The quest for authenticity in hip-hop features quite heavily across Bad Rap, a 2016 documentary following the career of popular Korean American rapper Dumbfounded as well as three other Korean American rappers popular in the scene – Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks.
(Other Asian American rappers like Jay Park, Traphik, and Decipher show up across the film in brief segments, but they’re not the focus.)
Directed by Salima Korona, the film opens with some necessary hip-hop history. One of the things I appreciated the first time I watched this documentary was the way it nodded to the impact that Filipino rappers had on the game and gave viewers an introduction to a side of hip hop history that many of us don’t know.
These are rappers that probably WON’T be showing up on Netflix’s big hip hop history documentary series – which sucks because it’s a history we don’t talk about and don’t focus on – despite needing to.
So off the bat, I appreciated the look at these pioneers of Asian American hip-hop and I want to learn more about them. What are they doing now? What do they think of current rappers? Are their flows still fantastic?
What captured my attention in a second viewing of Bad Rap was how much the – primarily male – rappers on screen talked about their journey to rap, and truly, hip hop history as an Asian American, in the context of questing for authenticity and belonging.
Part if what drew a lot of these Asian American rappers to hip hop in the first place was this feeling that they didn’t belong in the United States.
They were outsiders desexualized and dehumanized by literal centuries of orientalist racist portrayals in film and for many of these teenagers – who grew up in relatively close proximity to Black people in “the hood” in places like Southern California, New York, New Jersey, and even Miami – they saw some value in coming into hip hop because it gave them the freedom to be tough, to be sexy, to be intense. To be themselves in a way they were denied by other American cultures.
Rapper Decipher actually talks about this early on in the film shortly after a snippet of the Wu-Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M. plays, saying (in part) that, “You know they had super machismos, they were on the other end of the spectrum. And I like gravitated towards that, because I wanted to be taught how to be tough”.
There’s absolutely an interesting thread worth checking out and unpacking (for someone else, someone Asian) about Asian American preoccupation with getting the girl plays into why these dudes reach for their own performance of patriarchy and wallow in machismo.
Like… Rekstizzy, across this documentary, shows himself to be ready and willing to objectify women in his quest to be taken seriously as a rapper. Instead of making sure that his one song is any good, he gravitates towards a music video that revolves around video vixens being squirted with condiments and twerking for a hungry, lusty audience.
Anyway, early on in the documentary, we make this connection that what’s driving a lot of these Asian American rappers is this desire to be seen as “real”. I’m not going to get into the politics of being Asian American because obviously, this isn’t my lived experience, but I will say that… I get not feeling like you belong and I get feeling like you have to put yourself out there in a certain way in order to be taken seriously by white America, but also… the other people of color around you with different experiences.
I watched this documentary the first time before I had made any progress on my mini-essay series about authenticity in Korean hip hop. Coming to it again, after a few weeks of quiet thinking about what it means to be chasing validity from people who literally don’t see us, I… I get it. I get it a lot better.
I see how things like Rekstizzy’s flat out cringey video happen and why we constantly see East Asian rappers reach for a fitted, some cornrows, and a jersey for a US team they may not even LIKE – or KNOW beyond a quick google search.
And I think that on a second watch, I better understand what they’re going through as rappers and as people struggling to be taken seriously and accepted by their communities as well as outsiders.
I don’t always agree with it – because Rekstizzy acting like his weirdly objectifying Americana themed video is striking a blow for Asian American masculinity in the US is still so fucking wild to me – but I better get what’s driving them. Like I understand it –
And that’s going to make it so much easier for me to talk about how this desire to be welcomed into hip hop shapes things like a simmering resentment towards Black artists as well as things like cultural appropriation to “fit in” (despite your target audience… not even coming close to Black Americans) to utilizing a Blaccent to rap and expressing a desire to do trap music when you wouldn’t recognize a trap house if I left you in one.
This documentary is… fascinating.
One person I didn’t expect to have any feelings for about across this was… Awkwafina. I don’t actually like her that much and I continue to think that her performance of Blackness is one of the roadblocks in my way to enjoying her as an artist –
But seeing her get dismissed by Dumbfoundead and other male rappers who willfully misrepresented her position in the game – Dumbfoundead returned to that “no one’s fucking us, weh” POV by saying that Asian women are more popular and represented because porn – and underestimated what she had to have gone through as a young woman in an incredibly misogynistic genre –
I was ready to fight for her.
(And, I mean, I will – over misogyny she gets hit with in hip hop. That’s it.)
Another interesting thing was how part of the documentary shows other music critics – who aren’t Asian – talked about the songs the primary artists were putting out. And it was rough. They weren’t universally loved by the critics and were even panned in some cases. It’s interesting to me because of how that quest for authenticity often includes reaching out to Black (male) rappers, reviewers, and reactors in order to get some kind of street cred –
And what happens when the authentic reactions aren’t positive.
I think that I’ll be referring to Bad Rap across my articles about authenticity as I put them together. Every single rapper in the documentary struggles with it and they can’t quite figure out where they should go with it. And their struggles are relatable on a level I also want to talk about because I get it.
So here’s the thing, I recommend Bad Rap after this second watch. I recommend a critical watch of this documentary because it actually puts so much into context when it comes to Korean American hip hop. It’s not directly applicable to Korean pop – like I can’t use this as a 1:1 way to explain appropriation from BTS, Hyuna, etc – but it’s a spark that helps me form an understanding that I didn’t necessarily have before and that sets up conversations I can have in the future with people who understand it better.
Have you watched Bad Rap? What are your thoughts?