By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
In this month’s column, I just — holy crap — devote so many words discussing what is and isn’t racist and the n-word. Because non-Black people are just weirdly so in love with being able to scream this word out to the world at the top of their lungs like it’s their God-given right. I just don’t get it, but maybe I’m crazy.
Rich Chigga is a terrible stage name
Brian Imanuel is a 17-year-old Indonesian of Chinese descent who happens to be really, really talented at rapping.
Imanuel has a viral hit, “Dat $tick,” which was released last year on Feb. 22, 2016. It currently has more than 51 million views. Imanuel’s been getting significant press lately. He appeared on Pharrell Williams’ radio show on May 29 and was even featured on The New Yorker’s Culture Desk series on June 7.
His stage name is Rich Chigga. His song features a trap beat. His first verse has this line in it: “Rogue wave on you n***as, no fail when I hit ‘em.”
The second verse has this one: “And you don’t wanna f*** with a chigga like me.”
Allow me to read your mind. You’re probably like, “Yo, is that racist?”
(Or maybe you’re like, “That is so racist!” Or maybe you’re like, “This song seems great!” I guess I actually can’t read minds.)
Racism is complicated. Racism is more than just prejudice (which is when you hate all white people named John because you think white people named John never bring wine to parties) and discrimination (which is when you don’t invite white guy John to your party because you assume he will come empty-handed).
Racism is more like when John gets annoyed that he didn’t get invited to your party so he goes to Jenny’s house and tells Jenny that you really hurt his feelings with your BS. Then he gets in his car, starts driving home, but he is pulled over by a cop because one of his tail lights is out. John says, “Hey, officer. How’s your night going?” And the cop is like, “I just wanted to let you know that your tail light is out. Please fix it because it’s a matter of your safety.” And John is like, “Thanks, officer! I will! Have a great night!” And then John goes to work the next day as a middle manager at a company that decided to hire him with his state college degree, even though it could’ve hired Jamal, who has one more year of experience and graduated from Harvard.
That is racism at work.
Racism is the culturally accepted practice of defending the advantages of power and privilege by buying into these societal structures that emphasizes the white race’s superiority above all others.
Racism was rationally and strategically built into the blueprint of this country at its inception and every structure that we have created since has elements of this blueprint in it — what we often call institutional racism. I mention whiteness because racism has pivoted around white supremacy ever since about the 16th century, when Europe figured out how really big boats worked.
Rich Chigga is a middle-class kid from Jakarta who grew up bombarded with America’s biggest and brightest export — its culture. He is a self-professed huge fan of rap. He wrote a song that glorifies violence and appropriates a culture that he is completely out of touch with, including that culture’s historical suffering and how that context almost always bleeds out from that culture’s art.
He took the most dehumanizing word in the English language that has nothing to do with him, and he decided to adapt it and use it as his stage name. He went further and used the slur in his song. And he called this song an homage.
I don’t doubt that this kid had the best of intentions, and he was totally drunk on that 1999-birth-year-dumb-confidence. But his intentions don’t matter.
While Rich Chigga was probably not racist because of his cultural background and the fact that he does not belong to a racial group aligned with systemic power, he was definitely engaging in anti-Blackness, which ensures that racism and white supremacy will never die. As a non-white person, he was complicit in supporting racism. This distinction is an important one to make.
A lot of people around the world ate up this song because they thought it was so funny that a skinny Asian kid put out a song that was so hard. Some people ate it up because for them, rap music is inexplicably more palatable when there’s not a Black face at its forefront. Some Asians got super excited about this kid and were like, “Finally! An Asian rapper who might make the mainstream!” and weirdly, these Asians forgot to tack on, “We as a race continue to be so great at appropriating Black culture when it’s convenient for us! We are so great at promoting and benefiting from pervasive anti-Blackness!”
We are all complicit, whether we mean to be or not.
In an April 2016 interview, rapper Awkwafina (Chinese and Korean American) addressed appropriation of Black culture by Asians. She said, “It becomes stealing when you don’t acknowledge the fact that it is Black music. You don’t have to be one of those people who’s well-versed in Cork and Molly Molly. It’s something we’re trying to partake in. We’re not trying to steal it. It becomes stealing when you’re a guy who lives in Singapore who’s never been to the United States, who’s dropping the n-word literally, who’s wearing gold chains, and who can’t even pronounce his rap name in English. I think that’s when it becomes an issue.”
To his credit, in the year since he first released his song, Rich Chigga has become a fair bit more woke.
(He’s been slaughtered on social media for his use of the n-word.) These days, he reportedly groans and winces whenever someone brings up his stage name. In a recently taped interview with genius.com, Rich Chigga goes through his lyrics, line by line, and when he gets to the n-word, he actually says, “n-word,” which invited the question of why he opted not to recite the original lyric.
He said, “[When I initially wrote this song,] I was basically just trying to make people like, less sensitive to the word and making — just taking the power out of that word. But then I realized like, I’m totally not in a position to do that. I was like, ‘I fucked up.’ So I just don’t say it anymore.”
Here are some Asian rappers to get behind
Oh, you want to read more stuff about rappers? Okay!
Last month, the Swet Shop Boys released a new EP, “Sufi La.” Swet Shop Boys consists of rapper Heems (real name Himanshu Kumar Suri, Indian American, Punjabi, formerly of group Das Racist), rapper Riz MC (real name Rizwan Ahmed, British Pakistani), and producer Redinho (real name Tom Calvert).
If you’re wondering why I bring up Swet Shop Boys, um, it’s because they are cool, and they’re getting a fair bit of spotlight. They also don’t say the n-word in their music as far as I know.
Riz MC is one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, an issue released this month. (Other noteworthy APIs in entertainment on the list include Constance Wu, Yuriko Koike, and Fan Bingbing.) Heems was featured on the recent Queens, N.Y. episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” travel and food show.
Vanity Fair gets with the times!
Speaking of people on magazines, in the last month, Kelly Marie Tran (relative newcomer, will be in the upcoming “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) reportedly became the first Asian woman to grace the cover of Vanity Fair.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re either thinking, “Wow! That is awesome!”
Or you are thinking, “Oh my God, are you serious? Vanity Fair is only just now allowing Asians on it?”
Historic. Let’s clap for Vanity Fair.
Another beloved Japanese anime to get the Hollywood treatment
It was recently announced that acclaimed Japanese anime series “Cowboy Bebop” (1998) is getting an American live-action adaptation. “Cowboy Bebop” was notable because it was such a hit in the United States, and it survived its cross-Pacific immigration with few edits. The version American viewers watched was very close to the original Japanese version.
The story is set in 2071, a time when the Earth is uninhabitable so humanity has colonized space.
Bounty hunters, “Cowboys,” chase space criminals for monetary reward.
Hopefully this adaptation won’t get crazy whitewashed and bastardized. But you know, it probably will.
Maybe this is why Asian parents feel stressed out when their kids want to be artists
This season, Linda Park became the very first Asian American woman to play the role of Maggie the Cat in a professional production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” This is noteworthy because race-switching in theater productions can be controversial because some playwrights’ estates require that casting be approved before granting a license for a production of a play. Sometimes an estate denies casting that changes a character’s race because doing so also requires textual changes in the script — for instance references to appearance like blue eyes and blond hair — and the estate wants to preserve the original text. Other times, estates probably deny licenses because they are complicit in maintaining and proliferating a racist society in which 99 percent of substantive acting roles are written for white people and must always be played by white people or the magic is just gone, you know?
The Tennessee Williams Estate didn’t always allow race-switching. According to LA Weekly, the East West Players, an Asian American theater company based in Los Angeles, requested a license for an all-Asian American cast production of “The Glass Menagerie,” in the 1980s. At the time, the Williams Estate was like, OH, HELL NO.
They’ve since chilled out a little bit.
FYI, in the last month, director Michael Streeter wanted to cast Black actor Damien Geter as Nick in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in a Portland production of the play, and the Albee Estate was like, Oh, hell no, stating that it was because the casting also came with textual changes.
According to the American Theater publication, the estate also stated that the majority of roles in Albee’s plays can be cast with non-white actors. Just not the role of Nick.
A bunch of people advocating for the Portland casting and the production are pissed, which I get. The estate won’t budge, which I also get. Issues of copyright and ownership have come up, which I don’t thoroughly get because I didn’t go to law school. It’s all fairly complicated, as issues touching race often are. ■
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.