Bad Rap highlights the adversity four Asian American rappers face, trying to break into mainstream hip-hop.
Every up-and-coming rapper faces the seemingly impossible challenge of getting their voice heard in a competitive and saturated market. ‘Bad Rap’ is a documentary that follows the prospects of four Asian American emcees facing that struggle and the adversity that comes with having an image that doesn’t fit the accepted norms of modern hip-hop.
Both informative and challenging this unique documentary centres around four emcees, each aspiring to break into the mainstream rap scene as Americans of Asian descent. The challenges are wide ranging.
Dumbfounded honed his craft on the battle rap scene
Jonathan Park aka Dumbfoundead found his voice in the cut-throat battle-rap scene where he became a recognised figure notable for his quick thinking and cutting repostes. Despite achieving a level of success that places him on the radar of an artist as prominent as Drake, the rapper of Korean descent laments the reluctance of record labels to pick up and market Asian-American artists.
The commonly accepted stereotype of “Asians in America”, he notes, is that of a diminutive, mathematically minded bad driver. No matter how talented the artist may be, record labels are reluctant even to attempt to market an artist of Asian heritage in a genre dominated by African-American males.
Image aside, Dumbfoundead is skilled in the battle rap arena, yet faces constant ignorance and comments coloured with racism in those circles, not only from his adversaries but even from the press covering a large battle rap event. He’s made turning these comments into a powerful weapon whilst battling, skillfully turning his opponent’s lack of imagination against them. Sadly, the rapper also notes that negative comments related to Asian stereotypes always gain a positive reaction from the gathered crowds.
Awkwafina found notoriety on YouTube
Having found notoriety on YouTube with her video ‘My V@g‘, the documentary also follows Nora Lum, aka Awkwafina, as she seeks to convert her online success into something wider reaching. The film remarks on her refusal to use a sexualised image as a selling tool. Awkwafina chooses instead an honest portrayal of herself to present an interesting fusion of sharp tongued and often risqué lyrics with a bubblegum pop sensibility.
Raised in the Queens area of New York to parents of Chinese and South Korean descent respectively, the emcee has been faced with the twofold challenge of not only being pigeonholed as an Asian musician, but also a female rapper.
However, even fellow Asian-American artists like Dumbfoundead are found speculating on how much easier it is to market a female of Asian descent that a male of similar ethnicity to a mainstream audience. Essentially suggesting that any female Asian-American artist will have and easier time being taken seriously than her male counterpart.
Whilst those views may be short sighted, certainly it’s Awkwafina who’s gone on to enjoy higher profile success. Her music career has provided a springboard into live television and film. We learn how Nora Lum has been added to the presenting team of MTV’s ‘Girl Code Live’.
Further research has revealed that Lum’s stock has risen even further post ‘Bad Rap’, as the actress is listed amongst the principal cast of ‘Oceans Eight’, a forthcoming, all female spin-off of the existing series of Hollywood blockbuster films. She’ll feature on-screen alongside Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway to name but two.
Lyricks (Left) and Rekstizzy (Right)
Lyricks (Of Korean descent) provides a street-level view of life and adversity. His considered delivery provokes thought through lyricism in a contemporary style. His 2015 song ‘Can’t Breathe‘ formed the perfect commentary of the rise in instances of Police brutality which found increased social awareness through the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island a year earlier in 2014.
By stark contrast, Rekstizzy, also Queens born of Korean descent, relies on shock value to provoke interest. The unapologetic rapper is seen as the star and creative force behind his 2013 video for the track ‘God Bless America‘. The result is misogynistic (not uncommon in rap music videos) and draws criticism from his own party for its apparent racial discrimination.
Rekstizzy’s journey within the confines of the documentary helps to portray the extremes and diversity of music being made by four artists, who are wildly different in style, yet collectively defined as ‘Asian Rappers’ in a way that forms distinct barriers.
Four contrasting styles, four different stories and journeys. ‘Bad Rap’ offers a perspective on a subject rarely thrown into the limelight – and whilst the message is of utmost importance – some of the background and perspective could have been more thoroughly explored.
A brief introduction alludes to the important influence of Asians in the birth of Hip-Hop. This topic alone could be the basis of a documentary. Sadly, what could have been embellished upon to provide a more thorough and fascinating insight into the importance of Asian artists in the establishment of the genre is so briefly appraised, that a potentially significant anchor in the history of rap music is all but lost.
A keener focus for the filmmaker is in establishing the types of adversity the rappers encounter and demonstrating how each are pigeonholed by ethnicity rather than accepted equally as recording artists. As if to add emphasis, the point is reiterated multiple times to the degree that I wondered if this is all the film would be? Fortunately it is not.
A valuable insight into the artist’s upbringings and family life provides substance and understanding into the sacrifices each has witnessed, and made, to be in a position where music is a viable career to aspire to.
Wisely the main focus of ‘Bad Rap’ falls on Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina, the two artists whose personal journeys cover the most ground during the course of filming. But time spent telling the story of Lyricks and Rekstizzy is equally valuable in providing a broader picture of the types of artist falling onto the ‘Asian Rapper’ stigma.
A ‘two years later’ catch-up with each of the four artists does little to bring the film to a satisfactory conclusion, feeling very much like a tacked on afterthought. Something of a missed opportunity it seems, considering the success that Awkwafina, in particular, has enjoyed subsequent to the making of ‘Bad Rap’.
Filmmaker Salima Koroma does an admiral job of highlighting the adversity faced by four rappers of Asian descent – coming out of the New York music scene. Whilst ‘Bad Rap’ isn’t a masterpiece it does convey an important message from a unique viewpoint not often explored. An American-Asian perspective about how ethnic profiling and discrimination is still prevalent, not only in rap music, but in many aspects of modern life.
‘Bad Rap’ receives a video on demand release across North America from May 23rd.
For more about the film visit badrapfilm.com