The globalization of hip hop opened doors not only for rappers from places like China and Indonesia to find quick success, but also for contentious forms of appropriation and racism. NBC Asian America explores these tensions in an article published today (February 1) on how one Asian rapper is abandoning the controversial moniker that made him Internet famous.
The story follows Brian Imanuel, a teenager who became a viral sensation under the rap name Rich Chigga—the last word of which is a merging of "Chinese" (despite his being Indonesian) and the N-word. Imanuel used the slur in his 2016 hit song "Dat $tick," whose music video currently boasts over 84,000,000 views on YouTube.
He declined to speak with NBC Asian America, citing scheduling concerns with the promotion of "Amen," his first album which debuts tomorrow (February 2). As the article points out, he did address criticisms about using the N-word in a 2017 interview with Genius. "I was basically just trying to make people less sensitive to the word, and take the power out of that word, but then I realized I’m totally not in a position to do that," he explained to Genius. "I just don’t say it anymore."
On January 1, Imanuel tweeted that he changed his moniker to Rich Brian:
Yes I now go by “Brian”. I have been planning to do this forever and I’m so happy to finally do it. I was naive & I made a mistake. new year, new beginning, happy new years™️
— Rich Brian (@richbrian) January 1, 2018
In addition to his former name, Imanuel raps on "Dat $tick" and many of his other songs with a flow that imitates Black Southern rappers’ accents. It is a critique that has also been leveled at White rappers like Iggy Azalea. His flow once received praise from Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan—another issue that NBC Asian America considers problematic, writing:
Perhaps 88rising [Rich Brian’s record label] has cracked the code on how to get American media to pay closer attention to Asian hip-hop: Start with artists who are at least abreast of how the genre is changing online. Then, get hip-hop superstars to testify on their behalf. But these Asian artists, who may soon become essential voices in the genre, will have to decide for themselves how willing they are to address issues of race when explaining their success.
"The problem is, as compelling as their backstories may be, [these acts] co-opt American Southern hip-hop signifiers and tropes as means for their new wave of Asian cool," the article adds.
Asian-American rappers George "G" Yamazawa shared his own path to understanding how to be Asian American in hip hop without appropriation in the article. "My relationship with Black culture/the N-word is deep and nuanced, and I’ve matured into a place of understanding that took many conversations, confrontations and levels of self-examination,” he wrote in an e-mail to NBC Asian America. With regards to Rich Brian, Yamazawa says, "Rather than leaving the finger pointed at him, I think it’s been a great opportunity for our community to dialogue about our involvement in the American/global race dynamic, cultural relativism, and mainstream media representation."