Awkwafina tawks about the identity of a satirical rapper
Rapper Awkwafina, who will be headlining Kollaboration New York’s 9th Showcase, sat down with KNY’s Joyce Chen to give us an exclusive interview about her origins as the “token Asian” growing up in Forest Hills, NY, and how she’s holding her own as a serious rapper — squirt gun, oversized glasses and all.
To see Awkwafina live on August 30 at NYU Skirball, buy your tickets here.
There are plenty of words that might come to mind – a few of them NSFW – when it comes to describing Awkwafina, the New York City-bred rapper who shook up the music scene last spring with her viral YouTube hit “My Vag.”
Ratchet. Hilarious. Vulgar. Hipster.
None, however, come close to how the Queens native would describe herself if given the chance.
“Flappy, slappy, and…bass-y,” Awkwafina said after some deliberation over a recent breakfast at Greenpoint’s Café Edna. She had a hard time keeping a straight face with her original answer (“lovely, affable, pleasure…ous”), but didn’t blink twice with her second attempt. The rapper (née Nora Lum) grinned and let out a husky chuckle.
“The most common misperception is that based on some of my videos, like ‘NYC Bitche$,’ some people think I’m a hood rat,” she said. “And then other people will argue that and be like, ‘She’s not a hood rat, she went to Harvard Law School’ – which is not true. I did not go to Harvard Law School.”
“So it’s either hood rat, nerd or hipster. People just see what they want to see,” she said. “People can’t understand something they don’t know, so if they don’t understand what a hipster is and they see my video, it’s easy for them to say, ‘Oh, she’s a hipster.’”
The most important thing is to be controversial – but not in a racist way! – controversial in terms of taking risks.
Awkwafina, who was born and raised in Forest Hills, Queens, is at once elements of all three labels and none of the above. Her swaggerific, droll stage persona and oversized glasses give her license to say and do things the general public might classify as “hipster,” but the former trumpet player, vegan bodega employee and publicist isn’t looking to be pigeonholed anytime soon.
After studying classical and jazz music at LaGuardia High School (fellow female rappers Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks are also alums), she went on to study Mandarin in Beijing and journalism at SUNY Albany before landing a corporate job in NYC. She rapped silly versions of Shakespeare’s Othello to her friends for kicks, but it was her experience in the corporate world that led her to finally focus on music full-time, after having dabbled with songwriting since her high school days.
“My life was really cut and dry at that time,” she explained. “I would go to work and hate it. Then I would come home and work on my music until like 4 in the morning. But this isn’t an attack against all 9-to-5 jobs, it’s an attack against doing something that you really don’t like for really bad reasons, like to fit in or to make money.”
“And that’s what my life was. I know people who love their jobs. My best friends all work 9-to-5s and they love ‘em because it’s something that they feel enriched by, and somewhere where they feel like they’re evolving. But I only felt that way through music.”
Not that it was all smooth sailing after her decision to quit. Awkwafina took on odd jobs at a vegan bodega and a Japanese restaurant to pay the bills while focusing on her music (“It wasn’t easy but it was worth it”). What pushed her through the tougher times, however, was the minor sensation she caused online with her first video, “My Vag.”
“I remember the night before it went live,” she said of the ditty, a smart-mouth response to Mickey Avalon’s “My Dick” (My vag a Beyonce weave/ Yo vag a polyester Kmart hairpiece). “Court [Dunn], the director, and I were just sitting there, like, ‘What if this actually works?’ And it did and that was so cool. I remember we only had 8,000 hits for a long time and that number sticks in my head because even though it’s not a whole lot, it made me think, ‘Okay, this could be something good.’”
A few weeks later, by virtue of the magic of the Interwebs, the video’s views were already up to 100,000 and climbing. The Hairpin, a women’s website and blog, picked up the video, and from there, other media outlets began to take notice too – soon, the rapper was being interviewed by everyone from KoreAm to New York magazine to The Daily Beast. One thing all the pieces highlighted was the fact that Awkwafina wasn’t just a rapper, or a female rapper, but an Asian American female rapper (case in point, New York’s headline: “Can an Asian Woman Be Taken Seriously in Rap?”) – something she had mixed feelings about.
Being from New York saved me, I think…
“For me, being Asian is just one part of my identity,” the rapper said. “I think it’s still cool to read about how people are breaking the [model minority] stereotype, but Asian Americans have always done that. I think it’s more about visibility and conditioning. Like, for me, if I saw me out there performing when I was growing up, then that would have changed the way I looked at things or been a consumer of music. The thing is that people are celebrating Asians now, but I don’t think they realize that Asian Americans have been part of mainstream and indie culture for a really long time.” (Check out her feature in The Daily Beast where she tackles this issue)
“I was really obsessed with this band called Blonde Redhead and the singer’s Japanese, or Deerhoof, who I just toured with, and I’ve been listening to both since high school. And these are women who are Asian but they’re never pegged for that. They were just able to evolve as musicians without that label. Nowadays, people like Dumbfoundead, more than anything, they function as visible icons – but you can’t say it’s actually rare to have Asian Americans in creative fields anymore. Which is a great thing.”
The situation was a little different back in the day. Growing up, Awkwafina admitted that she was often the “token Asian” among her friends – something that, in retrospect, may have helped to shape her personality and career trajectory today and is definitely establishing her presence.
“Being from New York saved me, I think,” she said. “It really helped my career, as messed up as that is. The Asians are very segregated in New York. You have the fresh off the boat Asian young people and then you have the hood Asians who wear North Face and smoke Menthols, and I never really fit in with either, so I was really the only Asian among my friend groups growing up. So I think that gave me more of an ego, because I felt like I stuck out more. I think it gave me more of a sense of individuality.”
It’s a streak of individuality that Awkwafina’s planning to carry over into her future endeavors. In upcoming documentary Bad Rap, she joins the likes of Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy and Lyricks Born to tell the story of Asian Americans in the realm of hip hop over the years. And even the rapper’s first album, which she released this past February, is a nod to her unique positioning within the rap game: Yellow Ranger, featuring self-explanatory tracks like “Queef,” “Marijuana,” and of course, “My Vag (Redux Edition).”
The thing is that people are celebrating Asians now, but I don’t think they realize that Asian Americans have been part of mainstream and indie culture for a really long time.
But don’t think for a moment that Awkwafina is just one-note. The rapper also hosted her own web talk show series (aptly named “Tawk”) in conjunction with Sony, where she interviewed everyone from Lil Debbie to Timothy DeLaGhetto to Lohanthony to her own grandmother. And she’s also working hard on a pending book project with Random House, to be released later this year.
“What I realize about these times is that it’s really easy to get famous, but it’s not easy to get rich,” she said of her viral success thus far. “What people think wrongly is that if you get famous, then you’re going to get rich, and that’s not really what happens. The most important thing is to be controversial – but not in a racist way! – controversial in terms of taking risks. People overuse that saying a lot, but seriously, it’s so important to go out of your comfort zone but always be original.
“You have to get your goals straight. If you want to do this, don’t have money as your priority,” she continued. “And expect to work really hard. And expect to have people shit on you all the time. Expect to be trolled.”