Rapper Rich Brian gets vulnerable about his Asian identity, immigration story

"I’m proud of being called an Asian rapper as long as people are willing to listen to my music with an open perspective.”
Image: Rich Brian
Rapper Rich Brian performs onstage during the 88rising Head in the Clouds Festival at Los Angeles State Historic Park on Sept. 22, 2018 in Los Angeles.Scott Dudelson / Getty Images file

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By Kimmy Yam

Rapper Rich Brian is a child of the internet.

The Indonesian-born rapper taught himself English through YouTube, mastered dry web humor on Twitter, and discovered the alluring art of hip-hop while in front of his computer screen. But perhaps most significantly, the internet prompted his fascination with American culture — a world, he says, he felt drawn to and virtually connected with as he spent a large chunk of his teen years immersed in all things American.

Roughly two years after moving stateside, the artist just concluded “The Sailor” tour Monday to promote his sophomore album of the same name. The new music is steeped in the weighty themes of Asian identity and the immigrant experience and is, in part, his assessment of his own journey to America. It’s also an ode to those who came before him.

“Me coming here for the first time by myself was interesting,” the artist, who’s real name is Brian Imanuel, told NBC News at the offices of his label 88rising. He added that he continues to visit Indonesia roughly every five months and still recognizes it as home.

“As much as I thought that I learned about America from the internet, I thought there were quite a few culture shock moments for me,” he explained, describing everything from going to the grocery store to attending his first house parties. “I still love it but I would say what has happened since I came here was I actually appreciated my home country a lot more.”

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In some ways, Rich Brian’s relationship with his heritage largely mirrors the path that so many Asian Americans are familiar with — an initial yearning to be part of a mainstream culture that largely excludes them, a negotiating of different parts of identity, then the eventual arrival at the reclamation of heritage.

The rapper candidly explained that among the friends he made on the internet through Twitter and other social media platforms in his teen years, he was one of the few Asians in the circle at the time and his early experiences on the web were dotted with racist comments. He says he managed to tune out most of the crude remarks, but he still struggled and sometimes internalized the comments that categorized Asians as a monolithic, nerdy, math whiz trope.

“There were times I’d post a picture of myself and people would make stereotypical jokes and Asian jokes and that would happen all the time,” he said. “There have been times where I feel like, ‘Damn I don’t feel like I’m one of the cool kids and I want to be part of the cool kids’ … It’s a real thing that I went through and a lot of people go through.”

That is in part because of the lack of and the problematic portrayal of Asians in Western media, which can create the sense that Asians are a two-dimensional group without a breadth of experiences. Ana-Christina Ramón, director of research and civic engagement for the Division of Social Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, previously explained to HuffPost that when members of an underrepresented community see themselves on screen in restrictive, narrow ways, they “may wonder if that is all that is expected of you in society.”

“Visual media teaches us how the world works and our place in it,” she said.

The rapper admitted it’s taken some time to realize “I can be one of those cool people.” He noted that growing up in Indonesia, around a diversity of people with experiences and personalities, helped remind him just how faulty the existing perceptions of Asians are. He also explained that he shifted focus to his passions in an attempt to live without regard for stereotypes.

“I think how I combated that point of view and that perspective was making music and working on myself — trying not to care about what other people think and what people’s perspective of Asians are,” he said. “My skin complexion and where I’m from doesn’t mean anything — it’s me as a person.”

This doesn’t mean Rich Brian shies away issues of race. In fact, he uses certain opportunities to take a deeper dive into these themes as it’s a topic that’s central to his story. While immigration is often viewed through the lens of partisan politics, the rapper says people “don’t think about the actual stories and experiences that we go through.”

“That made me want to touch on that topic a lot more and I wanted people to get to know me better as an artist, as a person,” he said. “This was my life experience and I’m the kind of artist who, I want to be more personal. I’m taking the more personal and more vivid and more inspirational and motivational route.”

Though he didn’t always agree with being described as an “Asian rapper,” he’s come around to the label as he feels his music could help show those outside the community the depth to the racial group.

“I am proud of the fact that I’m Asian. I’m really proud of that. There was a point in the early part of my career I didn’t want to be called [an Asian rapper] because I didn’t want to be boxed into that. … I didn’t want people to focus on race and I want to make art that I personally would listen to if I were just another rapper,” Rich Brian said. “But now, especially since my album is about immigration and it’s about being Asian mostly, I’m proud of being called an Asian rapper as long as people are willing to listen to my music with an open perspective.”

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