Film Review: Salima Koroma’s “Bad Rap”

They want labels (of the recording variety), but they resist being labeled (as Asian American rappers).  However, the subjects in Salima Koroma’s documentary “Bad Rap” know that it will take more than a gimmick to sustain careers in a music genre mostly devoid of people who look like them.

The film weaves in and out of the struggles that face its four main protagonists: Dumbfoundead from Los Angeles’ Koreatown; Awkwafina and Rekstizzy from Queens, N.Y.; and Lyricks from Northern Virginia.  Talent is one thing, but drive is quite another, so it becomes almost immediately clear who merely talks the talk versus those who walk the walk.  Fortunately, just before any of these four wallows in too much self-pity or sense of entitlement, the narrative wisely shifts into the more interesting aspects of the film, such as history, marketability, and social commentary on race and gender.  Those who are unaware of the short historical arc of Asian American rap are treated to valuable footage from the pre-YouTube days of the Pinoy hip hop movement, which started in the 1980’s.  This careened into the next decade featuring groups such as Masta Plann, and paving the way for other Asian American artists such as The Mountain Brothers and MC Jin.

Facts are static, but social perceptions are frustratingly, equally so, with tangible goals for success continuously out of reach.  Stereotypes linger, such as those of Asian males “never getting the girl” or all Asians having to behave a bit more than their Latino or African American counterparts.  “Me being a rapper is offensive,” Rekstizzy says at one point to his manager – and “Bad Rap” co-producer – Jaeki Cho.  Even within the Asian American rap community, artists pit themselves against one another when questions of marketability and gender arise.  Dumbfoundead, a veteran battle rapper who counts Drake, the Far East Movement and Jay Park among his high-profile fans, envies the big agency signing of Awkwafina (who, as an Asian American female rapper, is an even bigger anomaly).  She, on the other hand, points to his potential longevity in his craft and fears that her work will become a short-term schtick.

The most interesting, and at times uncomfortable, sequence occurs when the interviewees switch to the agents, the executives and the journalists who ultimately hold sway over these artists’ careers.  Although they insist that a hit song will triumph over skin color, some of their on-camera evaluations of Dumbfoundead’s, Awkwafina’s, Rekstizzy’s and Lyricks’ skills become a foretelling of what happens two years later.  That is when Koroma turns the camera lens back on the four rappers, whose career trajectories confirm what the viewer has known all along.

“Bad Rap” will be released on VOD (video on demand) on various platforms, including iTunes and Amazon, on May 23.

Film trailer: BAD RAP

BAD RAP clip: Awkwafina and Dumbfoundead

BAD RAP clip: Dumbfoundead

BAD RAP clip: Rekstizzy

BAD RAP clip: Lyricks