Trap(ped): Asian Identity, its Niche in Mainstream Hip-hop, and Brian
Updated: Aug 15, 2019
In February of 2016, rapper Brian Imanuel, known to popular media as Rich Brian, released his debut single, titled “Dat $tick,” in response to the corrupt Indonesian government. Wearing a pink polo and a fanny pack, the then 16-year-old rapper spouted lyrics about the imminent wage gap, police brutality, and drug use. In retrospect, it contained themes prevalent in American music, while garnering the attention of the AAPI community at-large. Overnight, he grew into a viral hit.
Today, young people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds indulge in the songs released by Imanuel’s record label, 88Rising, which aims to promote AAPI artists of various genres. However, the AAPI identity still struggles with breaking into mainstream music while also retaining its heritage and originality.
Either get diplomas or a tool
Hip-hop roots itself in the African-American community, the bustling culture of 1970's New York, and the artistic presence of b-boying and graffiti. Turntable manipulation (pioneered by emcees such as Grandmaster Flash) and music sampling in the 90’s created a creative outlet for new and emerging artists. However, rappers shifted from old school rhymes and wordplay to more raw and graphic lyricism to comment on injustices in their communities.
On the other side of the country, the West Coast began to make its mark on the nationwide hip-hop movement. Filipino deejays and break dancers were among the first to pioneer the Asian “voice of the underdog.” However, other AAPI performers struggled to fit into this niche at a time when Asians were not the mainstream audience’s idea of a rapper. At times, the authenticity of their music was limited because ordinary viewers saw AAPI musicians as “gimmicks.”
In a time when this genre of music became a commodity, so did the AAPI identity. The ethnic stereotypes surrounding Asian men and women prevented prospective artists from making an early mark on rap music. This is due to the branding of AAPI citizens as “model minorities”, in which Asians embody success, as well as efficiency, due to their devotion to education and discipline. The ideology that these communities were proper and “book-smart” halted effective distribution of Asian music. Therefore, the “model minority” concept built a racial wedge between Asians and other minority groups; what kind of struggles could musicians of this heritage speak of?
These conflicts had nothing to do with AAPI musicians' individual styles or skills, and instead with a lack of Asian-American stories in popular culture. Gangsta rap and stories of crime and redemption were common themes expressed by new-age rappers such as 50 Cent and The N.W.A.. People were accustomed to hearing a style that expressed and honored a specific type of heritage. This included rapping on marginalization. For example, South Korean rapper Changmo attempted to rap on the difficulties of growing up in his hometown of Deoksori, but off the mic, failed to trace back his privilege. (He had grown up going to piano lessons, as well as after school supplementary classes.) Thus, AAPI attempts to emulate this style of lyricism did not perform well, instead, this lessened the authenticity of their music by portraying a lifestyle that was not relatable to the Asian community.
Nothing but my name
Perhaps the best examples of Asian hip-hop’s rise to prominence are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Born Jin Au-Yeung, MC Jin rose to fame in the 90’s for becoming the first AAPI rapper to sign with a major label, Ruff Ryders. His image and style were cultivated through his witty lyricism as a battle rapper, and his professional music rooted in the Asian identity. However, his first full studio album bombed, with its lead single “Learn Chinese” peaking at #74 on the Billboard Chart. “I didn’t have a creative mindset of my own,” Jin admitted. “Everybody [around me] had the best intentions. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to see it all go awry.”
At a time when rap music depended heavily on personal experiences, while also following a formula for mass media consumption, “Learn Chinese” represented a lack of Jin’s old witticism; “[he] referred to himself as "the chinky-eyed emcee" and referenced Bruce Lee, ginseng, and pork fried rice.” This further spiraled the Asian identity into a niche without addressing newer perspectives or breaking down stereotypes. However, despite Jin’s lack of commercial success, he reinvented his music through the release of a new album after almost one decade on hiatus. “XIV:LIX” is centered around his Christian faith, and most importantly, the struggles to regain “15 minutes of fame.”
Although his music career never took off, Jin’s album reflects on the peak of his popularity, as well as when it all came crashing down. The album didn’t reach a wide audience, but Jin remains a monument for aspiring Asian musicians.
Across the ocean, almost two years after Jin's 2014 release, Brian Imanuel thrived on the fame that was “Dat $tick”. After learning English from watching hip-hop music videos on YouTube, Imanuel was scouted by Sean Miyashiro, founder of 88Rising. Before transitioning to his present moniker, Rich Brian, Imanuel went under fire for the use of the stage name “Rich Chigga”. Like MC Jin, Imanuel attempted to commercialize his ethnic identity in attempts to emulate mainstream music, while bearing accusations of cultural appropriation.
Upon the release of his first studio album, “Amen” in 2018, Imanuel apologized for the use of his old name, while also questioning the truth behind his controversial debut single. Internet netizens couldn’t believe that the 17-year-old could even try to establish a career past “meme-dom” and the somewhat juvenile premise surrounding his first release. On the other hand, Imanuel, being as young as he is, has pushed away from the immaturity of his past. “I’m trying to avoid writing about guns and killing people in the new songs,” he said. “I want to write from my own experience.”
Droppin' wage livin good
“No matter the language I spit in the verse
I make sure I know what I’m worth
The powers preserved within all these words
Make certain I thrive on this Earth”
- Bohan Phoenix, Overseas
So, how would it be possible for AAPI rappers to break into the mainstream without commodifying their culture? In the twenty-first century, the answer was simple: according 88Rising founder Miyashiro, “Everybody wants to get into Asia…. [88Rising can pull] that card early on and [sell] people on that Asia dream.” In other words, the idea pushes for Asian artists to tell their own stories in their own ways, integrating both of heritage and personal growth. This creates a subgenre within hip-hop, showcasing the individuality of the AAPI community.
Today, AAPI rappers are no longer victim to their respective cultures being commoditized. The release of films such as “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell” (starring rapper-turned-actress Akwafina) has created a more inclusive and creative space for AAPI performers. Seeing Asian stories played out in popular media cultivates an existence that is not just represented, but acknowledged and understood. This encourages the production of similar forms of media for generations of families and children to see. If anything, it helps to shape an image of what America embodies for those who sacrificed everything to see it.
On July 26, 2019, Imanuel dropped his album “The Sailor”, and with it, the song “Kids.” The rapper has become a figurehead in the midst of this cultural revolution where Asian artists are starting to rise to prominence. Those who are successful are transparent about their identities and speak about stories that are close to them. In a pop-song dominated world, honesty and raw, real lyricism is difficult to find.
“Kids” is a tribute to Imanuel’s Indonesia, as well as immigrants and their children. AAPI artists and their music creates a gateway for American-born youth, and those who are yearning for home. Though Asian representation in American hip-hop is still in its fledgling stages, it has yet to grow to its full potential.
(Writer’s notes: all bold heading titles are lines from Rich Brian’s “Dat $tick”.)