Queens-born rapper Awkwafina (the alter-ego of Nora Lum) says she’s been doing some serious “hustling” in the last couple of years: recording an album, putting out an NYC guidebook, and making the big move to Greenpoint. She’s not there for the cute boutiques and charming scenery (after all, she made her fame with “NYC Bitche$”, in which she deftly buried an entire section of our humble Brooklyn borough for being overrun not just by transplants, but adult-baby transplants). Rather, she has a “rent control situation” weighing in her favor (“I’d live anywhere if it was cheap,” Lum told us last spring).
Awkwafina’s long checklist of projects also includes a web-based talk show called Tawk, now in its third season (teasers can be found on the Astronauts Wanted YouTube channel and full eppies on Go90); a roll as Awkwafina on the cast of MTV’s Girl Code; and a starring role in Bad Rap, a new documentary that follows the disparate careers of a handful of Asian-American rappers as they struggle to make it in an industry that views them as awkward outsiders (screening now through Saturday, April 23 at the Tribeca Film Festival) .
Awkwafina is reluctant to say that she’s made it just yet, but given all the recent activity it’s surprising to see a younger, somewhat unsure Awkwafina in Bad Rap. “When the hype is done, it’s probably gonna be nothing for me,” she says in an on-camera interview. Pointing to one of her male counterparts in the film, she suggests: “His longevity is something that I may not be able to have.”
But seeing Awkwafina hold court last week at the Tawk season finale, taped live at the Knitting Factory, was like meeting a whole new Awkwafina, who’s decidedly different from the one audiences meet in Bad Rap. As Tawk‘s irreverent, sassy host, the rapper translates her lol-true lyrical skills into the delivery of a totally convincing comedian. In an attempt to explain switchel to one of her guests, Awkwafina described the vinegar-based elixir as something that “white girls put it in their vagina– it’s like coconut oil, they put it all over.”
While hipster jokes can so often fall flat these days, having been beaten to death by the Times (among others) and turned into yawn-worthy, outdated caricatures resembling an emaciated Mr. Potato Head on a bicycle, Awkwafina’s crass observations about North Brooklyn yuppie “culture” and hipster jabs are gold and, above all, abreast of current realities. Oh, and they’re even funnier considering that Awkwafina is kind of a hipster– c’mon, those glasses! That beanie! Making fun of hipsters! It’s all there, my friends.
Tawk still allows Awkwafina to be self-deprecating and weird, no doubt, but these traits are not seen, as they are in Bad Rap, as a hurdle between Awkwafina and finding success in the music industry or something that relegates her to a rapping niche. Instead, Tawk is Awkwafina’s world, and everyone else is just living in it. “I get a lot of help from the producer, Shamikah Martinez, but for the most part I write everything, I do all the music for it,” Lum told us in an interview this week. “And I can say that it’s really my show.”
Tawk features plenty of absurdist elements– Awkwafina has an 85-year-old sidekick/hype-man Chiz who stands behind her, clunky vintage boombox in hand, in seemingly innocent senile silence. But, as a showbiz veteran, Chiz is actually all-knowing: “His wife and kids– he has multiple grown-ass kids–they don’t know that he does Tawk, it’s like his secret life,” Lum explained. “Honestly, he still is very sharp, but then also he’ll just not say anything. He understands what’s going on, which is good.”
There’s also classic stoner humor (Awkwafina keeps a brown-bagged 40 oz. under her desk, which is a tagged-up school desk). And carrying Tawk between interviews are some wholesome, wowy-zowy variety acts. At the season finale taping, the host flinched as a couple of showtime kids did a double-jointed acrobatic dance routine with the help of the tiniest dancer I’ve ever seen (he couldn’t have been older than four), who emerged from a suitcase. “I literally found those kids on the Q train,” she told the audience.
The season finale featured interviews with two other local comedians, Aparna Nancherla and Andrew Schulz, and while the host certainly riffed it out with both of them like any good host would, and threw in some ridiculous drinking games like “Never Have I Ever” and the Saltine cracker challenge, for good measure, it also felt like Awkwafina was talking shop with them. This transition to Awkwafina as comedian was a seamless one for me.
“Astronauts Wanted was started by this powerhouse, idol woman named Judy McGrath. She used to run MTV back in the day, and then she started this small internet company and at the time they were getting a lot of younger YouTubers, kids who had millions of followers already, getting them shows,” Lum recalled. But to her surprise, McGrath saw a lot of potential in Awkwafina. “When I came in, I didn’t have followers at the time, I probably had a couple of videos out on YouTube,” Lum laughed. “And they were like, ‘Yeah, we just want to make what you want to make.'”
There was a little bit of push-and-pull, but for the most part Lum has maintained her creative control. “It’s always been my dream to have a talk show where I interview homeless people and porn stars, because they have the best stories, you know? And they just make good guests. So we came to a compromise where I would interview other people too.” Ideally, Tawk is designed to hit somewhere in the middle of traditional talk show and sketch comedy show. “You have a lot of the networks doing like a Jay Leno, but I also didn’t want it to be so absurd to the point that we couldn’t actually do a good interview, so I want to keep the realistic component and then add certain other ratchet elements,” Lum told us.
Even if we see a more confident, well-rounded Awkwafina on Tawk, Bad Rap gives us a more contextual view of Lum’s existence as a female, Asian-American rapper. And it’s for this reason that the documentary is fascinating, even if it occasionally falls a little short of its potential.
The filmmakers–director Salima Koroma and Jaeki Chohave– made a truly accessible documentary, one that hip-hop fans and the uninitiated will find enlightening. Their telling places these rappers within the larger trajectory of Asian-Americans in rap, looking back to the ’80s and ’90s when the West Coast Filipino community helped lay the groundwork for Asian-American participation in what was an almost strictly black-American art form. Bad Rap, as the name implies, also emphasizes the outsider status Asian-Americans maintain within the hip-hop and rap community, even today. This relegation is partially chalked up to stereotypical portrayals of Asian-Americans in mainstream media, something that has seeped into the four rappers’ psyches, and that bubbles up constantly as a source for inner- and outer-conflict.
But Bad Rap should also be applauded for not taking a simplistic, overly celebratory stance on Asian-American rappers. Instead, the filmmakers confront the elephant in the room– cultural appropriation– head on, and show that many Asian-American rappers (they interview several beyond the four major characters) sense that there’s a boundary, beyond which there remain things that they, as non-black rappers, cannot say or do. And yet, many of the same people who pointed out that certain things were off-limits brazenly cross the line anyway. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether insidious cultural appropriation is at work here, or if these Asian-American rappers are simply engaging in an art form that they are deeply committed to, not as a way of just profiting or stealing, but ultimately as an act of deference and respect.
The major focus of the doc falls on four Asian-America rappers: Lyricks, Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy, and, of course, Awkwafina. While they all share one superficial trait and similar complexes related to their shared experiences with things like immigrant parents, racism, and xenophobia over the years, they couldn’t be more different in terms of world view, ambition, taste, and talent. There’s Dumbfoundead, the battle rap kid who’s trying (with mixed success) to cross over into the more marketable territory of songwriting and album recording.
We watch as he earns the praise of Drake at a battle (who says he’s followed the rapper for “years”), and yet Dumbfoundead doesn’t see the same kind of enthusiasm for his recorded tracks. At several moments throughout the doc, various people raise doubts about the rapper’s ability to write original, interesting songs. Even his own mother suggests that her son isn’t making the necessary “sacrifices” to be a committed artist. Likewise Dumbfoundead himself complains of his lack of achievement. And yet, the filmmakers follow the rapper on a tour where he performs to packed venues and he has the highest-quality production in his music video out of the four. Generally, he seems relatively comfortable– well-groomed, and decked out in expensive-looking clothes, and easily confident. So if he’s not that great, then what’s going on here? I should mention that Dumbfoundead is a rather dapper looking dude, or I’ll just come out and say it– he’s really, really good looking. But no one ever takes a moment to suggest (or the doc makers simply don’t show it) that his mild success might have a little something to do with this.
Maybe the most talented among the four, and the guy who gets the best feedback from all parties throughout the film, is Lyricks. But the universal love for the guy is not always instantaneous. “His name is Lyricks?” Damien Scott, an editor at Complex magazine sneers. (I’m with you, buddy.) Unlike Dumbfoundead– a party-boy type who relishes in girls, booze, and weed– Lyricks embodies the prophet rapper archetype. He’s a guilt-riddled, but faithful Christian who’s dedicated his life to missionary work and helping out his parents at their dry cleaning business. But since his teenage years, he’s been obsessed with what his parents called “the devil’s music,” despite his own strong sense that he should be doing holier work. The guy likes to party too, don’t get me wrong, but he feels bad about it– big difference– and while everyone else is passed out on the couch till noon, Lyricks is sweeping up the mess and drinking coffee with your mom.
Lyricks is quietly, yet tenaciously tied to rap. He’s the only character that I’m convinced can really, truly do nothing else (despite his parents’ pleading that he enroll in law school). And this level of dedication shows in his work– a booking agent says that Lyricks’s stuff reminds him of “early Jay or Nas or Wu Tang,” and even Damien Scott retracts his initial dismissal declaring, “He raps pretty well– he raps really well, actually.”
Rekstizzy, on the other hand is the baby-faced class clown from Queens who raps about the 7 train and loving America. His most memorable contribution to the film is the making of his music video, “God Bless America,” which might come across as either completely tone deaf or a misfired parody of something or other. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before, delivered with a high-pitched squeal and images appropriated straight out of gangster rap. The video’s sorta funny, but let’s just say that I found myself laughing in the same way that I laughed when I saw a passed-out bro piss himself on the train (i.e. not for the right reasons). Explaining why he wasn’t exactly charmed by Rekstizzy’s track, a radio show host shrugs. “I don’t quite get Riff Raff, though, either.”
The four rappers’ Asian-American status cuts two ways: it’s something that hinders each of them in a number of different ways, but it’s also an inexorable part of who they are and provides each of them with unique material to work with. When asked what Asian-American artists he’d listened to recently, that Complex editor couldn’t name one. But it’s not just perceived un-marketability that’s holding these rappers back, it’s a changed music industry. While rappers have always been better than any other kind of musician at self-promotion, today the self-made artist has taken on a whole new meaning.
“For me, I think the route that I took was an accident, I never planned to use music to break into other worlds,” Lum explained. “It just kind of happened and almost out of necessity, because you don’t make money doing music these days. You can have a viral video hit, you can have songs on iTunes, but you’re not like balling.”
One downfall of the doc relates to how Awkwafina’s role seems all too brief. She’s portrayed (unconvincingly) as the wildly successful artist of the group– a scene depicting her screaming fans is given way too much time, and instead of hearing from her relatives and friends about what makes her such a great artist, we’re subjected to griping from the other three rappers about Awkwafina’s success.
“The truth is, I don’t think I’ve found success yet. I don’t think it showed the sense of humility that I still have. I’m still incredibly unsure,” Lum said. “I’m still figuring out what i’m going to do in a year. I don’t like how it portrays me as being set– I’m not set by any means. Things are still changing, I wish it showed that more.”
While we do hear some entertaining and intelligent input from Awkwafina herself in the doc, overall the film cuts her story short, exploring the guys with a greater level of scrutiny and care. While almost all the male rappers were given an extensive cross-examination into their creative process, personal demons, family life, and inspiration, Awkwafina is not given the same in-depth exploration.
However the filmmakers do spotlight the sexist remarks of her peers. In one scene, Dumbfoundead and a friend are discussing Awkwafina, and the friend suggests that it’s not necessarily Lum’s talent or hard work that scored her an Agency Group booking agent (something that’s apparently a marker of prestige in the rap world). “I’ve been trying to do that for the last five years,” Doubfoundead whines.
The friend chimes in, pointing out, “she’s a cute Asian girl,” and suggests that because Dumbfoundead is an Asian boy, he can’t exploit his looks or sex appeal to get anywhere. Conclusion: men have it harder. The doc demonstrates that this wasn’t simply a slip of the tongue. Dumbfoundead reiterates his position again in a one-on-one interview: “I definitely think it’s easier to market an Asian female rapper than an Asian male rapper, because look at everything else– look at porn, there aren’t many Asian male porn stars, but there are tons of female asian porn stars.”
In the following segment, the filmmakers interview Awkwafina who clearly disagrees with this assumption. (Though Lum told me in an interview, “They’re just like my best friends, we’re in such a similar industry, especially with Dumb, he’s doing acting now too, so we share that.”) She looks at the camera and builds her defense. “The difference with me is, is it easier to market an Asian-American female who is really sexualized?” she asks. “A kind of awkward, really short, petite, not-sexual-at-all Asian girl? You can’t market me, I’m like five-foot-three.” No, it was something else that got her where she is. “I’m making songs that are funny and people are obviously receiving in a way,” she concluded.
This brought me back to Tawk, a show where Awkwafina uses her brains and wicked sense of humor to light up the room, while looking great, being as crude as she wanted, and clever and sarcastic as she cared to be too, all while running the damn show– without having to flirt, without having to wear, like, a booby gown or whatever sex icons wear, and without having to subject herself to being hyper-sexualized in either image or discussion. Clearly, Lum is controlling her own narrative on Tawk. But all this was another reminder how difficult it must be to be a female rapper, or even a rapper at all right now.
But Lum is adamant that Awkwafina is not done rhyming. “Music is my passion, so I’ll always do it, but the comedy stuff is like a cool career that I’ve got going on now,” she said. “I mean, yeah, you just have to hustle.”