In his essay “Rapping and Repping Asian”, Oliver Wang categorizes the Asian-American rappers of the nineties into two different schools. The first school, the rappers of the early nineties, included groups such as the Asiatic Apostles, Yellow Peril, and Fists of Fury, who “wanted to use hip-hop as a way to reach a larger Asian-American audience”. Asian-American rappers from this generation sought to proudly display Asian-ness in their music; they “explicitly expounded racial and ethnic identities” (Wang 44) as a way of fighting oppression and encouraging Asian-American solidarity. In contrast, the rappers of the mid-nineties had an inclination to downplay their ethnicities, as “very few of them make specific overtures to ethnic audiences, preferring instead to appeal to larger audiences…”(Wang 49). Groups from this era, such as the Mountain Heads, attempted to appeal to the universal and did not often mention their ethnicities. The difference between these two schools of thought embodies a dilemma still faced by Asian-American musicians today: the pressure to either centralize Asian-American identity, or to completely erase it. By examining the music of rapper Awkwafina, who came into the public eye in 2012, it becomes evident that the lack of any music in her discography which could inhabit the grey area between these two schools is evidence that Asian-American artists continue to feel this pressure to choose.
Awkwafina’s career began in a way that followed the anti-racialization beliefs of the mid-nineties rappers. In what is considered her breakout song, “My Vag” (2012), Awkwafina writes no mention of her Asian-ness in the lyrics, nor does she portray any sense of this identity in the music video. While the lyrics do contain politically charged metaphors such as “ya vag look like Janet Reno” and “ya vag couldn’t pass an HIV test”, she makes no mention of her personal identity. Although the success of “My Vag” could be owed in large part to the shock value of its content, it must be noted that the song which allowed Awkwafina to gain a platform in the rap industry contained no mention of being Asian-American.
In 2013, Awkwafina released a second song, entitled “Yellow Ranger”. Having already broken out into the industry, this is the point where she began incorporating some hints of Asian-ness into her lyrics. The title of the song, which later became the title of her first album, references “yellow” as a common descriptor for Asian people. The lyrics of the song contain the line “I bring that yellow to the rap game”, and she also mentions “High with these little eyes, po can’t tell if I’m blazed” and “turning red when I’m drinking”. While Awkwafina acknowledges her Asian-ness with these lines, they remain only physical descriptors of the Asian phenotype, and present no challenge to performative stereotypes. The lyrics also only mention Asian-ness when it ties into American cultural capital of drinking and smoking weed, suggesting Asian-American conformity to pop culture. In addition, in her music video for her 2014 song “NYC Bitche$”, which garnered over 1.4 million views on YouTube, Awkwafina again makes no mention of Asian-American identity and also portrays herself hanging out with several groups of people, but includes no identifiably Asian people. The minimality of these admissions suggests a reluctance to admit Asian-American identity, as if Awkwafina only incorporates these lyrics as apologia for being unable to shed her Asian body.
With her 2016 release of the music video “Green Tea” featuring Margaret Cho, Awkwafina makes a huge jump to the opposite end of the identity spectrum by exaggerating Asian-American stereotypes. Awkwafina’s first verse begins with the line “flip a stereotype” and continues on to brag about how “an Asian bitch got concubines” and can “turn a grown man to a bashful bride” despite having “a concave ass”. With these lines she presents the idea that an Asian woman, despite having non-desirable physical assets, is promiscuous and desirable, and instead places the man in the position usually assigned to Asian women. The line “yellow bitches in the driver’s seat” is repeated throughout the song, a homage to the double stereotype that women and Asians are bad drivers. In addition, Awkwafina’s music video is riddled with caricatures of Asian style – both Awkwafina and Margaret Cho wear traditional robes, as well as appearing in schoolgirl outfits; the only men pictured in the video wear Chinese dragon costumes over their heads; and Margaret Cho even dresses in a revealing version of a qipao-style shirt. The video has had moderate success on YouTube, with almost half a million views.
“Green Tea” included a high-profile guest artist and considerably more complex and comic moments than “NYC Bitche$”, for which half the music video merely consisted of shots of Awkwafina walking around New York. However, “Green Tea” still only received about a third the views of its non-Asian-identified predecessor. Even when Asian-American rappers acquiesce to the polarizing demand of flaunting or erasing their racial identity, it remains a commercial disadvantage to go the positive route. Just as the racialized rappers of the early nineties sought an appeal to a niche audience despite knowing “our material was not commercially viable,” (Wang 46) Awkwafina’s “Green Tea” has suffered in popularity due to a non-universalness. It is clear that the Asian-American rappers of today have yet to break through the same boundaries imposed two decades ago, where the only way to escape the “Asian-American niche” is to erase Asian-American identity.