Rich Chigga (who sometimes goes by his given name Brian Immanuel) is, per fellow rapper Tory Lanez, the hardest rapper of all time. Immanuel’s seminal hit “Dat $tick” was met with widespread acclaim and his music video currently has 45 million views on YouTube. To me, the success of “Dat $tick” is somewhat surprising. While the song certainly holds its own as a trap song it is not especially unique in the field of hip hop music. Rather, the song’s success lies in its music video which uses Immanuel’s identity as an Asian man in juxtaposition to the song’s lyrics as a type of self-aware comedy. Thus, the genius of “Dat $tick” is Immanuel’s ability to simultaneously reinforce and subvert stereotypes about Asian American men for comedic effect while giving the song a tenuous sense of authenticity.
But first, I need to qualify including a non-American musician on a course blog dedicated to Asian American music. Even though Imanuel is not Asian American (he is Indonesian), the dialectics of Asian America still apply since American discourse surrounding Asians and Asian Americans differs only slightly. Moreover, as Time magazine notes, Imanuel is often mistaken for an Asian American to the point where some dismissed “Dat $tick” as the inauthentic efforts of some California Asian hipster. To audiences who don’t know his heritage, Imanuel is functionally Asian American. Thus, since his critical reception is centered in an erroneous perception of his identity, it is appropriate to analyze Imanuel’s “Dat $tick” from his audience’s perception as an Asian American.
When Imanuel released “Dat $tick” he risked audiences perceiving it as “inauthentic”. By virtue of his Asian American appearance, audiences might assume that he is merely mimicking rap music and is removed from the issues of gang violence, police brutality, and drug abuse that he raps about. Indeed, as Oliver Wang notes in his article “Rapping and Repping”, in the hip hop scene “racial difference creates a crisis of inauthenticity that supersedes other factors… [since] blackness is a normative reality in hip hop…” (Wang 2). On the contrary, “Dat $tick” is quite authentic in that, as Imanuel stated in an interview with The Fader, the point of his music is show what the harsher side of life in Indonesia looks like. It is not mere mimicry. Still, by being perceived as Asian American by his audience, Imanuel needs to fight for the authenticity that is readily afforded to other artists.
His solution to the authenticity problem is to embrace his “inauthenticity”. Imanuel admitted in an interview with Hypebeast that he wanted to “dress like a rapper… [but] did not want to look like some scrawny Asian kid that’s trying to be hard and gangster”. In other words, because of his identity as an Asian man, he is consigned to the awkward tropes Asian American men are always shoe horned into. If Imanuel tried to break out of these tropes, to American audiences, he would be challenging these deeply rooted depictions of Asian America, thus performing a perceived “inauthentic” Asian Americanness. His solution then, is to lean into these stereotypes and present himself as an awkward anti-rapper. Forgoing gold chains and baggy clothes, Imanuel chooses a pink polo buttoned all the way up and his signature fanny pack. Instead of a Maserati like he raps about, he drives a minivan. His crew is similarly awkward as well, as can be seen in the uncomfortable way that they wave around pistols and dance. Imanuel is consciously or subconsciously aware of cultural expectations of Asian American men, so he embraces these awkward Asian tropes making his position as an Asian rapper more palatable to American audiences. This, in its own twisted way, is perceived as a type of “realness”.
Imanuel’s performance is also deeply tied to his gender identity as well. Asian men are required to prove their masculinity at every turn since it has historically been stripped from them. As Lisa Lowe writes in Immigrant Acts, since only white men were allowed to be naturalized citizens for much of American history, masculinity, whiteness and citizenship have all be conflated in the American imaginary (Lowe 11). Thus, as perpetual outsiders, Asian American men are emasculated and narratives surrounding them are characterized by, awkwardness, impotence, and asexuality. Therefore, Imanuel over compensates to perform hyper masculinity in the lyrics of the song. He raps about the traditional trappings of toxic hyper masculinity in the rap scene, violence and aggressive sexuality (“Holdin’ steel Glocks, but you been a bitch, suck a thick cock”), in an attempt to reclaim some of that masculinity. Moreover, by releasing a trap song, a traditionally black American genre, Imanuel coopts the anti-Black hyper masculinity that White America has ascribed to African American men. Thus, Imanuel attempts to subvert the emasculated Asian stereotypes at the same time as he performs them, the juxtaposition of which is ultimately quite humorous.
I like Rich Chigga. I like his music, I like his fanny pack, and I think he is a legitimately funny guy. However, I feel the need to qualify that I don’t like the problematic ways he participates in hip hop culture. Make no mistake: what Imanuel is doing is appropriative. By his own admission in an interview with XXL, he “didn’t know what he was doing” when he picked the name Rich Chigga which is of course a racial slur. Imanuel is painfully unaware of the dialectics of blackness in America and the history of hip hop as a means of resistance and black self expression. He may not mean ill when he uses the N word in “Dat $tick”, but Imanuel and his music exhibit a problematic degree of insensitivity and ignorance of race in the hip hop scene and, more broadly, America.
This may be an unfair burden to place on Imanuel. It is understandable that he wouldn’t be aware of dialectics of race in America because he isn’t American. The discourses surrounding the “problematicness” of Rich Chigga are indicative of broader conversations about authenticity and appropriation that need to be addressed as hip hop grows ever popular. Imanuel is doing Asian hip hop the wrong way when he uses the N word in his songs, but is it even possible for Asian to participate in hip hop “the right way” with about being appropriative? Don’t get me wrong: I do not condone Imanuel’s use of the N word, his misogynistic lyrics, or questionable sense of humor. But still, the discourses surrounding Imanuel as an appropriator highlight the fact that Asian American rappers face scrutiny surrounding their “realness” because of their race.