Bad Rap follows four Asian-American rappers, teetering on the edge of the mainstream rap world.
Directed by Salima Koroma, the documentary centres on the rappers and explores their careers, individual hooks and challenges. There’s Jonathan ‘Dumbfoundead’ Park, an infamous battle rapper, Nora ‘Awkwafina’ Lum, a hipster rapper whose music often goes viral, Richard ‘Lyricks’ Lee, who’s soulful and old school, and finally David ‘Rekstizzy’ Lee, a rap artist that loves goofy and eccentric imagery.
It goes without saying that the soundtrack is amazing, and at times plays like a great DJ set, seamlessly mixing and coordinating with the next track and riling up or bringing down the mood of the audience. Love of music is at the heart of the documentary, and Koroma employs it as the film’s source of blood, not only using musical ques to push the story forward, but also to give it a heartbeat, pumping it full of personality and life. When she mixes it with punchy, expertly timed visuals, Bad Rap becomes technically perfect, an example of incredibly skillful film making.
The flow of narrative is seamless, gently nudging the audience to certain questions then answering them with thoughtfulness and sincerity, and doesn’t assign blame in any one area. Instead, Bad Rap raises a multitude of interesting points, one being- is the reason why Asian-American rappers are being locked out of the mainstream because the rap community is concerned with maintaining authenticity after years of cultural appropriation at the hands of white artists? Racial barriers aren’t always created out of hate and fear, but out of a desire to protect and preserve.
We see the rappers grapple and dissect the challanges that their race throws up in front of them, and we also see them angrily try to distance themselves from those problems. They resent that their work can’t stand on its own without mention of their race, but they know that in order to get anywhere they have to face misconceptions head-on, while still struggling with the traditional insecurities of artists who haven’t made it yet. In an agonising catch-22, they can’t tell if they aren’t blowing up because their Asian, or just because they aren’t talented enough.
But Koroma doesn’t handle her subjects with kids gloves, and when she presents the Asian-American rappers songs to music agents, we see them openly sneer at their rap monikers (“He’s called Lyricks??”) and harshly critique their songs. Koroma explores the idea that hey, maybe these Asian-American rappers really aren’t good enough to break into the mainstream. But then she coolly dismantles the idea by calling music agents out on their shit (one can’t name any Asian-American rappers) and showing the lazy racism rapper Dumbfoundead faces at a press conference and later at a rap battle with one of the most established battle artists in the world, who attacks him with the same insults he was easily shrugging off back when he was starting out as a teenager.
Near the end of the film someone expresses a need for a champion, an Asian-American rapper who is so good they can’t be ignored, and who will light the way for everyone else. But what Bad Rap really shows is the need for a champion decision maker, a mentor with influence who can nurture raw talent and bring it to the mainstream. Representation is a commitment on the part of studio execs, writers, music agents and content creators. But great films like Bad Rap are pushing that conversation forward, helping to elevate sub-culture to Culture.