Bad Rap

Studio: FilmRise
Directed by Salima Koroma

May 23, 2017 Web Exclusive
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For anyone, the commitment to becoming a performing artist engenders the internal routine of balancing the confidence called upon to demonstrate a talent of passion and the coming to terms with its reception from the audience. For the rapper, whose potency of skill has traditionally been connected with projecting a strong image of self confidence, that inner struggle and any concern over how you are perceived and admired is so often concealed. The common - though repeatedly dispelled - assumption is that it must be, that any sign of self doubt must be hidden so that your words hold weight and your credibility, upon which so much rides in the art form, holds up.

For the minorities of Hip-Hop music, constituted by the many non-African Americans who have sought and found inclusion throughout its history, this dichotomy of confidence and insecurity has a profound presence. Beyond the skills you possess, you are measured by your authenticity, by your sense of belonging in a culturally identifying art form not considered native to you, and generally through a veil of skepticism.

This is all explored with refreshingly earnest filmmaking in Bad Rap, the documentary produced and directed by Salima Koroma illuminating the placement and displacement in Hip Hop culture of four Asian American MC’s of varying descent. As is stated by journalist and sociology professor Oliver Wang in one of the film’s interviews: “African American men have the association of being considered the most racially authentic performers (in popular Hip-Hop culture). Anyone who doesn't fit into that box becomes more, in a sense, suspicious for an audience member.”

Rappers David ‘Rekstizzy’ Lee, Nora ‘Awkwafina’ Lum, Rick ‘Lyricks’ Lee and Jonathan ‘Dumbfoundead’ Park share inner dialogues and reflections from the Asian American perspective, exposing a relatable humanity behind the external bravado inherent to their craft.  

We get a view into the thought given to their creative choices and public images, as well as the influences of personal and familial life that factor in, all in the context of the overarching and inescapable question of their acceptance in a culture they each live and love. The figure most highlighted is Dumbfoundead, a prodigiously gifted MC from Koreatown, L.A., who gained notoriety as a clever battle rapper with a proficiency in lyrically dissecting opponents. Well respected in Hip-Hop circles, and notably and openly by Drake, “Dumb” (as he is ironically called by his peers in the film) has obvious skill and the kind of charisma that serves you well in the competitive field of rapping. Yet, through his interviewed confessions, you always get the sense of his ambivalence of direction. Shown so effectively are both sides of this coin. In one shot, his long hesitant pause in consideration of the astutely posed question “Do you think you’re talented” is held by the camera, and in another we are shown his heroic 8-mile moment going up against the razor wit of battle rapper “Conceited”, who is black and unwisely tries to goad Dumbfounded with the race card snaps, only to get outclassed by him in the end.

The reason why the opening scene in the Hip Hop classic 8 Mile is so captivating - when you see a visibly nervous Eminem in the mirror of a basement bathroom trying to psych himself up before taking the stage to battle in an all black Detroit night club... and then throwing up - is because it crystallizes that questioning of place in Hip Hop culture for non-African American ethnicities, even in the face of real and apparent skills. Bad Rap does the same in inviting us into the Asian American experience of this and in the process presents a fascinating juxtaposition. One of an art form whose outward projection has found mass appeal and bridged into some part of every culture, and yet has been fragmented by an internal class order that finds aficionados of other races having to earn their cred.

There is a limited reach of the film with regards to containing observations as to the assimilation into Hip Hop for “outsiders” to its Asian American subjects. But even this is partly made up for in a fascinating scene where the music of each is played for industry figures of different ethnicities eliciting a range of responses caught on film, revealing not just reservation, but outright respect given.

Any film which focuses on the the aspirations of an artist is going to be most effective in revealing what lies beneath the courage it takes to entertain. Bad Rap succeeds in illustrating the unseen fears that reside below the surface of bravery of expression from a previously untold angle.

Author rating: 7/10

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