Salima Koroma was a graduate student at Columbia University looking for a thesis subject when she read an article about Korean rapper G-Dragon in XXL. A fan of K-Pop, she was surprised to see him covered in American media and reached out to the writer, Jaeki Cho. The two spoke for hours.
“We talked about interpretations of hip-hop in Europe and in Korea, how hip-hop lives in different places,” Koroma told NBC News. “We started talking about identity and identity politics. We thought that was a great story to tell.”
Out of the pair's discussion came “Bad Rap,” a documentary about Asian-American hip-hop scheduled to make its official world premiere April 16 at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film follows four rappers — Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park, Nora “Awkwafina” Lum, David “Rekstizzy” Lee, and Richard “Lyricks” Lee — as they search for mainstream success. It also features interviews with music industry insiders and successful hip hop artists and personalities, including Far East Movement and Tim “Timothy DeLaGhetto” Chantarangsu.
Koroma shot, edited, and directed the documentary while Cho, a music journalist who had written for Complex, The Source, and Billboard in addition to XXL, helped Koroma identify subjects and made introductions.
“I’ve always had an affinity for Asian-American rappers,” Cho told NBC News. “I grew up around a lot of them. Korean, Chinese, Southeast Asian rappers. It’s a fascinating story to make.”
The four artists represent distinct struggles and are at different points in their careers. Park, who came up in the battle rap world, has over 100,000 Twitter followers and millions of views on YouTube but struggles to crossover.
"One person might represent what you go through when your parents want you to be a lawyer or doctor. One might represent being a woman in hip-hop. It was almost all perfect how that worked out," Koroma said.
Much of the production work for the documentary took place while Koroma was a student at Columbia and later working for TIME, balancing school work, exams, and a day job with shooting and editing.
“One of the hardest things about shooting the documentary, especially in the beginning, is that I was the only shooter,” Koroma said. “That was one of the biggest challenges — being in school, getting papers done, but also knowing that if Rekstizzy calls me at 1 a.m. and says ‘We’re doing a show. Come on, let’s go,’ I need to go shoot that because it’d be an important scene in the film.”
The pair finished the final version of the film with aide from a crowdfunding campaign. Koroma and Cho picked Tribeca for their debut in part of its New York roots. Their first screening sold out before they could tell their families.
Following Tribeca, the film will travel to the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Koroma and Cho also have plans they are not ready to announce and are open to screenings at universities and auditoriums.
While the documentary focuses specifically on four Asian-American rappers, Koroma believes that the film is widely relateable.
“I want people to come out of the film to really root for these people,” Koroma said. “We did this film wanting to explore identity and music and reaching for what you believe in. A lot of people will look at this film and say it’s just a film about Asian Americans and hip-hop, and for some people, that’s not relatable to them.”
“To me it’s not just about hip-hop,” she continued. “It’s a film about people who want to be involved in something that other people say they can’t be apart of. We all want to belong. We all want to be a part of something bigger. And when someone tells me you can’t be part of that big thing, you either back down or you fight to be a part of that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Salima Koroma's name as Salima Karoma.