Lots of kids make videos of themselves as rappers, mugging for the camera and acting like gangsters by holding prop guns and stacks of cash. Brian Imanuel of Jakarta, Indonesia, did the same, but with a twist. In his first video as Rich Chigga, titled “Dat $tick,” the skinny, pale teenager wears a pink polo, khaki shorts, and a fanny pack. That image is goofy alone, but when combined with Imanuel’s deep voice and lines such as “Every time I see a pig, I don’t hesitate to kill 'em,” it becomes a hilarious study in contrasts. One might even call it a knowing wink at Asian stereotypes.
A year later, the 18-year-old Imanuel is no longer joking — he’s positioning himself as a serious rapper. His song “Glow Like Dat,” with a video that includes zero fanny packs, is getting radio play. Another track, “Gospel,” sees him collaborating with two South Floridians, rapper XXXTentacion (although the less said of him, the better) and underground superproducer Ronny J. And now Imanuel is on an American tour, which will stop at the new Miami space the Ground October 26.
Oh, and “Dat $tick” has garnered more than 70 million YouTube views.
In the United States, artists of Asian heritage have had a small, frustratingly limited presence in hip-hop. Arguably, that legacy began in Miami with Christopher Wong Won, AKA 2 Live Crew cofounder Fresh Kid Ice. There’s also Chad Hugo, who deeply influenced the sound of the 2000s as half of the Neptunes with Pharrell Williams, as well as Far East Movement, who had a hit with “Like a G6.”
Imanuel is of an entirely different cloth, however. He is not American in the slightest — he was born and raised in Jakarta to Chinese-Indonesian parents. Yet he is a child of American pop culture. He was homeschooled and learned English from YouTube videos of American rappers and comedians to pass the time.
He is also the most visible member of a wave of Asian — non-American — hip-hop talents sweeping into the States. Most of them, including Imanuel, are connected to a Brooklyn-based company called 88rising, something between a record label, talent agency, and social media platform presenting these artists to an anglophone audience. While Imanuel remains the face of the brand thanks to his English, several of the company's artists are finding overseas success while still rapping in their native languages. The Chengdu, China-based group Higher Brothers raps in Mandarin and released a song with American rapper Famous Dex. Keith Ape, who joined Imanuel and XXXTentacion on “Gospel,” skips between English and Korean. Female rapper Yaeji, whose song “Drink I’m Sippin’ On” is a Pitchfork Best New Track, also sticks to Korean, and both she and Keith Ape are seen as a countercurrent to their country’s omnipresent pop-music machine.
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Yet even as they find success, the 88rising set has also found controversy in the States. Chiefly, there’s Imanuel’s stage name, which is just two letters away from the most controversial word in the English language. He has conflicted feelings about that word, and he’s trying to distance himself from it and his earlier use of the modification “chigga.” “I would definitely try to avoid saying it at all times,” he told the Fader earlier this year, “but at the same time it's like, this is something Tyler the Creator also said — he feels like it's just a word, and if you take the power out of it, it doesn't mean anything.” Imanuel is still using the name, yet he’s drifted from it on Twitter; his handle remains @richchigga, but he changed his display name to “rich brian” and then to simply “brian.”
Ultimately, the name argument is part of a larger reaction from the hip-hop establishment to this new school of literally foreign rappers. Confronted with these new artists, hip-hop is likely assessing its authenticity — the most important quality in any rap act — and asking itself if the culture is open to these new and different identities. Yet it’s a struggle the genre has dealt with before. Some years ago, with the rise of middle-class talent such as Kanye West and Tyler the Creator, hip-hop had to contend with the fact that it was no longer centered mostly on narratives about the struggles of poverty. Now an even bolder dynamic is emerging. Rich Chigga and his cohorts demonstrate that hip-hop, more than ever, is no longer an African-American, or even exclusively American, movement. It’s international, it’s everywhere, and it’s out of our control.