Awkwafina in "Bad Rap"

At one point in “Bad Rap,” the Korean-American rapper Rekstizzy has just presided over the filming of a music video meant to get people’s attention, squirting ketchup on the derriere of one of those big-booty African-American video vixens that so often appear in such things in slow motion, when his manager Jaeki Cho is compelled to ask whether in doing something outrageous they’ve done something offensive.

“Me being a rapper is offensive to people,” Rekstizzy says in exasperation, sounding like a man with truly nothing to lose.

The scene is both ridiculous and sublime, just one of many in Salima Koroma’s feature debut that poignantly illuminates the struggles faced by artists who aren’t ordinarily associated with the music they make because of their race. In following four Asian-American rappers – Dumbfounded, a killer battle rapper who has trouble building an audience for his studio work, Awkwafina, a feisty female word-slinger who has turned her dual minority status in the rap world into an asset, Lyricks, a good Christian out of Arlington, Virginia who’s helping his father’s dry cleaning business when he isn’t spreading the good word through his rhymes, and the aforementioned Queens-based provocateur Rekstizzy – Koroma charts their rise in the vibrant corner of the rap game they’ve made their own and the glass ceiling that exists in the music industry’s ongoing resistance to giving them a proper platform to thrive.

In the midst of a week at the Tribeca Film Festival where the film has been winning hearts and minds, Koroma spoke about how she was drawn to the subject, earning the trust of those she profiled, and ultimately making a film as entertaining as the performers it’s about.

How did this come about?

This was a thesis for a documentary I was doing at Columbia. I was trying to come up with ideas I would be passionate about and one of them was hip-hop. Actually, even before we met each other, I saw an article my co-producer, Jaeki Cho, wrote about a K-pop artist, a rapper and singer I knew about, in XXL, this urban mainstream magazine, and I thought that was so fascinating, so I called Jaeki.

We talked about hip-hop and different iterations of hip-hop, what’s been covered and what hasn’t been. Asians in hip-hop were so interesting for us – I’m very interested in identity politics and the idea of how identity plays a role in hip-hop, how that identity changes, and how the manifestation of hip-hop is different overseas or based on who’s telling their stories. Three years later, “Bad Rap” is the child of that concept.

How did you pick your four main subjects?

The process of finding characters was very organic. The first person I wanted was Dumbfoundead, who is from my hometown of Los Angeles. In LA, you just know about Dumbfoundead because he’s like the hometown hero when it comes to rapping. One night, I went to one of his shows and met Awkwafina and Rekstizzy. Lyricks, I hadn’t met yet, but Dumb, Awkwafina, and Rekstizzy are friends and they all have different lanes in the kind of music that they do – Dumbfoundead is a battle rapper, Awkwafina has a different genre, hers is a bit funny, then Rekstizzy is kind of out there, and Lyricks is very boom/bash old school hip-hop, so they all represented different struggles and kinds of music. On top of that, they were friends and I thought they were perfect together. It wasn’t like I said, “You’re going to be a character, and you’re going to be a character.” It just worked out that way.

Once you’re done shooting it, you’re looking at the hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage that you have, and you say, “What is the story that I’m trying to tell here? How am I going to edit this into something that makes sense?” There are many iterations of it. I knew I wanted to talk about battle rap and a little about the history. I wanted to talk about gender and race, and about family. Early on, I decided because Dumbfoundead was the prominent figure, we were going to tell the story through him, but use the other characters to also have their own vignettes, then everything really weaved together.

One of the things that I loved in particular was the Rekstizzy video and I imagine that you could have spent less time with that, but it winds up being not just entertaining but ultimately pretty poignant. Was there much of a decision about including it?

That was very interesting because that was one of the first few things that I shot. Basically, Rekstizzy had this idea for this music video and Jaeki was Rekstizzy’s manager at the time, they were having a conversation that I happened to catch, but I didn’t really know what they were talking about at that time. Just as a woman, I definitely had some issues with how they were going about the music video, but when I’m behind the camera, I don’t normally say anything. I just stand back and watch it all unfold. Then we got to the video shoot and they asked me what I thought. I gave them my opinion about it, and that’s when that conversation started happening and they started talking amongst each other about that scene.

It was difficult because I didn’t want Rekstizzy to come off as somebody who is ignorant of these identity politics or of the fact that this could be controversial. What I wanted that scene to be was showing how somebody who is creative is limited by these race politics, and the consideration that they have to make that all these rappers who are not Asian like a Drake or a Young Thug don’t have to when they have girls in their videos, shaking their asses.

You’re brought into the film a few times – there’s that great scene where you’re introducing your subjects’ music to all those industry professionals. I know it was to prove a point about how they’re unseen in plain sight, but was it interesting to become essentially an ambassador or advocate for what these guys were doing in addition to being a filmmaker?

The way that I think about having shot this film is different from how people are going to watch it, if that makes sense. I’m not just looking at [my subjects] like they’re rappers, and they want to make it. I’m looking at it like these are people who are good at something that people are telling them they shouldn’t be a part of. How do you tell that story? I didn’t have to like any of their music or even know about it, but as people, they have that human desire to be part of something, and that is what intrigued me so much about making this film.

Also, I wasn’t an advocate in a way that it’s like, “Hey bro, listen to their music.” At that point, I’d known these characters for a few years, and I wanted the industry folks to really see something that maybe others weren’t seeing, or didn’t have the exposure to [in order] to be able to have an opinion on it, and I wanted the artists to know what was missing in their music that was hindering them, so you get the biggest people in the industry to explain why maybe their art is not blowing up the way that they wanted it to. That was something Jaeki really pushed for, and I felt was really important. It ended up being one of the most memorable parts of the film, so I’m happy about that.

You’ve obviously found so many clips and have so many people telling their stories, so it’s quite comprehensive, but was it actually a challenge to get something like this on the record?

It really wasn’t. I think “Bad Rap” gave them a platform to articulate a lot of these things that they think about but haven’t overtly talked about. This is my first documentary, so I would ask a question like, “Why do you think an Asian-American hasn’t made it into the mainstream?” and watching them work that question out, think about it and talk it out and come to a conclusion and be like, “Actually, this is why and this is what needs to be done” was so interesting for me.

Because we are all in the same age group, and I’m very empathetic to people’s thoughts and desires, I could ask really personal – almost invasive -questions, because they know I care about this topic. They know that it all comes out of curiosity, love, and a desire to know more about this world that I didn’t really know existed. Because of that, and because a lot of us [now] hang out and we became friends, they were so open to answering these questions because they’re things that nobody has really asked them before in a serious manner.

This isn’t to spoil the film, but you jump ahead two years to find out where people are. That’s an interesting amount of time to spend away – had you planned to give yourself that distance?

Why I thought that was important is because people are obviously going to want to know, okay, so we know these characters now – what’s happened with them? And when you make a documentary, you never know when to end. You could shoot forever. So there had to be a moment where I said to myself, “Okay. I need to stop shooting, start editing and create a story from this. Otherwise, I could go for the rest of my life.” It was cool because in those two years, the artists’ trajectories had changed so much.

This being your first film and three-and-a-half years of your life, what’s it like to be premiering at Tribeca?

It’s very surreal. I shot and edited this entire thing by myself for the most part. I co-produced it and I ate, breathed and slept this film. A lot of people spend years and years on a film and don’t get into festivals, so for Tribeca and other festivals to be interested and really love it is mind-blowing. For people to watch the film and come to me to say, “Thank you so much for making this film, because I go through the same things with my parents,” or “I go through the same things with my doubts and my fears.” For people who are not part of the community to come and tell me how much that they liked the film for whatever reason, it is so humbling.

“Bad Rap” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Tribeca Film Festival once more on April 23rd at 2:45 pm at the Bowtie Cinemas Chelsea.