Hidden Rap

Dumbfoundead1

Courtesy of FilmRise

The Asian-American experience in popular culture has been an interesting and sometimes troubling one. Where other minorities have made great, often vocal, strides in advancing their place in the pop culture firmament—music, movies, TV, comic books—Asians have not always been as successful. Bad Rap, directed by Salima Koroma and produced by Jaeki Cho, is an enlightening look at the careers of four Asian-American rappers—Dumbfoundead (Jonathan Park), Awkwafina (Nora Lum), Rekstizzy (David Lee) and Lyricks (Richard Lee)—as they struggle with prejudice and their own cultural expectations in a genre created and dominated by African-American artists. (Of course, white artists don’t exactly command the field either, but Eminem is shown as the obvious example of major success.)

The film opens with scenes of Dumbfoundead–the best known and longest performing of the four—onstage in front of an excited crowd, as the others praise his talent and 2011 song “Are We There Yet?,” which specifically addressed the experience of his Korean immigrant family. He interviews that he hates being called “an Asian rapper,” yet admits to also embracing that identity. Ultimately though, “I’m American,” he says, a sentiment that is echoed by others throughout the film.

Courtesy of FilmRise

Bad Rap delves into hip hop history, starting with 1980s West Coast Filipino rappers who were heroes in the Asian community around the time that NWA and Ice Cube first became popular. We hear from rap pioneer MC Jin, who appeared at age 19 on BET’s “Freestyle Friday” battle rap competition and was subsequently signed to Ruff Rider Records (the first Asian American rapper to be signed to a major label), only to see his career stall.

Various industry figures weigh in on the place of Asians in hip hop, including Snoop Dogg’s manager Ted Chung, journalist Oliver Wang, and Chinese-American rapper Decipher, who notes, “They want you to be that karate-kickin’, civic strivin’, SAT-takin’ dude. And a lot of us aren’t like that.” We watch the irrepressible Rekstizzy arguing strenuously for making a video (“God Bless America”) that includes squirting condiments on women’s twerking backsides. His manager (Cho, who also produced this film) is against it, with good reason.

Of the film’s four featured artists, Dumbfoundead seems the most frustrated, having been at it the longest. A veteran of L.A.’s battle rap scene, he also has the most street cred. Citing Awkwafina, who has drawn a hipster following with drily ironic songs like “My Vag,” he asserts that female Asian rappers are more marketable than men, while she argues that it’s just as hard for non-sexualized female. We watch her perform for an adoring crowd, with Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy and Lyricks all cheering her on. There’s clearly a lot of support and mutual admiration among this group.

Courtesy of FilmRise

Courtesy of FilmRise

Both Dumbfoundead and Lyricks are close to their mothers, who are featured in the film. We visit Lyricks, considered the best technical rapper of them all, as he works in his parents’ dry cleaning business. An eloquent speaker and performer, he talks about his upbringing in a deeply Christian household and the ongoing struggle between his faith and his career.

In 2015, after years away from the battle scene, Dumbfoundead decides to take part in a major Toronto competition, hosted by Drake, who happens to be a big fan. At the press conference for the event, journalists think nothing of asking the Asian rapper outrageously racist questions in weak attempts to be humorous. Battle raps are notoriously no-holds barred, and Dumbfoundead’s sparring partner, the popular Conceited, trots out every stereotype in the book (from slanted eyes to Jackie Chan), while his fans cheer. Dumbfoundead acquits himself nicely (though he himself resorts to digs about Conceited’s short stature). With his nimble, inventive lines, it’s clear he hasn’t lost any of his edge.

The film then jumps ahead two years and checks in with each of the four; all still rapping and hoping to make their mark. As Rekstizzy puts it, “We need that champion.” Bad Rap is an engaging film that leaves us hoping that one of these artists—or at least someone—does finally make it to that exalted place.

Bad Rap premieres on all major VOD platforms on Tuesday, May 23.

Marina Zogbi