18-year-old viral Indonesian rapper, Brian Imanuel, known by his stage name ‘Rich Chigga,’ is releasing his debut album soon, but has so far shown no intentions of dropping his racist stage name — a blatant play on the n-slur which he has long been criticised for.
Imanuel had previously stated in a Fader interview in 2016 that he was “not going to make [his] music based around this ignorant ass name,” but over a year later, and with his debut album soon to drop, he still hasn’t even changed his Twitter handle. This is not only hypocritical, but also ignorant, perhaps deliberately so, of the deeply racist nature of both his own personal brand as well as the broader issue of anti-blackness and appropriation among (non-black) Asian people and the Asian music scene.
The main issue with Imanuel’s image, as summed up by Filipino twitter user @pinoyletariat in a thread, is that it fetishises black culture:
he represents the number one thing i absolutely hate about the asian american community: fetishization of black culture
— deion (@pogitariat) December 21, 2017
When non-black Asian people like Imanuel utilise black culture to further their personal brand, whether through speech, clothing or otherwise, they are effectively using it as a tool to gain fame or profit without being aware of the fact that black people themselves are being attacked and oppressed simply for partaking in their own culture. Hip-hop and rap music produced by black people, as well as fashions and styles associated with that music scene, are constantly at the receiving end of racist attacks from non-black people. Meanwhile, when non-black people like Imanuel utilize it as some kind of costume to foster their own ‘cool’ counter-culture in an attempt to be ‘quirky’ or ‘edgy’, they do so without the added consequences that would result if they were black, even gaining profit in the process.
Not only does this reduce black culture to a commodity, erasing the specific historical and social significance of, for example, hip-hop music for black people, it can also potentially exoticize black people. If we, as an Asian community, are so offended by white people commodifying or bastardising Asian cultures, why can’t we also recognise that by engaging in what people like Imanuel are guilty of, non-black Asian people are also contributing to similar patterns of oppression?
Twitter user @pinoyletariat goes on to explain that in an Asian-American context, such appropriation might be due to a misguided attempt to resolve Asian identity issues:
by reducing black culture into tools by which we can supposedly reconcile our identities, it makes our relationship w black struggle inherently violent.
— deion (@pogitariat) December 21, 2017
The appropriation of black culture violates the agency of black people, in that it creates spaces where, for instance, the use of slurs or the reduction of black people to caricatures are normalized, and black people are prevented from speaking out against it. By appropriating black culture, Asians are contributing to a culture where black people are finding it increasingly difficult to speak out even for the most basic things, like how it is not okay for non-black people to use the n-slur, among many other issues. In addition, beyond Asian-American contexts, as in the case of Imanuel who was born and raised in Indonesia, non-black Asians elsewhere around the world also seem to have a problem with appropriating black culture. This could be a result of some misguided belief that because Asians and black people are both oppressed by white supremacy, it is okay to appropriate black culture, or worse, from simply believing that the n-slur is no longer offensive (perhaps as a result of the aforementioned normalization of appropriating black culture).
However, we are not in a position to take these aspects of black culture and pretend like we can apply them to our own particular struggles, especially with such historically-charged racial slurs being thrown around. There is so much anti-blackness in Asia, and it would be both deeply insensitive and disingenuous to suggest that we would not be guilty of anti-blackness if we were to participate in behaviours which appropriate black culture. We must remember that anti-blackness is a deeply-ingrained global trend, not just something white people are guilty of.
From skin-whitening adverts plastered all over Asia, whether online, on television or even in physical stores, antiblack imagery in K-Pop, trends utilising blackface in Japan, to a disturbing museum comparing African people to animals in China, the issue of racism, specifically anti-black and colourist narratives in Asia, is clearly a pervasive, insidious issue, and one not without historical precedent.
Unsurprisingly, Imanuel has also been guilty of straight-up using the n-slur in one of his songs. In 2016, Imanuel had become famous for ‘Dat $tick’, which, apart from appropriating many aspects of black culture such as AAVE (African American Vernacular English), also makes use of the n-slur. In response to criticism, he has only ever given problematic, lazy explanations for why he uses the slur, stating that “My intent was to kinda help take the power out of that word so people would be less sensitive about it” and that “[he] only say[s] it when [he’s] jamming to rap music and it’s really good.”
News flash, Brian, you’re not black and you have no right to dictate how people should be ‘less sensitive’ when it comes to using a slur directed against black people.
Being Southeast Asian myself, I’m usually very proud to see Southeast Asian creators and performers making it big on an international stage, with recent examples being musicians like Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna making it to Rolling Stone’s ‘best of’ lists and Kelly Marie Tran and Ngô Thanh Vân being cast in the latest Star Wars films. However, when success comes at the expense of other people of colour, as in the case of Imanuel, it must not be blindly celebrated; it must be criticised and condemned.
But, whilst black people have continually been discussing anti-blackness from Asian people, whether online, in academic discourse, and more recently even in films like ‘Get Out‘ (2017, dir. Jordan Peele), the rising popularity and success of rappers like Imanuel seem to demonstrate that nobody is listening, and that nobody wants to admit that they’re taking part in anti-black practices and behaviours. There is so much to unlearn, and if we genuinely want to change, we can start by listening to black people, recognizing that Asians have an anti-black problem, educating ourselves about these issues, and doing our best not to contribute further to them.
Imanuel, by not changing his stage name, is taking a step in the wrong direction, and demonstrating a terrible example for other up-and-coming Asian creatives.