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Director Salima Koroma Tackles Asian-Americans' Missing Identity in Hip Hop With 'Bad Rap'

By Morgan Murrell morgan.murrell@musictimes.com | Apr 21, 2016 08:45 PM EDT

If you were asked to quickly write down the first five Asian-American rappers that come to mind, would you be able to do it? After seeing this movie you'll definitely be able to. First-time director, Salima Koroma, recently debuted her highly-anticipated documentary, Bad Rap, at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Koroma chopped it up with Music Times to discuss the film, explaining why she set out to tackle the issue of Asian Americans' missing identity in hip hop and dissecting the stereotypes that plague their careers.

Bad Rap surrounds the lives and careers of four aspiring Asian-American rappers looking to break into an industry that has overlooked them for decades. The documentary features compelling in-depth interviews with the artists and their family members, chats with respected members of the hip hop community, and behind the scenes footage of live performances. Koroma and her co-producer, Jaeki Cho, explore the artists' personal journeys of disappointment and doubt, while also highlighting their growth and success.

Hip hop is not only a genre of music, but a culture all its own, which is why it's managed to have such an enormous impact on society. Aspiring rappers Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Lyricks, and Rekstizzy take viewers on an intimate ride of discovery as they try to find their place in a world that views them as outsiders.

What inspired you to tell this story?

I love hip hop. I grew up on hip hop. I'm also very interested in socio-politics and industry politics, so I wanted to tell a story about how hip hop manifests itself within different communities and how those different perspectives are told. For example, there's certain things that Drake can say that Nicki Minaj, there's certain things that Eminem cannot say that Young Thug can definitely say, and I thought that was so interesting. I was talking with Jaeki Cho about what we wanted to do, because I was making a film for my thesis at Columbia. He's Asian-American and he's also somebody who learned English through hip hop. He was telling me, "You know Salima I've been a hip hop journalist for a long time and I'm good at it, but there are certain things I'm not allowed to say, write, or do because I'm Asian. The rappers that I know are sort of pigeonholed or limited by the fact that they're Asian-American."

I thought that was very poignant and very interesting, so I asked him if the story has ever been told and he said, "Salima I've never heard of someone making a film, writing a book, or anything about Asian rappers. I really thought that couldn't be true so we looked it up and saw that nobody was really talking about it. At that point we knew this was it, this was something we wanted to explore.

What was the casting process like for the film?

First of all, when I first started the film I was asking my black and brown friends about what Asian rappers they're familiar with and everybody would say Jin, then everybody would say PSY, which is wrong because PSY is not Asian American, but mostly Jin and maybe you would hear Dumbfoundead. If you live in Los Angeles, Dumbfoundead is that dude. Even I knew about Dumbfoundead, because I lived in Los Angeles. I would hear a little about Far East Movement, but a lot of people didn't even realize Far East Movement are Asian. After naming like two or three rappers, they couldn't really think of anyone else, which I thought was very interesting. When I asked my Asian friends, man they could list a bunch. So, when I was casting it I knew I wanted Jin and I knew I wanted Dumbfoundead. Those were the two people that I had on deck. After talking to Jaeki, he told me he had a lot of Asian rapper friends and a lot of rapper contacts, so we just started contacting them. We started contacting people who were down for interviews, but I don't know if they were down for me following them for three years with a camera. It almost just really happened organically.

Jaeki at the time was managing Rekstizzy, who is in the film, so we went to go meet with him. Rekstizzy is this crazy character with great soundbites. His process of thinking about how to create music and music videos was out of this world, so I made him my first character. Then one night I went to a Dumbfoundead show, actually that night is where Awkwafina met Dumfoundead and Rekstizzy for the first time, so I would just be shooting them and they would be saying great things, and you could just see each of those three characters had separate lanes. Awkwafina was sort of like the newbie female rapper, who had a viral video and she didn't know where her place stood in hip hop; Dumbfoundead kind of had this overconfident personality; and then you had Rekstizzy who was trying to find his place. Lyricks came in later...he had a great story too. Not only did they all have great stories, and were all at different parts in their careers, and were all different rappers, but they also were good friends so it all worked out very well.

Since the film's inception versus its completion, how have the artists grown as individuals and in the hip hop industry?

Since we started, Dumbfoundead went back to battle rapping, which was cool because he hadn't done it in a very long time (nearly five years). At the time when we first started, Dumb felt like he lost his way. He didn't know what to do and that made him feel like he was just floating around. He wasn't sure if he had already reached his peak in his career, so by the end of the film he understood what his lane was and was really open to trying new things. He was okay being a battle rapper and marketing himself in these different kind of ways, so he's grown in that way.

Awkwafina has definitely grown. When I first talked to her she wasn't sure what her place was. She contemplated whether or not she was a gimmick or a good rapper, because very important people around her were telling her the same thing. After a couple of years, she came to the realization that she is a good rapper, she's a great producer, and she finally embraced that. So she grew in that way and now not only is she doing music, but she's also doing film, television, and writing books. She's the entire package.

I think they've all grown in how they think about themselves as rappers, rather than trying to put themselves in a box. Now they have the mindset of doing what they want and knowing they're going to succeed. That's a common thread among all of them.

In the film, you discussed record labels having difficulty marketing Asian-American acts. Why do you think that is?

Well first of all, I don't know that there's been that many Asian-American acts for them to market. Really the big ones, I mean there's South Star from the duo Smilez & South Star, who had that one hit "Tell Me," but they didn't really do anything big. Jin was really the big experiment on how you market an Asian-American rapper and I don't know that they succeeded. Talking to Jin was one of the best experiences ever, because he had some great thoughts and great things to say. Jin told me when he got off of BET's 106 & Park doing their Freestyle Fridays, the label and the producers wanted him to do this song called "Learn Chinese." They really wanted to put that it out there that he was a Chinese rapper and it kind of backfired on them. He even said that he doesn't think he needed to say "learn Chinese, learn Chinese, China, China China," because viewers can look at him and instantly tell that he's Asian, so why not talk about his skill.

I think that's one experiment and it didn't go well. You're not marketing an Asian rapper, because not all Asian rappers are the same. You're marketing a rapper who is Asian. You're not marketing Asian rappers, because then you try to be to broad, you try to blanket it, and then it doesn't work. They should focus on how you market Jin, not how you market Jin the Asian rapper and I think that's where the experiment sort of failed. Even with rappers like Nas and 50 Cent. You wouldn't market them the same way just because they're both Queens rappers. No, you just wouldn't. Nas and 50 are in two totally different lanes. I honestly feel like I found the formula to how this works by just speaking with you, thank you.

Do you think the marketing issue has more to do with their physical appearance rather than their actual talent?

That's another great question, because it's a question that I asked within my interviews with them. I asked them if they think there's an Asian rapper out there who they think can make it. Dumbfoundead said of himself, "Well I need to do better. I need to have better lyrics. I need to pick up my speech. The stars all need to align and my whole image needs to be there." I honestly don't know that there has been that person to be perfectly honest. They don't just have to be skilled, they have to be S-K-I-L-L-E-D. Like, Eminem came out as like the Messiah of white rappers or whatever you want to call it. Eminem was undeniable, his lyrics were undeniable, his music was undeniable, and his comedy was undeniable. When something is undeniable you just can't reject it. It just doesn't make sense. For an Asian-American rapper to make it in the industry, their skill, their image, and what they can bring to the table has to be undeniable.

You also touched on labels finding it a little easier to market female Asian-Americans. Artists like Amerie, Jhene Aiko, Cassie, and Nicki Minaj, who are all of Asian descent, have been able to create successful careers for themselves. Do you believe the marketing depends on the audience or genre?

I can't be positive and this goes back to the question of Asian monoliths. Awkwafina and Dumboundead are not targeting the same audience. Rekstizzy and Lyricks are definitely not targeting the same audience. At the end of the day, we're talking about the music. Is the music good? I've had people come to me after watching Bad Rap and either really like the artist or not like them at all. Even without looking at their faces, you put on a record and press play, does the music move you? Are you interested in the music? Does it make you feel something?

In terms of marketing, I don't know about the audience. I can't speak on that and I think that is almost a failure on the music industry's part. What I do think these rappers have in common themselves is that they appeal to young Asian kids --- not even just Asian kids --- actually a lot of the people who have come to our screenings have been young black kids wondering how they can get from under their parent's thumb and do what they really want to do. They don't want to be a doctor or a lawyer, they want to do something a little more creative, so they're looking for ways to tell their parents this. There's a subset of Asian-American and Black youngsters who would be interested in this.

It's almost like there's a hierarchy or caste system in hip hop and who listeners views as acceptable. You have African-Americans at the top, Latinos would follow, then Caucasians, and after that it really starts to dwindle out.

Totally, that is what it is. You take what you assume hip hop to be. People assume hip hop can only be aggressive, confrontational and from the streets, specifically hip hop purists. Then you look at what Asian-Americans, specifically Asian males, are assumed to be. The stereotypes that you see in 16 Candles or William Hung from American Idol...these caricatures of men who are effeminate, docile and non-confrontational. How do you take these two assumptions and put them together? They don't fit. This is the issue that we're having. These two assumed identities don't fit and this is what Bad Rap wants to explore, or at least open people's eyes to.

Have your views of the music industry changed at all since making the film?

Well, I've learned a lot about the music industry which I think is really cool. My views on the representation of Asian-Americans and Asians has not necessarily changed, but I've become extremely sensitive to them. So things that my friends and I would have laughed at now make me cringe. When I saw William Hung on American Idol's series finale and he's singing "She Bangs" and wearing a funny outfit, because he's a comic relief isn't funny to me. I may have laughed at it when I was younger, but now it really just makes me cringe. This is what I want people to take from the film. I want them to be aware of these things and that's important to me.

For more information about Bad Rap and the artists, visit the film's website, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

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