rapper, Asian, female — separately
By ARIELLE CRUZ
By the time you read this, I hope you have all heard of Awkwafina (originally Nora Lum) and that you have been made publicly uncomfortable by her ridiculously strange and smart rap (“My vag a Beyoncé weave, yo vag a K-Mart hairpiece.”) At only 24 years old, Awkwafina is an incredibly talented singer and producer.
Yes, Lum is an Asian female rapper, but trying to define and discuss her work, or anyone’s, within the scope of being Asian and female is a travesty, especially since feminism and culture shock aren’t her goals. In fact, Lum has explicitly said in interviews that the goal of her music is not to make any kind of feminist or pro-Asian statements—yet, somehow, headlines from BuzzFeed and its peers remain the same.
It’s easy to see how people are confused. Awkwafina’s collection at first glance pushes the envelope on a couple of female and Asian fronts—she has songs entitled “My Vag,” “Queef,” and “Yellow Ranger” for goodness sake. But is there a point when comedy is just comedy? If she doesn’t consider her songs feminist and the like, should we?
Looking through Awkwafina’s public statements, beyond her song titles and lyrics, it quickly becomes clear that she isn’t the woman that some people want her to be. Read: a uniquely feminine and Asian activist. She has publically said in an interview with the Daily Beast that there are no female rappers she looks up to and went even further saying, “Other female rappers are overly sexual, have no wit, and their lyrics are so generic. I want to change the game to make rap that shows I’m not a normal female rapper—it’s not about how rich I am, how much sex I have, or how many boyfriends I have. That’s just not me.” While she is probably right, the statement was a bold one. Awkwafina does not give props to her fellow female rap artists at all. Instead, she calls them out as being less intelligent than some of the male rappers out there and declares that she has no role model and she does her own thing. That thing which often involves pushing some boundaries and speaking explicitly about her own experiences—experiences with vaginas, sex, Asian glow, New York City, and marijuana. While for some of these things she has gotten some minimal backlash on sites like Hairpin, overall Awkwafina has gained much support through releasing her first album, Yellow Ranger. The album is mostly composed of her YouTube successes including “Yellow Ranger,” “My Vag,” and “Queef.” There is no doubt that Awkwafina is good at what she does: the production is stellar and the rhymes are whip smart.
And she is still keeping busy. According to her Facebook, in addition to producing her own music, she has created music videos, films with other NYC indie-rappers, and has been featured on Vice’s Fresh Off the Boat. However, many still believe that she “isn’t going anywhere.” But in the current moment, a moment that may be called a bit of a feminist renaissance with the success and endless conversations about Girls, Beyoncé, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and more, is it possible to talk about Awkwafina simply in terms of her music?
In the media the artist is often compared to female icons before her, rappers and snarky women, most commonly Daria and Kreayshawn. But she has never been compared to another Asian artist—likely because there are none to compare her to. And while her style of speaking may resemble Kreayshawn, the comedy and commentary she brings to her songs (“Mayor Bloomberg (Giant Margaritas)”) is altogether unique (read: Kreayshawn’s fun, street-savvy tone, with less pointless lyrics). Spunky and aggressive, while simultaneously crafted and interesting, her music would be more aptly compared to the work of Childish Gambino, who also takes pride in talking about anything and everything including race, the shallowness of the rap game, and current events.
Now, before I go any further, I’m not saying that Awkwafina’s work is meaningless; it is far from that. In past interviews, Lum has commented that she doesn’t think that Awkwafina could exist without some cultural relevancy, and that she hopes her songs inspire some millennial solidarity or a feeling of understanding. And they do. Or at least they do for me, another college-educated female from the New York area.
Is there something so wrong with having a successful career and not trying to change the world at the same time? Awkwafina isn’t trying to be Lena Dunham, or the newly-out-as-a-feminist Beyoncé—for now, she’s trying to have a career at all. But for some reason, because she is to become the first Asian female rapper to achieve some kind of distinction and she is poking her head out during our generation’s version of a feminist revival, many are misfiling her with the current trend, rather than cracking open a new pack of manila folders.
But really, is Awkwafina’s rap any less liberating and feminist if those weren’t the original intentions? Does it actually matter if she didn’t mean to be feminist, given that she came to embody it anyway? The topics that Awkwafina talks about do affect Millennials, and are also political and culturally charged. She has, whether it was intentional or not, made statements in a feminist or at least liberated way, and is brandishing some uncomfortable lyrics for the world to see. Her presence is undoubtedly helpful for an Asian music community that is struggling to break into the U.S. mainstream. Her bold attitude is what got caught our attention, after all.
As a feminist myself I’m torn. Should Awkwafina be sticking up harder for women as a sign of solidarity? Or is expecting all female artists to be taking a strong stand or writing about the culture of women too restricting and part of the problem? Maybe one day we can talk about the merits and faults of Awkwafina in terms of her musical presence, cultural relevance, and potential role as a voice for Millennials, but for now, while she is still the first Asian female rapper and women are in the spotlight trying to change dialogue, these labels of Nora Lum that should not be relevant, indeed are very relevant.
Regardless, right now Lum is switching to comedy. As she said to the Daily Beast, “I didn’t write [“My Vag”] as a feminist track because it would be depressing.” It probably would have been.