This interview was originally published in the February 23, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more features like this? Subscribe today for free.
Awkwafina is not your average rapper. Actually, she’s not your average actress or producer, either. With an album, a webseries, and a slew of increasingly more incredible videos under her belt, Awkwafina stands alone, even without her starring roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 … or being an Asian American woman in hip-hop. We caught up with Awkwafina in her studio in LA.
The Slant: When did you know you were going to make music as a career?
Awkwafina: When I was ten years old, I was going into junior high school. And one of the teachers came up to me and said, “in your new school — would you like to be a part of the band?” and I was all “Oh, dope, a marching band?” But I lived in Queens, so, like, we don’t march down Queens Boulevard. It was just a band.
So, I said yes, and you know, school band, it was just in a room. And I wanted to be drums but there was like 50 people doing drums. So I was just like “let me just play the trumpet!” So let me tell you, I KILLED the trumpet.
TS: Do you still play it?
A: Not really anymore, unfortunately, because I have neighbors with babies and it’s very sad. But yeah so that’s — that’s how I knew. So for a long time, my dream was to be a concert trumpeter which is, like, really weird.
But then that led into me discovering, like, GarageBand on my first MacBook. And that’s when I started producing beats, and — I’ve always loved hip-hop, I’ve always had a very strong relationship with hip-hop, and I loved producing hip-hop beats.
But hip-hop beats are not beats without vocals. So instead of inviting people into my awkward, smelling room to do this side project that I’d been doing in the nights, I just started rapping on them.
TS: And you just went for it like that.
A: Yup, that was it, yeah.
TS: So I do know you have a couple of upcoming music projects coming out — so tell us about your latest music video. (“Pockiez,” out March) And that grandma in the video, by the way, is badass.
A: That’s my grandma.
TS: That’s your grandma?!
A: That’s my real grandma! So it’s been a really long time. So I think my last music video was with Margaret Cho, maybe two years ago. That was “Green Tea.”
It’s been a minute and I think my time off was attributed to filming movies, and also wanting to take the time to find an authentic space in the industry. I think that in more recent years, we’ve seen hip-hop change. And in a way, people are abusing it, I think, and not really recognizing it for its roots and respecting it. And I didn’t want to be grouped in with those people because I have deep respect for hip-hop and its foundations.
I think the music that I’m making now — what’s great about it is that it’s authentic to me. And it’s something that I feel like the people that bought my first album would enjoy.
But also, I don’t know. So I just need validation at this point.
TS: You bring up the point about being an Asian American female rapper and sometimes celebrities who are people of color feel the pressure to represent the whole community.
A: Right, right.
TS: So how have you experienced that as a rapper?
A: Well, I don’t think anyone ever sets out to feel like they’re going to represent people. But by default, anything that I do that’s in the public sphere — that can be seen on a large scale — represents in some ways an Asian community.
And in the best way, it represents girls like me — awkward, nerdy, but not in that sense — just not normal, “feminine” girls. So it represents that community, but in a larger whole, if I do something really bad, you know, then that shouldn’t represent all Asian people. But the truth is that — you don’t realize it, but you do impact your community. With everything that you do. It helps people sometimes and other times it makes people kind of mad.
TS: It just falls on your shoulder in some way.
A: It’s just gonna happen.
TS: Speaking of having to put on a good image for the Asian American community — I know you’ve addressed this point a lot, but in terms of cultural appropriation, especially considering your appreciation for hip-hop, how have you approached cultural appropriation, and how have you seen the discussion evolve? For instance, I know you’ve mentioned K-trap and Rich Chigga.
A: Yeah — cultural appropriation for me — it’s a very controversial subject, and especially one to talk about when you’re in the hip-hop industry when you’re not Black. What people have to understand is that hip-hop music is music spawned out of adversity, political adversity, and it’s political at its core.
In its best uses — in a global sense — we’re seeing what’s happening in Chengdu with groups like the Higher Brothers. They are subversive. They are using hip-hop as a politically subversive weapon. And that’s the best use of it, because when you relate to hip-hop is when you feel some kind of struggle. And so if you don’t — if you use hip-hop to deliver pop, you don’t really take into consideration the political foundations of it.
And when it comes to cultural appropriation, I’ve asked this question, and I’ve had discussions about it, because I wanted to know the answer. And I think that people don’t like fake people. People don’t like people that fake things because they’re trendy. They don’t like things that are inauthentic. And they don’t like things that are, kind of like, cons for your money. They don’t like things that are fake.
So if you are doing something that is not authentic to you — and not even to you aesthetically, but to everything: your childhood, your friends growing up, your family. If you’re not staying true to that, people are going to smell that.
And cultural appropriation, there are different levels of it. I mean, you can’t say that, like, “if you’re not Black, you can’t rap.” You just can’t say that, right? Because you still can, right? Like you can literally still do it. But there is something, that — I don’t like it when people use language, that in this country, has very, very negative and violent historical contexts. Like for instance, the n-word. I don’t like it when people who aren’t Black use that word in rap. Because it sets back an entire of generation of rappers that really tried to prove that we’re not ignorant, and that we love hip-hop, you know?
So that’s my umbrage with that. And when it comes to Asian people, if they’re doing that over there, then they are not here to answer the questions. They are not here to be attacked. Because if one Asian person does something bad, then it can look like we all did it too. It’s pretty messed up.
TS: Given that a lot of the conversations I feel like you have to have are around your “Asian-ness,” around this political context around your music— if we didn’t have to talk about it, what would you like to explore or talk about in your interviews?
A: I don’t know. Like, oh my god, that’s such a good question. I don’t know. I mean, I guess Bitcoin. I don’t understand how that works. Maybe like — if I put 20 thousand dollars into a Roth IRA. Or, no no no — an index fund. Will I ever lose that 20? Because that’s a question that no one will answer.
TS: No one knows though, right?
A: But then — but, but — see, that’s the thing! No one knows! So if no one knows — why, why, why would I do that? I — if you don’t know, if I don’t know —
TS: Why would you do that?
A: Why would I do that? Why would I do that?
TS: Switching it back —
A: Thank you. (laughs) “What does it feel like to be an Asian political woman?”
TS: (laughs) No, see, like, wanna avoid questions like that —
A: No, no, no, I love those questions, so don’t worry about it.
TS: Well, so, maybe to steer it back in that — what do you find yourself still struggling with in the music industry?
A: Well, I think that — I’ve met a lot of Asian rappers that complain and complain and Rekstizzy said this in a documentary I did —Bad Rap. And he says this quote, he says, “All the musicians that are killing it never complain.” Right? So all the musicians that are killing it — they’re successful, they never talk about how hard it is. You know what I mean?
So it’s like, my struggles with hip-hop — I don’t think that they have to do with that I’m a woman, or that I’m Asian, or that I’m not, like, super hot. Like, I don’t think they have to do with that. I think music is just so erratic as a genre, and what I’m trying to rap about, and the message in my rap, just doesn’t appeal to the zeitgeist. And, kind of going back, that’s something that I’ve kind of learned to understand and be satisfied with.
And I don’t like it when people oftentimes want me to be, for a lack of a better word, they want me to be “urban.” Right? They think that I’m an Asian rapper — and these are business people — so therefore, put me in cornrows and let me go rap.
You know, I’ve auditioned for movies that I’ve walked out on because they’ve asked more “urban.” I feel like — I want people to understand who I am. You know what I mean? And that I’m not that and I would never do that. I almost walked out of a development deal because I didn’t want to do that.
TS: You want to be real! Like in your music videos , too— your lyrics are really authentic, unfiltered, real. And you also bring out elements from your Asian heritage.
A: Oh yeah, always.
TS: How important is that to you? And how do you straddle that line between making it more accessible, putting that in the limelight, making it more mainstream — versus doing it as a standalone thing?
A: Well, I want to rap about things about me. Because I know rappers that rap about how rich they are, and you know, how many cars they have and all that. And — why would I rap about all that if I don’t have any of those things? And the same could be said about my songs like “My Vag.” Yes, it is a feminist anthem — I didn’t know this — but it empowered a lot of women. And it was hailed in a way as a very aggressive response to a male-dominated narrative in rap. So, you know, that was cool.
But my thing about “My Vag” is that I had a vagina. I have a vagina. So I’m gonna rap about that. You know what I mean? Like if I’m broke, I’m going to rap about being broke. That’s just gonna happen! And if I’m Asian, that’s what I know.
And you know what, though, it’s like — you’re in a room of people and you deliver a line. And four people laugh and no one else gets it. But it’s those four people, that’s why I do music. Because they get it. Or they relate to it. That’s what I’m trying to do — it’s a difference of making music that is trying to relate to everyone versus trying to relate to people who will relate.
TS: The last question I have for you is — how was it filming with your grandma? I didn’t know it was your actual grandma!
A: My grandma is a HAM, dude. She’s acted on my talk show a couple of times. And she was like, “I’m so nervous.” And I go “oh you’re nervous?” And she gets on there and fucking kills it. She’s like Ethel Merman. She just killed it.
TS: She has so much swag.
A: She has a lot of swag, yeah.
TW: How does your family feel about your work?
A: My grandma supported me from day one. My mother died when I was very young — my grandma supported me from day one, always. To this day, calls me and tells me to make better songs like “My Vag.” ‘cause she thinks “My Vag” is my best song and I’ll peak there. She’s actually not that wrong.
My dad was harder to convince. He had to find me on his own. He saw me in the paper. So that’s how he realized that I wasn’t —
TS: Wasn’t fucking around.
A: Yeah, wasn’t fucking around.
Awkwafina is a rapper, actress and producer. Her new single, “Pockiez” is out in March, and will be in Crazy Rich Asians (out August 2018) and Oceans’ Eight (out June 2018).