By Mandy Day
Asian Americans have long battled under-representation in media and entertainment. Inspired by the invisibility of Asian American hip-hop artists in mainstream American music, Bad Rap, is directed by Salima Koroma. It’s a documentary film about the struggle for Korean Americans to shed their “Asian rapper” label and break into an industry long dominated by African American and Latino artists.
Koroma’s film about Korean American rappers began as her Graduate Thesis at Columbia University. Koroma told AsAm News that her inspiration for the film came from her love of hip-hop in childhood and the discovery of the Asian American rap scene in the United States. She sought to tell the stories of Asian American rappers who she sought to represent in her film.
“When you think about gender, when you think about race, you think about all these kinds of intersectionalities in hip-hop, the one thing we don’t talk about is Asian Americans,” Koroma told us in an interview earlier this month.
Bad Rap succeeds in telling the stories of relatively well-known Asian American rappers like Dumbfoundead (Jonathan Park) and Awkwafina (Nora Lum). Dumbfoundead is a cornerstone of the Asian American rap scene, especially on the West Coast where he often opens for Korean hip-hop artists on their North American tours. Awkwafina, the sole female Asian American rapper profiled in the film, hails from Queens, New York, and the film documents her struggle to find a place in a male-dominated industry.
The film briefly tells the stories of each rapper’s beginnings in music and the struggle to shed the “Asian” rapper label while fighting to break through into mainstream hip-hop. Bad Rap unravels the stereotypes often placed on East Asians as the rappers depicted in the film search for their place within the American rap community.
While Awkwafina and Dumbfoundead have established themselves among the Asian American community, others
profiled in Bad Rap have yet to obtain the level of notoriety that these two have. Lyricks and Rekstizzy are the remaining two rappers heavily followed in the film as they attempt to find their way through the cutthroat music industry. Rekstizzy (David Lee), a rapper also from Queens, seeks to unleash his creativity through music, often in a way that contradicts the vision his manager has for marketing him as a legitimate rapper. Industry insiders seemed unimpressed with his outside-the-box approach to music, but Rekstizzy is shown to continue to do things his way regardless of what music executives think.
Lyricks (Richard Lee), a Virginia based Korean American, is documented throughout the film as an artist whose lifestyle often conflicts with his Christian faith. While his music reflects his dedication to God, he battles the hard partying lifestyle he has become accustom to. Splitting him time between the family’s dry-cleaning business and his music, Lyricks works to finance his musical aspirations while searching for balance in his life.
Koroma’s debut film premiered at the TriBeca Film Festival earlier this year. Upon winning Pacific Arts Movement’s Best Documentary Feature Award at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, she implored filmmakers of color to tell the stories of other POC, when often those stories are told through the lense of a Caucasian behind the camera. Bad Rap is currently screening at film festivals within the United States and abroad.
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