Rich Chigga and Racial Authenticity in Rap

In March 2016, 16 year old Brian Imanuel, or “Rich Chigga”, who hails from Jakarta, Indonesia, took the rap world by storm with his hit single and music video, “Dat $tick”. “Dat $tick” now holds 36 million views in YouTube, has been recognized, and even remixed by black mainstream rappers. Today, Imanuel is one of the first Asian solo rappers to have reached this level of fame in America. Imanuel’s success undoubted has positive ripple effects on the perception and experiences of the Asian American community. However, an analysis of his work and its reception reveals problematic aspects of the mainstream perception of Asians in America.

In “Rapping and Repping”, Wang states that Asian Americans are considered racially inauthentic in a social world of fans, artists, media, and industry, where blackness is normative. In music, there is an implicit dichotomy of ‘black’ music and ‘white’ music. In mainstream American pop rap, which is dominated by black, and increasingly white, listeners, the Asian narrative by itself simply does not bring about enough relatability to claim an authentic ‘Asian’ style of music. Like there is no Asian music, there is no defined Asian personality in the mainstream. Asians are instead defined by a lack of personality, until proven otherwise.

Rich Chigga’s ‘authenticity’ in rap is not earned in his claim as an Asian rapper, but in his ability to merge ‘black’ hip-hop culture with ‘white’ culture. While he may never reach full acceptance in each musical culture, he has greater access to both by not being married to either.  His first hit single, “Dat $tick”, shows the Asian body’s ability to juxtapose the aggressively polarizing ends of white and black culture in one body and scene. If a white or black artist tried to create this same effect, the stereotypes imposed by the color of his skin would render the attempt unsuccessful. Imanuel’s comparison is new, novel, and therefore considered authentic by the rap community.

“Dat $tick” is an undeniable and formulaic ‘black’ gangsta rap that covers classic themes such as gun violence, police opposition, fast cars, and misogyny. Imanuel’s baritone voice, deadpan stare, and confident delivery belies his young age, and models the swagger found in ‘black’ rap. The music video, which starts out with shots of him pouring a bottle of whisky on the floor, and progresses to him and his crew holding guns and performing urban dance moves. While Imanuel raps and swaggers over a bass-heavy beat, his clothes tell a different story. He wears a pink polo, knee high khaki golf shorts, and a fanny pack while posing around a navy blue soccer-mom SUV.

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On one hand, Imanuel’s juxtaposition is powerful and influential in its ability to challenge stereotypes. A young Asian boy dressed in a flamboyant pink polo and a fanny pack while rapping about killing police officers is counter to every aspect of the model minority myth which portrays Asians as meek, conservative, uncreative, and bland. The juxtaposition of Imanuel’s clothing choices to the aggressive lyrical themes is purposely comedic. The juxtaposition of the color of his skin to either end of the white-black cultural spectrum that the video represents is also comedic. While Imanuel is undoubtedly self-aware of the comedic effect, his blank stare never breaks in the video; he never explicitly acknowledges the joke. As the video continues, the viewer is forced to recognize the quality of the lyrics, production, and swagger, and also recognize the institutionalized racism that made the video so funny, rendering the joke back on the viewer.

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On the other hand, Imanuel’s juxtaposition can be seen as a necessary negotiation to gain authenticity in the rap community. Asians do not inherently have racial authenticity in rap, nor society at large. Without the comedic effect provided by a racial juxtaposition, Rich Chigga may not have seen nearly the commercial success that he had. It could be argued that ethnic artists have an obligation to represent their ethnicity as a whole in a positive light. If that is the case, then Imanuel sacrifices some of his ethnic authenticity for authenticity in the rap community. His stage name, Chigga, a combination of his ethnicity with an identifying but pejorative term for members of the black community, represents this. However, if this gained authenticity can be used to create positive influence in future works, at the young age of 16, the future is bright for Rich Chigga.

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