In the world of hip-hop, few Asian American rappers, let alone women, come to mind. Nora Lum, otherwise known as Awkwafina, is remixing hip-hop by staying true to herself. By staying authentic to herself, half-Korean and half-Chinese Lum has carved a space for herself in a genre that was never meant for her. You might be familiar with Awkwafina through her music rise to fame through her viral song “My Vag” or her acting role alongside Sandra Bullock (who she affectionately calls “Sandy B”) in “Oceans 8.” With the onset of her second album, In Fina We Trust, it’s time to nosedive into who Awkwafina is.
To understand the star-in-the-making, it is important to know where she came from. After attending an art high school playing trumpet, studying journalism and women’s studies in college and learning Mandarin in China, Lum returned back to New York City to make music. Lum’s success started with her 2012 hit, “My Vag” which went viral on YouTube with more than 2 million views. From there, her songs “NYC Bitche$” and “Queef” paved the way for her debut 2014 album Yellow Ranger.
As a genre, hip-hop music has been criticized for its misogyny and sexism; however Asian American female rappers are able to take the genre and make it their own. Juxtaposed with Asian American stereotypes, hip hop stereotypes clash with one another. The two challenge one another. Suddenly, hyper-feminized Asian American women are put into a genre that disrupts the popularized narrative of who they are supposed to be. In “Green Tea,” Awkwafina “Flip a stereotype, how an Asian bitch got concubines? Turn a grown man to a bashful bride.” Here is just one of the many times Awkwafina is able to take a genre of music to interpellate her own race and gender. She’s not your stereotype: she’s a remixed identity.
On top of her talent, Awkwafina is self-aware about what it means to rap and not be black. In other words, she sees how cultural appropriation fits into the equation with her role in hip-hop music. She knows that the genre was conceived from an African American struggle. In an interview with Slant Magazine, Awkwafina states that cultural appropriation is “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.” Rather than ignore the issue or glaze over it like some white rappers choose to do, Awkwafina is aware of where her feet stand in the genre. Awkwafina seeks to pay homage to the genre, not exploit it.
Awkwafina credits Margaret Cho as one of her role models. Growing up, Awkwafina would watch Margaret Cho on All American Girl with her grandmother. She cites Cho as her “hero not only because she was funny, but because she showed me that it’s OK to be yourself, that it’s OK to be a brash yellow girl, and to be a strong and brave woman.” Now those two yellow girls teamed up to make the song “Green Tea.” The duo hoped the song would help women of color embrace their quirky-ness, sexuality, inner child, and creativity. While in fact, the song does empower, the true magic of the song is that the singers themselves embody the mission: Awkwafina and Cho are female empowerment walking.
The invisibility of Asians in rap is nothing new. Yet even the Asian rappers that get exposure are men Far East Movement, 88rising, Dumbfoundead and Rich Chigga to name a few. Despite Asians being out of the picture, aspects of Asian culture have long been around in hip-hop. Nicki Minaj’s single “Chun Li” and Chris Brown’s song “Fine China” are examples of the many times Asian culture has been integrated into rap. In the future, hopefully, Asian people, rather than just Asian aspects, can gain prominence in the hip-hop scene.
Awkwafina is repurposing rap to carve a space for herself and for future Asian American female rappers who might follow her path. In a male-dominated space foreign to Asian Americans, Awkwafina has found a place to call home.