Rich Brian sounds like he’s in good spirits, albeit a touch raspy. He’s still got a bit of sleep left in his voice.
“I’m sorry, I just woke up,” he remarks.
The rapper, whose real name is Brian Imanuel, speaks into the phone from his native Indonesia, a solid 11-hour time difference between us.
The artist, who’s one of Asian-centric label 88Rising’s biggest acts, first amassed a following for his dry internet humor and sarcasm. Today, however, he seems contemplative and earnest ― traits that feel more congruous with his trajectory in music.
While mainstream (whiter) audiences may not be familiar with his name, the rapper has been deemed an unexpected favorite among Asian listeners and beyond for years, representing a racial group in a genre where they continue to struggle with legitimacy. Now at 20 years old, he’s weeks away from embarking on “The Sailor” North American tour, promoting his recent sophomore album of the same name. His new tracks evidence a more sophisticated, evolved artist compared to the earlier work that propelled him to his prominent place in the Asian hip-hop movement.
Rich Brian’s rise is, at its core, the story of an underdog. Yet along with the tale’s inspiring elements exist a few cringe-worthy ones in the mix as well.
Since his start in the music industry, Rich Brian tells HuffPost that he’s experienced significant epiphanies that have prompted a sort of rebranding. While the rapper rose through the viral charts, attracting massive buzz in the Asian American community, as well as the greater hip hop universe, for his flows about violence and money under the problematic moniker “Rich Chigga,” he’s learned a thing or two on his musical voyage.
“Now I’m a lot focused on myself and ... the actual message and less focused on the flows and flexing,” he tells me.
Just a few years ago, the rapper was a home-schooled teen and internet comedian of sorts, who learned English through YouTube and possessed a strong yearning to visit the U.S.
He’d get his shot, too. In 2016, he released his own music video for song “Dat $tick” under his former name, a fusion of “Chinese” and the N-word. The video went wildly viral, generating millions of streams. Perhaps most remarkable to audiences was that a kid donning a fanny pack and pink polo was, in fact, the artist behind the ratatat flow and voice that hovers several octaves below where one would expect it to be.
The song skyrocketed his career. He signed to 88Rising that very week, a move that would eventually bring him around the world, including to the States. He also received nods of approval from the likes of Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah, who later appeared on a remix of the song. Many fans in the Asian American community interpreted the rapper’s virality as a sign that more space had been made for the community in hip-hop. But under an already-problematic name, it was impossible for listeners to ignore the fact that he touted lyrics about a street lifestyle he did not lead and repeatedly used the N-word. Soon, he found himself confronting criticisms of cultural appropriation.
I used to think that, because I’m a rapper, that’s all I’m allowed to talk about. I’ve realized you can talk about anything. You can literally talk about anything. You can talk about your dog, you can talk about the skies. ... As long as you word it in a way that’s interesting and listenable, you can make a song about anything and that’s what I tried to do with this album. Rich Brian on his deviation from his earliest work.
There was, of course, an internal reckoning and by New Year’s Day 2018, the rapper changed his name to its current iteration. As time has gone on, he says his understanding of the genre has expanded. Rap, he now knows, isn’t confined to stereotypes of American urban life he’d played up in “Dat $tick.” This time around, the artist leaned into his authenticity. The resulting album is thick with his own story, heavily drawing on his immigration to the U.S. and others who’ve dealt with the daunting pursuit of the American Dream.
In a sense, growth for Rich Brian has meant going back to what he thoroughly knows.
“I used to think that, because I’m a rapper, [the stereotypes] all I’m allowed to talk about,” he said of his earliest work. “I’ve realized you can talk about anything. You can literally talk about anything. You can talk about your dog, you can talk about the skies. ... As long as you word it in a way that’s interesting and listenable, you can make a song about anything and that’s what I tried to do with this album.”
Rock fifty stages in all fifty states, bitch. I did it all without no citizenship to show the whole world you just got to imagine. Rich Brian on the track "Yellow."
The rapper, who moved to the U.S. in 2017, underscores just how radical the act of immigration is several times throughout our conversation. How crazy it is, he says in rumination, to uproot one’s entire life for a future with numerous variables. The gravity of such an act remains misunderstood to most people who haven’t recently immigrated. But as wild as the transition was for him, he says that the internet allowed him to at least familiarize himself with a few pockets of American culture. Those who came decades before, however, didn’t have that luxury. He feels the album is, in part, an attempt to humanize what has often been illustrated in media through policies and numbers.
His single “Yellow,” in particular, is woven from the threads of his own immigrant arc. While the track begins with a tinge of melancholia, mirroring his difficulties moving stateside, it progresses with grand orchestral swells, eventually ending in his personal triumph.
“Rock fifty stages in all fifty states, bitch,” he spits. “I did it all without no citizenship to show the whole world you just got to imagine.”
The song’s name is also symbolic of a victory. The rapper told HuffPost that, while the word yellow has been historically weaponized against the Asian community, his song is a hopeful reclamation of the term.
Ever since I made that song, It’s cool to feel like ‘yeah, I’m yellow. It’s tight.’ Rich Brian
“I was so inspired to write about how I felt in the moment and be as honest and vulnerable as I can,” he said. “This is something that I’ve never really talked about before. This could be a really big thing because I have such a big platform and a lot of [fans] from Asia or just like Asian American kids. This is the perfect platform and perfect time to do this.”
“Ever since I made that song, It’s cool to feel like ‘yeah, I’m yellow. It’s tight,’” he says.
Nowadays, the rapper seems adamant about preserving his own, uncorrupted story and honoring his fans. And that is, conceivably, why he isn’t particularly concerned with earning the seal of approval of mainstream gatekeepers of the music industry ― places where Asian hip-hop artists have traditionally felt absent.
When it comes to Asian rappers, few have reached the annals of hip hop history or even just earned the validation from major label execs. MC Jin, who famously became the first Asian American solo artist to sign to a major label, achieved the feat decades ago. Such few solo acts have followed since that Jay Park’s signing with Roc Nation in 2017 was heralded as an inconceivable, awe-inspiring move. When it comes to the big awards shows like the Grammys or the Billboard Music Awards, Asian faces are almost negligible in the best song or artist categories.
In Rich Brian’s case, many were confounded by the rapper’s absence from XXL Magazine’s Freshman Class, an annual list of rookie hip-hop artists on their come up who’ve generated significant buzz.
He’s not ignorant to the racial disparities in the industry, either, though. However, he’s optimistic and feels that by making music and refusing to shy away from his identity, minds could change.
“It’s definitely a fact that there are people who haven’t accepted us for sure. It might just be something that takes time, something that I’m constantly working really hard to try to change. This is why I do what I do,” he said. “Our goal is just to come out in a really powerful way to the point where people can’t ignore it. At the end of the day, if the art that you’re making is good, people have no choice but to pay attention.”