Rapper Killagramz from Orange County, an area not particularly known for having a hip hop community, has been pursuing his music career since high school and has failed to gain any notable amount of success. However, after appearing on the Korean rap competition show Show Me the Money, he has managed to parlay his American style into respect and credibility among rappers in Korea. His identity as a rapper is strongly informed by traditional values in American rap, many of which have been phased out of mainstream rap today, and in doing this, he has developed a style that would be perceived as old school in the U.S. but across cultural and language barriers, appears authentic abroad. His career reflects the complicated state of “authenticity” in rap and demonstrates how Asian American rappers can struggle to establish authenticity while also striving for commercial success.
His chosen stage name itself is perhaps the most obvious indicator of his image as a rapper. Originally “Killahgramz,” he said in a 2016 interview that the name, “shows my character, it shows who I am.” Offering no other details, it’s unclear what he means, but breaking down the name, there are some obvious clues. Regardless of its interpretation, the name is dated. “Killah” has a storied history in the genre, but it’s most famously part of Ghostface Killah’s name. He has cited Eminem as an influence in the past, and Ghostface fits as another influence of a bygone era, being first and foremost an MC, focused on creating memorable moments through dense wordplay and flow. The extraneous “z” appended to the name is another marker from the 90s and early 2000s that is rarely seen today. Lastly, as a whole, the name is a straightforward play on words for kilograms, likely referencing either selling or consuming drugs. No matter how it’s analyzed, the name is a rather simple amalgam of surface level aspects of old school rap. Without any decidedly Asian or even personal meaning, the first and only impression of the name is that of a generic old school rapper.
Killagramz’s efforts of authenticity extend beyond his name, but in a similar way, these efforts make him more forgettable. He is undeniably a technically skilled rapper, often flowing in unexpected and difficult ways over beats. His ability to perform these raps live is also admirable, considering live performance is not often valued in that way in the U.S. Live performance of rap dates back to the days of freestyles over breakbeats, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Killagramz was a capable freestyle rapper. Despite this, these skills are not as valuable as they once were. For example, looking at the XXL Freshman freestyles last year, which have historically been a way for up-and-coming rappers to show off their ability on the mic, the most popular freestyle literally doesn’t include rapping. This shift can explain Killagramz’s failure to find success at home. Unless the rapper is at the top of the game or pandering to a certain audience, it’s hard for rappers to stand out by rapping ability.
Given this reality, how are Asian American rappers supposed to find an audience? According to many of the metrics we discussed in class, Killagramz is authentically engaging with hip hop culture, but this also seems to contribute to his lack of success. Rappers like Dumbfoundead have found their niches by speaking to personal experiences that Asian Americans can identify with, but their music is destined to remain niche and relatively underground by nature. As modern day rappers like Lil Yachty brazenly disrespect the history of the genre, has authentic engagement become at odds with mainstream popular culture? If this is the case, the barriers for Asian Americans to find a place in hip hop may become even more difficult to overcome. There are clear differences between a black rapper deciding to ignore the traditions of the genre and an outsider making black music while disregarding its past.
Luckily for Killagramz, the globalism of hip hop has led to a community in Korea that values what he has to offer. In an age where viral trends on Twitter and memes can propel rap singles to the top of American charts, global audiences are not necessarily engaging with rap music in the same way. Aesthetically, the production of Korean rap music is up-to-date with American trends, but at the same time, rappers have not adopted the carefree attitude of many modern day American rappers. Traditional values of rap still apply — even on pop songs, Korean rappers try to impress with their ability on the mic. This can largely be attributed to the nearly obsessive focus that is given to performance in the K-pop industry. In a system in which pop stars and rappers train and take classes focused on performance, it’s easy to see how taste in rap has evolved in a different way. In fact, Killagramz is now a rap coach for a girl group on a variety TV show in Korea. Hip hop is still a young genre, and the direction it’s moving in right now has left rappers like Killagramz by the wayside. For now though, by returning to his Korean roots, instead of continuing deeper into American rap, he has found a culture that aligns more closely with his views on hip hop.