In the hawkish era of political correctness, the security guards of cultural appropriation are swift to administer their brand of justice toward any perceived incongruences, e.g. anyone outside of the black community spitting rap bars.
The overarching identity of a hip-hop artist has been boiled down to mainly two characteristics: black and male. Any degree shifted away from that tilts the path to success at a steeper incline—and for Asian-Americans that tilt is practically vertical.
It’s easy to think of the antithesis of anything "black" is automatically "white." However, in respect to hip-hop, white rappers like Eminem, the Beastie Boys, Action Bronson, and Mac Miller have not only "made it," but they’ve been given that ever-elusive black pass of acceptance in hip-hop. Finding an Asian-American rapper who’s reached that status is impossible, and in a search to find out why, director Salima Koroma followed four of the most visible Asian-American rappers on the scene today in her documentary Bad Rap.
"Hip-hop is something that I grew up on, something that I loved and thought that I knew," Koroma says. "But having spoken to [Bad Rap co-producer] Jaeki Cho who is a Korean-American and who’s had a different experience growing up with hip-hop and loving hip-hop, the more that we talked about it, I started realizing the assumptions of hip-hop are that it’s aggressive, it’s confrontational, it’s hyper-masculine and the assumptions and stereotypes we have of Asian-American males are non-aggressive and non-confrontational and almost feminized. You put those two things together and they don’t really work."
Bad Rap highlights how rappers Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks, are pushing past those stereotypes to make a name for themselves in hip-hop, but it’s battle Korean-American rapping legend Dumbfoundead who pulls the narrative thread through the doc’s central issues. Dumbfoundead (aka, Jonathan Park) broke into the hip-hop scene when clips of his underground rap battles stormed the Internet nearly 10 years ago. Not since MC Jin’s now legendary freestyle in 2001 on BET’s 106 and Park has an Asian-American so publicly held his own against the assumed top brass of rap, i.e. black men. Despite having proven himself time and again, Dumbfounded has yet to have the major breakout success he thought he would have.
"My frustration was more about getting to the next level. I was already in the industry. I never thought I would start this to become a working-class rapper, I thought I was gonna be on a yacht popping champagne, which is the dream of any kid watching MTV," Dumbfoundead says. "Explaining to my immigrant mother about me being a rapper and not being in a mansion is weird to her. She’s like, 'How are you a rapper and you’re living in a shitty apartment?' You can’t explain what an indie rapper is to an immigrant parent."
But let other Asian-American rappers tell it and Dumbfoundead is a veritable god.
"Dumb, for me, was the thread that made it possible for us to tell everyone’s story," Koroma says."We talk about marketing, we talk about gender, we talk about creative license, and I thought using Dumb as a character to tell those stories and bring everybody else’s stories in was important. Dumb was and is that person that people were looking to to say he’s going to be the one who’s going to make it. He has a big fan base. He’s been in the game for so long and he is a respected artist. I thought that he would be that perfect person because he was, like, a hit away from being that person to make it in the mainstream."
One of the most compelling scenes in the doc is when Koroma presents the work of her subjects to some of the top influencers in disseminating hip-hop, like radio personality Ebro Darden.
"We can ask that question and posit all these ideas and theories but that scene was really to say, let’s make it practical. Let’s have people in music industry, whether they’re in radio or they’re in magazine, what are their takes?" Koroma says. "So we wanted to ground it in reality and to learn about the music industry and what would make their music available to an audience. What’s the decision-making process to that?"
As it turns out, the decision-making process is inherently skewed. When Koroma asks these champions of allegedly all things hip-hop to name an Asian-American rapper, no one is able to deliver. Yet, that didn’t stop them from delivering constructive, albeit somewhat harsh, critiques.
"I respected the feedback. When I watched it with my peers we really listened to them—those are O.G. journalists that we respect in the hip-hop community," Dumbfoundead says. "But there was also a side of me that doesn’t fully agree with them as far as the aspect of it’s just about being good [or] bad. Even when [Koroma] asks those journalists, "Can you name an Asian-American rapper?" and no one could name an Asian-American rapper, that tells me that they’re missing something because I know tons in America. The fact that they couldn’t name one, that’s the part that kind of messed me up. That just told me obviously we’re invisible in that realm."
Part of gaining some visibility means living with the identifier of "Asian-American" in front of "rapper." As seen in the doc, there’s hardly an interview with Dumbfoundead and his peers where their Asian backgrounds aren’t put in the forefront of the conversation—even when it’s totally out of context. The paradox of it all is that so much of an identity in hip-hop is about keeping it real, yet how can someone like Dumbfoundead who is indeed living in his hip-hop truth blend into a culture that may overlook him based on his race?
"I don’t think it’s a problem in just in hip-hop, I think it’s a problem in all of media. But that’s not going to stop anytime soon where they specify us as Asian-American artists or an Asian-American movie star. I don’t think that’s going to stop until it becomes the norm," Dumbfoundead says. "That was bugging me in the beginning. Now I just completely understand it. I don’t blame anybody for specifying me as that especially when there’s so few of us. I almost want people to know that I’m Asian-American in an article, for people to see and that and be like, oh, shit—there’s an Asian-American doing his thing."
Bad Rap is by no means meant to be the definitive documentary on Asian-American rappers, let alone Asian-Americans in the media at large. What Koroma is aiming for is a conversation starter—something that will make people rethink identities and possibly push the dialogue in different directions.
"There’s a lot of things we could’ve talked about. A lot of people when they watch the trailer they ask, 'What about this artist? This artist better be in it or you better talk about this.' This is not a film where we’re talking about every single thing. This is something that I want for people to be aware that this is even an issue," Koroma says. "Before I started learning about the topics that are in this doc, I could see a caricature like William Hung on American Idol and it wouldn’t bother me. But now that stuff happens and I cringe. I want people to come out of the film having that awareness that this is an issue about Asian-Americans and their representation. So I hope that this starts a conversation and maybe then another film can come in and talk about the political aspects and the historical aspects—then we can have a fuller conversation. Right now we’re just beginning that discussion."