In February, a 16-year-old Indonesian kid named Brian Imanuel released a music video called “Dat $tick.” Maybe you've seen it. Imanuel’s dressed like dad, wearing a pink polo and a Reebok fanny pack, while rapping over a minimal, typical, drill-style beat. The video went viral, accruing around 2 million views on YouTube, and Imanuel went on to sign to CXSHXNLY, an Asian-focused music collective that also reps Korean American rapper Dumbfoundead and Korean viral sensation Keith Ape. In July, a media platform affiliated with CXSHXNLY, 88rising, released a video in which American rappers including 21 Savage and Ghostface Killah reacted, largely positively, to “Dat $tick.” “It’s different," Ghostface Killah said. "It ain’t the same shit you seen, everybody all tryna get blinged out. He’s just him.”
I found out about Imanuel when a close friend of mine shared “Dat $tick” with me over Facebook, but his internet presence goes all the way back to 2012, when he started out on Twitter at just 12 years old. Imanuel was homeschooled, and used the platform to tell jokes. A photoshopped picture of himself wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the N-word while standing next to President Obama made the rounds. In 2013 he began posting on Vine, and listening to hip-hop via American friends he’d made online. Shortly after, Imanuel began posting videos on YouTube. The earliest and strangest on his channel is called “Suicide Hotline,” a dark short film in which he plays a married man wanting to commit suicide. The rest are awkwardly hilarious parodies of facets of American pop culture: there's a popular 31-second tutorial on how to microwave bread. In it, Imanuel stares into the camera for too long. It’s funny.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Imanuel began releasing satirical music on YouTube under the name Rich Chigga, starting with “Living the Dream,” then following up with “Dat $tick” seven months later. And as Rich Chigga, he's received as much criticism as praise. People on Twitter and around the internet have called him out for his racially insensitive name, and his use of the N-word. Others accused him of cultural appropriation.
When I spoke to Imanuel over Skype in July, I asked if he's regretted some of the decisions he's been called out for. It was 11 p.m. in Jakarta, and he was over at the house of a friend, who appeared in the “Dat $tick” video. (“The fat one!” the friend said.) Imanuel told me he does regret choosing the name Rich Chigga. If he had the chance to redo "Dat $tick," he’d leave the N-word in, he said, but he won’t use it in the future because he’s “not trying to offend anyone.”
Imanuel is now part of a small group of hyper-visible Asian creators, but doesn't want his race to be a significant factor in the interpretation of his art. Below is our conversation about his interest in American comedy, his strategy for making a satirical rap song popular, and what he wants to do in the future. Plus a new song, "Who That Be," which debuted Tuesday.
How did you develop your sense of humor?
I just really liked American comedy. Because Indonesian comedy like, the TV shows we have here are fucking ridiculous. It's literally a stage with a bunch of these comedians and there's a big audience and they would make a pun and they would laugh. When I found out about American culture and American humor, I was like, "Oh shit, this was so fucking good." That's what really made me want to start. It's just so clever. [My comedy] is super satirical. Indonesian people don't get satire, that's the thing. There's no thought in our humor. Every time I would post shit on Instagram, like I posted this picture of me wearing pink mascara and people are like, "Brian what are you doing? Are you gay?" Shit like that.
You've called your artist name “corny” and said you regret picking it. Why haven’t you changed it?
[The name] just started from me making my first song. I was talking to my friend about it back then like, "Damn. What should I name it?" And my friend was like, "Let’s pick the most controversial shit ever." I didn't really know what I was doing and I definitely did not know people were gonna pop off like this. Now I'm kind of stuck with this. I might change it in the future, I don't know. I hope I can do it. But as for now, I'm definitely not going to let it be the only thing that defines me. It actually kinda motivates me to do better so when people listen to my music they're like, "Oh shit, this is actually not bad." I'm not going to make my music based around this ignorant ass name.
What would you change it to?
I don't know, something that doesn't have to do with race. Something that's like, catchy. Like Kanye West. Or Kodak Black. [Laughs.]
You were criticized for using the N-word in "Dat $tick," then said you're just going to stop using it. What was your thinking behind that decision?
It was honestly a pretty hard decision, when I actually put the N-word in my song. I was like, "Should I fucking do this?" It's a big thing and a lot of people would probably get offended by this. But then, when I started building up the courage to do it, I was like: Fuck it. Let's fucking go hard or go home. And I wanted to do it in every fucking song and shit. But then I feel like after the song was released, having that statement with that song, I feel like that's enough. I just don't really want to offend more people and I don't want to have to explain myself every time, I guess.
What's your belief, then, on usage of the N-word?
I'm all about context. I wouldn't say it around African American people if I don't know them. I would definitely try to avoid saying it at all times, but at the same time it's like, this is something Tyler, the Creator also said — he feels like it's just a word and if you take the power out of it, it doesn't mean anything. I wasn't sure I was gonna completely change people's minds about the word with that song but, you know, I wasn't completely sure if it was going to work out. I just wanted to participate I guess. My plan was like, when people listen to the song maybe they're gonna be like, "Oh wait, he said the fucking N-word,” but then they're like, “Oh shit, whatever, it's a good song." That was my plan. For me, the use of the N-word, I personally avoid saying it. But yeah, my intention was not to try to be edgy or like to stand out or whatever. I wasn't trying to offend anyone.
Would you take that word out now, if you could?
I feel like I would leave it in. I would just not say it any more in my songs.
What about “Dat $tick” do you think is so appealing?
It's just: "Who's this fucking kid?" And then they start listening to it and they're like, "Oh, it's actually like not bad. It's actually like kinda good." When I was making it, I didn't really think I was appropriating culture. I mean, as for the name, [that criticism] is understandable, I get that. But in general, as for the music and the videos, I feel like I'm just being myself. I'm kinda new to this so it's also a learning process. I'm still figuring things out.
Did you get angry tweets?
Definitely. I don't really respond to them because I used to be the kid that got into so many internet arguments, back when I was like 13. But that shit's super tiring so now I always avoid them. So if I see those tweets I just close Twitter for a while. They would say shit like, "Rich Chigga, are you fucking kidding me, what kinda name is that?" But I kinda know what they're saying. I can't really please everyone.
Then, people you're affiliated with showed your video to a bunch of rappers, and they praised you. Was that validating to see?
Yeah. I was surprised with how welcoming and how positive they were. I love Flatbush Zombies. 21 Savage looked like he wasn't that into it, but I still love him. In the video, there are new rappers but there are also old school, legendary rappers, Cam'ron and Ghostface. I would expect them to be like, "This is what rap has turned into?" But they're actually super cool about it.
My plan was like, when people listen to the song maybe they’re gonna be like, ’Oh wait, he said the fucking N-word,’ but then they’re like, ’Oh shit, whatever, it’s a good song.’
On “Dat $tick” you mention corruption, drug abuse, and community disenfranchisement. Were you hoping to convey a particular message about things happening in Indonesia?
The message that I was trying to get across was basically that a bunch of weird, crazy shit happens in Indonesia too, that people don't really know about. That's what I was trying to say: shit happens here too. And maybe it's different shit but it's a thing that exists. That's definitely not what I'm trying to do with all of my music, but I think that song is good enough to get my point across. Cause some crazy shit happens in Indonesia. Like the schools in Indonesia, the high schools, there's this thing called Tawuran. It's basically all the different schools are rival gangs for some reason. And they'd ride in the street and have a fight with sharp weapons. Because we don't have guns here, but they use sharp weapons and shit. They kinda do it for no reason. So the kids are following it and on the news you'd see elementary kids doing that shit too. It happens in kinda the ghetto parts in Indonesia. But in Jakarta the ghetto area or slum area is one with the big city — you'll see high rise buildings next to a slum.
Are you trying to promote some activism?
Honestly, I'm not a big activism or politic guy. I wouldn't say I'm super educated in that stuff, and I feel like I shouldn't speak on things that I don't understand too much. I'm just doing what I can. And it's kinda dangerous to do that here because you don't know what's gonna happen. The government might fuck with you.
What’s your new song “Who That Be” about?
There's a line where I say: I don't smoke weed or take Xans. Which, I don't do drugs. In hop-hop there's the turn-up songs, where people don't really care what the rappers talk about, they just care about the beat. I'm still going to do that sometimes but, you know, in different times I'm going to do different stuff, like maybe something deep.
You've said that you avoid talking about your race and that you don't want it affecting your music. Why is that?
I'm really about seeing people and art for what they are. Like seeing people as humans and seeing art. I really don't think [my race] should matter. Like I don't think it should be a thing that needs to be asked, like, "Oh shit, are you an Asian rapper?" You know, I'm Asian, but this is part of the reason why I regret having Rich Chigga. It's not like I'm anti-Asian, it's not like I hate my own race. People can see it, you know? I'm Asian. So let me do what I want to do.
Some Asian American artists, like Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina, write songs that are rooted in their immigrant experience and their identities as Asian artists. Is that something you'd ever explore?
I like what Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina are doing, but I think I'm just trying to do something different. I don't really see that many Asian people that kinda just do their thing. I feel like I shouldn't have to do the same thing as them.
Do you identify as an Asian rapper?
I feel like I'm representing Asians, in a way. You can't really avoid it. I am an Asian rapper even though I wouldn't place myself in that category. Cause 88rising is literally a platform that's putting a bunch of Asian stuff into like, one place. I'm kinda doing the same thing but I'm more subtle with it, I guess.
What are you trying to do, then?
Recently, I've been really influenced by Tyler, the Creator. I really like what he's doing, when he mixes his music and his musical career with comedy. I really would like to do that in the future.