stakes are higher at the top of the pile. Late in the documentary, there’s a scene in which videos from each Bad Rap performer are played before Hot 97 host Ebro Darden, music editor Damien Scott, Atlantic Records vice president Riggs Morales, and music agent Jonathan Briks. While you’d think these gatekeepers are included here to speak favorably about the stars of Bad Rap and chime in with observations of their come-ups, the truth is that they’re unfamiliar with all four rappers. Generally, the industry insiders swear up and down that contemporary hip-hop is a meritocracy, so driven by social media whims and viral hits from upstart rappers that race is hardly an impediment for anyone at this point. The real challenge, they insist, is to captivate unsuspecting audiences with big ideas and big personalities that they haven’t seen before. As much as the documentary otherwise stresses the peculiar challenges of becoming a successful Asian American rapper, the industry feedback segment serves a reality check, a reminder that rap is a thankless, low-wage profession at every rung short of stardom.
It’s a rat race. At home in the U.S., hip-hop is a frequently contested genre, a black American musical tradition in which white performers often face (and sometimes fail under) great scrutiny whenever they come sauntering in. For rappers who are neither black nor white, such as the Asian American stars of Bad Rap, hip-hop is an even stranger proving ground, one that offers tropes and aesthetics that don’t quite suit them even when the music comes as second nature.
Bad Rap frames this adversity as a struggle for respect in the face of timeless racial epithets and seemingly insurmountable stereotypes. While first-time director Salima Koroma followed her documentary’s four lead rappers in real time, she also spoke to other notable Asian American rap acts such as Far East Movement and MC Jin about the challenges of breaking big with American audiences. Jin is a Chinese American rapper who, after winning seven consecutive battles on BET’s “Freestyle Friday,” signed with Ruff Ryders in 2002. His debut single, “Learn Chinese,” is the closest that an Asian American rapper has come to crossover success in the U.S. — which is to say, still not close at all. With its many jokes about Chinese takeout and its “Mr. Chin” interpolation for a cringe-worthy bridge, “Learn Chinese” was a young backpacker’s awkward attempt to preempt racial stigma with self-awareness. It didn’t work, and the song is largely remembered, as Jin himself notes, as a gross mismanagement of the Asian American rapper’s burden.
The most contentious scene in Bad Rap comes when Rekstizzy is shooting the video for his song “God Bless America.” Rekstizzy stages the set in a small backyard during what appears to be a July Fourth barbecue. In utmost summer bro fashion, Rekstizzy rocks a white tee and boat trunks; all red, white, and blue. He’s surrounded by a diverse cast of female models wearing cut-off shorts, whom Rekstizzy sprays with ketchup and mustard as they twerk against a picket fence. Rekstizzy released the video in 2013, when Miley Cyrus inspired a national conversation about twerking and cultural appropriation. Rekstizzy’s then-manager, Jaeki Cho — who coproduced Bad Rap alongside Koroma — trashes the video concept as unimaginative. He says whatever subtle points Rekstizzy thinks he’s making about upending the “model minority” myth by casting himself as a frat gigolo will be lost in the face of broader objections to the video’s twerking and racially suspect misogyny.
That’s one way to comprehend the music video: as a cynical eye-catch that might vaguely pass itself off as satire. Alternatively, you might see the “God Bless America” music video as Rekstizzy’s mad grab for however many hyper-American signifiers he could possibly hold at once: twerking, BBQ, denim, shorts, stars, and stripes. The result is a mess of clichés that drown each other out. It’s uncomfortable to watch — and uncomfortable for Cho to fathom two weeks before they’ve even shot the video — because it’s unclear whether Rekstizzy embraces these tropes because he genuinely enjoys them, or because he suspects that a first-time viewer will be more comfortable with them than they’ll be with seeing a Korean American rapper.
Awkwafina — who claims Chinese, Korean, and American heritage — is hardly so conflicted about race in her music, but in Bad Rap she weighs her identity cautiously. “I don’t think that I’m a spokesperson for Asian Americans,” she says, “but I think that when I’m out there, I’m representing them.” The dream, then — in accordance with hip-hop’s classic emphasis on authenticity — is for someone like Rekstizzy or Awkwafina to achieve stardom not by being too Asian or too American, but by simply being themselves.