Asian-American rappers battle not only other lyricists but also ethnic and music-industry stereotypes in “Bad Rap,” filmmaker Salima Koroma’s documentary portrait of four aspiring musicians endeavoring to break into a genre reluctant to accept them. Edited with a rhythmic gracefulness that nicely harmonizes with its subjects’ verses and beats, it’s a unique look at the difficulty of achieving stardom and respect in an unresponsive marketplace, and most engaging when investigating questions of legitimacy in the hip-hop (and mainstream American pop-cultural) world — issues which should help it carve out its own non-fiction niche, albeit most likely via streaming services.
As newcomer Koroma (who wrote, directed, shot and edited) cogently illustrates, Asian-American rappers have — despite some in-roads in the ’80s and ’90s, courtesy of minor breakout stars like MC Jin — largely been relegated to fringe performers, thanks to the fact that they aren’t viewed as “authentic” by African-American (and, for that matter, Caucasian) artists and fans. Incapable of successfully selling themselves as hardcore gangsters (even if they, in fact, do come from mean streets), and yet desperate to break away from the usual clichés that dog them (i.e. that they’re into math, or are bad drivers), these genre outcasts find themselves striving for acceptance even as they attempt to pioneer their own distinctive paths.
Koroma fixates on a quartet of rising stars, the most successful being Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park, a native of L.A.’s Koreatown who’s made a name for himself in the battle-rap arena, where cleverly constructed insults are prized above all else. Nonetheless, despite his renown in that field as well as regular tours, Dumbfoundead remains on the outside looking in, and his frustration at record companies’ confusion about (or disinterest in trying to figure out how to) market him to a wide audience is, according to him, symptomatic of a 21st-century America devoid of the sorts of sexy, tough, macho Asian-American male personas he’s cultivating.
Gonzo David “Rekstizzy” Lee and religious Richard “Lyricks” Lee serve as alternative, if no more fruitful, identities for Asian-American rappers to embody. The former’s shtick — epitomized by a much-debated video in which he squirts ketchup and mustard on African-American women’s backsides at a Stars and Stripes-themed BBQ — feels like crass mimicry, and the latter’s more straightforward hip-hop lacks an idiosyncratic edge.
When Koroma has a radio DJ, magazine journalist and Atlantic Records A&R man sample their work, the overall reaction is by and large muted, revealing that for all the talk about hip-hop’s exclusionary attitude towards them, these rappers haven’t fully developed personalities that would truly delineate them from their peers.
That’s somewhat less true of Nora “Awkwafina” Lum, a petite female rapper who uses a catchy song called “My Vag” as the launching pad for a multimedia career involving not only music but TV, books and web shows. While Dumbfoundead makes a cogent point about Awkwafina having it easier than he does — given Asian women’s status as objects of lust for many American men — her quirky pseudo-hipster comedic attitude and freestyling flow suggest that she’s also fashioned a space for herself simply by presenting something new and eccentric.
The uphill stereotype-countering climb faced by these performers is most starkly exposed during a Drake-hosted battle rap that pits Dumbfoundead against “Wild ‘N Out’s” Conceited, in which the BET star’s barbs predictably, and drearily, involve Asian-centric jokes about martial-arts movies and eating duck (and kittens). Ultimately jumping forward two years in time to see how their careers have played out, “Bad Rap” fails to come to any conclusions about the best course for music-scene acceptance, assimilation and fusion, but it raises questions about these topics with a clear-sightedness and formal deftness — its montage as sharply assembled as its camerawork is sleek — that elevates it above much of the subculture-documentary fray.