Monday, April 18, 2016

Tribeca ’16: Bad Rap

Rap has come a long way since Suge Knight dangled Vanilla Ice over a balcony, right? While Eminem has had tremendous success, you still would not describe rap and hip hop as tremendously diverse. Yet, it speaks to many young Asians as a form of underdog expression. Salima Koroma follows four aspiring Asian rappers in Bad Rap (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

As the doc commences, Jonathan Park, known professionally as Dumbfoundead is by far the best known of the quartet. He made his reputation and a sizable following competing on the Battle Rap scene. However, he has stepped away from the cutting contests to try solidify his career as a headlining solo performer. However, it will be Awkwafina, who breaks out, thanks to her satirically feminist take relationships and sexual politics. Frankly, she seems to be exactly the sort of fresh voice rap and hip hop desperately need, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.

Unfortunately, both Lyricks and Rekstizzy will struggle to find their niche. To some extent, all four draw support from the diverse Asian American community, but it seems pretty clear if they want to take it to the next level, they will need to cross-over somewhere.

Bad Rap starts out as a fairly conventional documentary about rappers trying to make it. Show business is tough, we all get that. However, the straightforward introduction sets-up Koroma’s surprisingly edgy second half.

The film’s uncomfortable centerpiece squarely focuses on Dumbfoundead’s return to Battle Rap competition. He is paired up against the popular “Conceited,” who engages in the most clichéd and offensive brand of Asian racial humor you can imagine. He stoops to the level of “flied lice” material. In his post-battle reflections, Dumbfounded admits even he was shocked by the enthusiasm of the crowd. Conceited’s performance was appallingly racist (that is the only appropriate word for it), particularly because he knew full well Dumbfoundead could not respond in kind.

Perhaps even more eye-opening are the segments in which Koroma films the reactions of four hip hop experts (journalists, A&R executives) as they watch the four focal artists’ videos. Their responses reveal as much (or more) about the collective biases of the industry as they do about the artists under discussion. Yet in retrospect, they all seem to pick the one who will emerge from the pack.

All four featured rappers are charismatic and likable on-screen. There ought to be enough room for the four of them in the business, but it remains far from clear whether they will all indeed make it. Koroma also deserves credit for her approach. She does not merely follow them around with a camera and stitch the resulting footage into some kind of arc. She brings the value-added by forcing the hip hop establishment to take notice of her subjects. Bad Rap ought to spur some soul-searching inside the industry, but that might be asking too much. At least it provides a further platform for the ambitious rappers profiled within. Highly recommended, Bad Rap screens again tonight (4/18), Wednesday (4/20), and Saturday (4/23), as part of this year’s Tribeca.