Recording 006: Bad Rap and the Ethics of Omission

Bad Rap, Salima Koroma and Jaeki Cho’s 2016 documentary that follows the careers of four rappers—Dumbfounded, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks—as an exploration of the space Asian-Americans (do not) inhabit within popular Hip Hop culture is, overall, an excellent and necessary film. In only an hour and twenty-two minutes director/producer Koroma and producer Cho manage to offer a brief history of Hip Hop and Asian-Americans’ place within it, introduce their audience to the sounds and lifestyles of the four aforementioned rappers, and document their intersecting careers as they (fight to) find success within America’s Hip Hop industry. Most importantly, through various forms of individual and group interviews, Koroma and Cho offer space for Dumbfounded, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks to (seemingly) tell their own stories, which makes it easy for the film’s audience to feel invested in their successes and struggles (at least I did). If you care about Hip Hop music or culture, the ethics of representation, racism, pop cultural theory, or just documentaries in general, you should watch this film.

However, although the film’s thesis is spot-on—Asian Americans are unquestionably marginalized in popular Hip Hop culture—there are glaring omissions that are rarely, if ever, acknowledged. (But, before I delve into specifics, let me quickly acknowledge my biographical position—as a white, male Jewish-American writer and Hip Hop fanatic who grew up in New York City in the ’90’s and 2000’s—and intentions—not to annihilate Bad Rap, but to further open the discussion(s) it starts regarding the space(s) Asian-American rappers inhabit in popular Hip Hop.)

For one, the documentary suffers from a coastal bias and fails to make much mention of this. Three of the four rappers at the center of the film are from New York (Awkwafina and Rekstizzy) or Los Angeles (Dumbfounded) and the other (Lyricks) is from Fairfax, Virginia, which isn’t exactly far away. This might be acceptable (or at least expected) for a mid-’90’s Hip Hop documentary, but for one released in 2016, it is a troubling oversight. Yes, New York and Los Angeles are, and have historically been, epicenters for creative industries including music, but the Internet has been interrupting their dominance for years. To not at least mention someone like Korean-American spoken word poet and emcee Denizen Kane of the Chicago-based rap group Typical Cats (check out his 2009 album Brother Min’s Journey to the West) seems careless at best. Not only has Kane been around for years and produced significant solo and collaborative albums, but he also explores immigrant experiences in some of his work.

Relatedly, the film fails to fully include South and Southeast Asian American rappers. To its credit, the documentary does briefly mention that South and Southeast Asian rappers are often perceived differently (as more masculine/authentic) than those whose families hail from East Asia; however,  this a questionable excuse to exclude a long list of rappers, many of whom are currently making waves in Hip Hop: from Philippines-born, Los Angeles-raised Ruby Ibarra to former Das Racist members Heems (currently of the Swet Shop Boys) and Ashok Kumar Kondabolu aka Dapwell. Heems, in particular, seems like someone whose voice could have expanded the dialogue of Bad Rap: not only has he experienced critical and popular success over the past ten years, but he has also taken artistic and personal risks through his simultaneously leftfield and autobiographical lyricism, which does not shy away from addressing what it means for him to be Punjabi-American in a post-9/11 world, among many other subjects.

Furthermore, the film misses an important opportunity to discuss colorism, passing, and the ways in which people of multi-ethnic backgrounds have their identities simplified and/or erased. Successful Hip Hip/R&B artists such as Anderson .Paak (who was born to a Korean/African-American mother and an African-American father) and apl.de.ap of The Black Eyed Peas (who was born to a Filipina mother and an African-American serviceman) are, at times, perceived by their audiences as simply being black or, at least, fitting into America’s greater narratives of blackness. Because of this (and even though both artists openly discuss their ethnic backgrounds), .Paak and ap do not face the same stigmas as other Asian-American rappers (but they do face other stigmas, of course); in general, they fit into popular Hip Hop’s expectations and projections of performative blackness, which means they are more often seen as being “authentic,” while simultaneously being boxed into (white) America’s stereotypes of black rappers.

In the end, an hour and a half documentary can cover only so much, but the experiences of artists such as Denizen Kane, Ruby Ibarra, Heems, Dapwell, Anderson .Paak, and apl.de.ap, among others, would have added layer upon layer to the way Bad Rap presents the narratives of Asian-American rappers within popular Hip Hop. Of course, I’m omitting and/reducing narratives, as well—such as the fact that apl.de.ap was born with an eye disorder called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and is legally blind, which makes him a rare example of a popular rapper of differing ability—and the fact that Bad Rap is a powerful enough documentary to cause me, and many other people, to write of it speaks volumes of the many important issues it does raise.

At the same time, it’s important to address the omissions in Bad Rap so that they are recognized as such; otherwise, we risk turning those omissions into a reality that doesn’t simply ignore certain narratives, but erases them (which is generally how history works). Since its release in 2016, Bad Rap has garnered a significant amount of press, but, as far as I can tell, very little of it (except for this article by Nadya Agrawal in Paper Mag and Rekstizzy’s brief shout-out to Heems in this UPROXX interview) has created greater awareness of, or space for, a broader spectrum of Asian-American rappers (let alone Asian-Americans who operate in other facets of Hip Hop). Yes, Bad Rap is very much the story of four rappers making their way in Hip Hop, and no piece of art should be expected to represent all members of not just one, but many ethnic groups, which is why the discussion shouldn’t be just about what Bad Rap leaves out, but how the platform it creates can make more voices visible.