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Rich Brian Embraces The Pressure Of Representing Asian Culture On ‘Amen’

Brian is more than just a rapper with a debut album—he’s the first Indonesian to make it this big in any form of US entertainment.

After a year of globetrotting and releasing a variety of singles, Rich Brian’s debut has finally landed. Brought to you by the tastemakers at 88Rising, the album is a showcase of the teenager’s production skills and features lyrics detailing the usual suspects of fast fame (girls, fake friends, and money). However, what sets Brian Imanuel apart is his status as an Asian rapper making waves in the mainstream hip-hop scene. On Amen, he manages to balance the pressures of that weight with a light-hearted sense of fun and naïveté that comes with his youth and unique sense of humour.

Hailing from Jakarta, Indonesia, Brian often references his foreigner status in a scene intrinsically linked to African American history (he fortunately wised up to his controversial stage name recently). His home country is better known for nasi goreng and its Islamic heritage than any affiliation with hip-hop, and most Americans probably couldn’t place Indonesia on a map. Perhaps that’s why on “Arizona,” he raps:

People wonderin' where in the fuck is Indo
Starin' at my screen, I need a fuckin' window

Rich Brian’s newfound status is two-fold. Not only is he the first Asian rapper to reach this level of success in America, but he is also the first Indonesian to make it this big in any form of US entertainment, so it’s no wonder why national pride is a common motif in his lyrics. On “Enemies,” he raps:

Reppin' red and white so hard I barely can control it
I don’t care ‘bout relevance, I write my bars then I go drop it

On “Flight,” he describes his transition from life in Jakarta to life in the US, using the long-haul plane ride between the two continents as its central image. Despite the attractions of the hip-hop lifestyle, he mentions that all he sees is the Indonesian flag flying high and proud:

I’m just tryna be the goat, used to see them walk by
Gettin' ready for this life, all I see is red and white

This line is also an interpolation of a previous line on “Gospel,” where he revealed that even the former governor of Jakarta is a Rich Brian fan:

With representation comes responsibility, and on “Arizona” he embraces being a hero to local Indonesians:

I’m the one and only
But I swear about a thousand Indonesian kids will come with me

It’s not all positive though. A line from “Amen” led to some criticism from back home for not rapping in his native tongue. In his “Verified” interview with Genius, Rich told us, “[That line] is reminding people that I absolutely did not forgot about my home country—the country that I was born in and the country that I grew up in.”

Beyond just that line, Brian seems well aware of his popularity amongst Asian youth and his groundbreaking role in the American music history. Upon release, Amen made him the first Asian artist to top the iTune hip-hop charts, while facing stiff competition from Migos’ Culture II and The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar’s “Pray For Me” single (an even more remarkable feat when taking into account that Amen is an independent release). His response on Instagram, a quote from the album’s title track, sums up the significance of this moment for an ethnic minority rarely represented in mainstream media:

1 on iTunes 😤😤😤 thank u all. I do this shit for the people that look like me, so the girls can think of me, and not that kid that throw that fit cause he didn’t get straight A’s all week

Indonesia has a population of 260 million, almost half of which is under the age of 30. While Indonesian Americans rank as the 15th largest Asian American population group, there are around 20 million total American residents of Asian heritage, making up approximately 6 percent of the total US population (this figure varies between 10-30 percent in major metropolitan areas). Brian’s career is not only being eagerly watched by Indonesians, but also by Asians of all backgrounds. Commentators are seizing the opportunity to discuss representation and race in hip-hop and entertainment in general. In a very short time period since his pink polo, fanny-pack-flexing debut, Rich Brian has become the face of Asian hip-hop in America just as it begins its ascension.

One particular New Yorker, Sean Miyashiro, has been instrumental in this movement. Miyashiro is the founder of New York-based media company 88Rising and picked up on the “Dat $tick” meme early. Acting as a mentor and networker, he supported Brian and helped connect him with established industry names like Ghostface Killah and 21 Savage. He even gets a shout out on “Flight,” which features the ab-lib of “88” throughout the song:

And I almost got deported back to the home town
‘Cause I didn’t know what road my hotel’s on
Then I met my manager, Sean 88 chillin’ in the passenger
And I’m feelin' tripped out, seein' him for the first time

Tapping into the digital psyche of the post-irony, globalized millennial demographic has yielded highly successful results for 88Rising and their cohort. While tentpole K-pop acts such as BTS, Girls’ Generation and 2NE1 have been generating crossover appeal in the US for the past few years, independent Asian voices are finally finding a high-profile platform thanks to innovators like Miyashiro and his 88rising team, which also reps Keith Ape and Higher Brothers.

It’s not just about hype and banging tunes though. Helping an entire generation of third culture Asian kids struggling with their identity is all part of 88Rising’s M.O.. Brian’s multicultural upbringing (Indonesian by birth but with Chinese heritage, as is common in Southeast Asia) and global outlook helps explain his appeal to a generation that’s learned to fluidly adapt across cultural barriers.

Admittedly, it’s no small task for the baby-faced, homeschooled rapper, yet Rich Brian embraces this watershed moment wholeheartedly. In his Genius Verified video, he comments on how fans approach him now to tell him about how he has changed their lives, especially with how girls view Asians:

[Fans tell me], ‘I’m more confident now because someone like you exists. And then you’re kind of like an icon for us’ ..It’s Asian kids and even just teenagers in general, they come up to me and they’re like, ‘What you’re doing is making me feel like what was impossible before, like possible now.’ That’s the craziest thing ever, because I know what it feels like to be super inspired and motivated by someone….That was the first time an Indonesian actor got into Hollywood. It was just a mixture of motivation and just being super jealous and being super driven. And it was a crazy feeling in knowing that I do that for people. It’s amazing.

For all the inspiration and positivity, relocating to the US has also led to strong feelings of alienation. Homesickness is a strong theme throughout Amen. On “See Me,” Brian raps:

I’m on the road and I’m lovin' my bunk
Still missin' home, but I’m havin' my fun, uh
I would never quit, I’m too legit
Indonesian MC Hammer in this bitch

He also shouts out his parents on “Attention," including a particularly touching image of his mother asking if he is eating well. While not unique to Asian cultures, it’s a known quirk of the east to ask “Have you eaten yet?” as a way of indirectly asking, “How are you?” (A strongly Asian/Chinese characteristic):

Like my dad, I’m the man, don’t wanna see me mad
What you doin'? Is you lost? Go ahead and call a cab, ayy
Yesterday my mother called me, she told me that she be worried
‘Bout my food and what I eatin’, I tell her it’s calamari

While balancing the pressures of an entire generation of Asian third culture kids searching for identity, with personal issues of homesickness and alienation, Rich doesn’t forget to have fun. He started out as an amateur Youtube/Twitter comedian, and that humor still shows up on his Instagram feed (still filled with comedy gold) and on songs like “Kitty,” a crass account of a sexual encounter with a girl who turns out to be his friend’s sister. Its storytelling element is reminiscent of other artists like Odd Future or Eminem, albeit at a slightly more PG-13 high school level of jokiness. He’s been fueled by internet memes from day one and his self-aware image is still a major strength.

Amen achieves a balance between irony and authenticity, unified by Brian’s tongue-in-cheek refusal to take himself too seriously, but it’s merely a taste of things to come. On “Arizona,” he claims he considers this release a mere “project”—an idea he reiterated in an interview with Complex. There are no details on when the “real” album will be released, but fans have gotten their first glimpse of what a mainstream Asian hip-hop star could look like. Rich Brian has proved he is more than a one-hit meme boy wonder, and acknowledged and welcomed his unique position in music history. More importantly, he’s done so without sacrificing any of the charm that brought him here in the first place.