How Awkwafina’s Own Musical Past Inspired Her Work With Nonprofit Building Beats

Years before creating the persona of Awkwafina that would launch her to stardom, a fifth-grade Nora Lum had to decide which instrument to learn in school. “I wanted to play the drums but then like 15 other people wanted to, so I was like, ‘OK, what’s the next loudest instrument?’” she says, laughing. “The trumpet is one of those instruments where people can almost tell what your voice is like. … My band teacher was able to tell who was playing the trumpet down the hall. I thought that aspect of it was really cool, because it involved a part of you.”

Twenty years later, there’s no mistaking Awkwafina’s voice, which has become one of the entertainment industry’s loudest and most distinctive. In just the last two years, she’s stolen scenes in the blockbusters “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians” and starred in A24’s gorgeous bilingual drama “The Farewell”; she’s now slated to front her own Comedy Central series and two upcoming projects for Marvel.

Peggy Sirota for Variety

It’s a remarkable rise — especially because it all started in her bedroom in Queens, New York, where she first started mixing the rap tracks that would go viral and catch Hollywood’s attention in the first place. “I didn’t anticipate that music would be like, a career,” she insists. “I just knew that I loved doing it.” Yet there was a steep learning curve. “When I was growing up, I was really into music, but the biggest question was access to the technology. … [So] when I first started producing beats, I was looking up how to do things like ‘How does a compressor work?’ These were questions that, in the context of GarageBand, could never be answered.”

That’s why Awkwafina is partnering with Building Beats, a New York City nonprofit that provides equipment, workshops and mentoring for minority and low-income youth who want to go into music production but don’t have the resources. “It also teaches you structure, how to be in charge of your own destiny and how to apply those tools later if you do want to go into the business of selling your music,” she says, adding that today’s music landscape relies so heavily on digital production that kids gaining access to it and being able to “take control of their own entrepreneurial destiny” is even more crucial than it was when she was starting out.

“I’ve been to a lot of workshops with Building Beats, and these kids really care. They remind me of me back then, you know?” she says, then grins. “Though they go to after-school programs, which — man, you couldn’t have paid me to go to an after-school program!”

She breaks into her signature burst of gravelly laughter, but the point stands. For as much as creativity and self-motivation count in the long run, Awkwafina emphasizes, having access to the digital technology that drives so much of modern music production can be a game changer for an aspiring producer. “Without certain tools, if you want to compete in a market, you won’t be able to,” she says. “But talent and passion don’t discriminate.”

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