Bad Rap, a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival over the weekend, follows the lives and careers of four Asian-American rappers (Lyricks, Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina and Rekstizzy) trying to break into a world that often treats them as outsiders. The film showcases these compelling, energetic personalities as they perform and discuss their passion for hip-hop—and it's also a stark reminder of how infrequently we hear from Asian-American entertainers, whether it be on TV, in the movies or in music.
In fact, as we're dealing with the awful #HollywoodSoWhite trend, Bad Rap marks an important moment: It's a fascinating, moving film made by and about people of color. In study after study, the data shows that Hollywood movies ignore women, Latinos, Asians and black people. But their stories deserve to be told. Bad Rap is not just a story about hip-hop, it's a story about the United States; the cultural cross-pollination among ethnic groups is a major part of American History. And Bad Rap is just the tip of that iceberg, just a fraction of what's possible.
We talked to the director and prodcuer, Salima Koroma, about her inspiration, inclusivity in filmmaking, and what she hopes audiences learn from her directorial debut, Bad Rap.
Describe what lead you to the decision, "I'm going to make a movie about Asian-American rappers."
My co-producer, Jaeki Cho, and I are big fans of hip-hop. We wanted to make a film that explored how hip-hop manifests itself within different communities. The first time Jaeki and I ever got on the phone, we talked for hours about the difficulties he’d had as an Asian-American who grew up listening to and loving rap music. I started rattling off a bunch of questions to him, and pretty soon we realized there were so many unanswered questions when it came to Asian-Americans and their role in the hip-hop industry, that we had to do something about it. By the end of our conversation, it was obvious this was something we had to do.
What, if any, difficulties did you face in getting this film made?
The biggest difficulty was the fact that I was doing most of the technical stuff myself. My co-producer Jaeki Cho was able to reach out to people and coordinate shoots, but I had to do the execution. I’d light an interview, very DIY style, and wonder, “Does this look correct?” Or I’d have two last minute shoots I’d be called out to do, and have to choose which one to go to and which one to pass on. I didn’t really have a second set of eyes to oversee this project so a lot of it was based on my gut. But to see the incredible feedback we’ve been getting about Bad Rap lets me know that we accomplished what we set out to do.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while filming?
When I first started conceiving of ideas for the doc, I probably knew about two Asian-American rappers: Jin and Dumbfoundead. I thought there was maybe a handful of others. By the time I’d finished interviewing everyone, I realized that there were tons of Asian rappers; from Far East Movement, to the Mountain Brothers; Traphik, to Blue Scholars; Cool Calm Pete, to Kero One. Each of them played different roles in the history and current landscape of hip-hop.
A frustrating thing about the film is that the rappers are so, so talented, but most of them are just struggling to be known and book gigs. While watching, I couldn't help hope for a fairy tale ending where they'd all be in mansions with sports cars and stacks of cash—the stereotypical trappings of "success" for rappers. What are your hopes for the four rappers profiled? And what do you think "success" means? What is the message you want someone to walk away with after seeing this film?
I want people to come out of this film with a new set of eyes. I want the music fans to be astounded that they may have missed out on this entire facet of hip-hop. I want people to root for the characters to succeed in their ongoing journeys. And I want those who maybe weren’t accepting of the idea of Asian-Americans being part of hip-hop culture, to question why they feel that way.
There's a lot of talk about diversity and inclusivity in Hollywood. This is not a Hollywood movie, but it is a film made about and by people of color. Is that important to you?
Absolutely it's important. Too often the stories about people of color are told by people who are not from those communities. Let's be frank here: Hollywood is a white man’s game. From directing to producing to greenlighting projects, white men have by and large been the gatekeepers for what you and I see on our big screens. That's why you can have a film like Gods of Egypt, which featured white men as “Egyptian gods.” That's why blacks, Asians, Latinos, etc. continue to be represented by 2-dimensional characters that are very rarely nuanced and fit ridiculous monolithic stereotypes.
When we tell our own stories, we take control of our image, our history, and our place in this world. Having had our experiences—specifically as people of color in America—bringing our perspectives to screen is absolutely crucial to how we are perceived by broad audiences.
Do you have directing heroes? Or a favorite director?
My first favorite director ever was hands down, Spike Lee. I remember watching the highly underrated film Crooklyn, which was about a young, tomboyish girl coming of age in a house full of brothers. The girl in the film was me. Spike was able to tell my experience as a young black child in a big city, and he didn't even know me!
Twenty years later, I watch the film and I am inspired by every rule Spike broke as a film director. He did seriously trippy things with the camera that make me appreciate Crooklyn in a totally different way.
Who is your have a favorite rapper?
Oh man. When I was eight years old, Nas’ “If I Ruled the World” was my favorite joint. It would come on on The Box and I would get so excited, grab the television remote, and turn it up until my mom yelled at me. Nas was it for me. I didn’t understand what the man was saying at that age, but I knew he was spitting truth. Nas was and is a significant voice for generations before and after him, and no one can take that away.
Now, my favorite rapper is Drake. I’ll accept any and all tomatoes thrown my way.
As the founder of The One Shots—a K-pop site—are you at all interested in making a movie about K-pop?
Actually, my first concept for a documentary was one about K-pop! I had the idea ready, the names, the passion, but not the access. K-pop companies just do not grant real access to any outlet, big or small. Hopefully, someone from the K-pop industry will watch Bad Rap, and then I can wiggle my way into that world.
What can we expect to see you do next?
I am writing a narrative! I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a project that will feature black millennials in New York City. This venture is super special to me and will be dope!