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Can Rich Chigga’s Name Change Excuse His Past?

The Chinese-Indonesian rapper wants you to call him Brian. We want him to stop commodifying black culture.

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Two years ago 16-year-old Brian Imanuel, better known as his stage name Rich Chigga, dropped “Dat $tick,” a surprising rap hit that took the music world by storm.

In classic “new year, new me” fashion, the teen rap sensation has announced that he will go solely by his first name, Brian. Sharing a tweet on New Year’s Day the 18-year-old wrote, “Yes I now go by ‘Brian’. I have been planning to do this forever and I’m so happy to finally do it. I was naive & I made a mistake. new year, new beginning, happy new years™ .”

The announcement has garnered mixed reviews, some in support of the change, others not so much. Many of his fans responded to his tweet, calling on him to keep his former stage name. However, this is not the first time Imanuel has referred to his name as a “mistake.” In a 2016 interview with Fader Magazine, Imanuel admitted that it was an “ignorant ass name.” After receiving a lot of backlash on Twitter, Imanuel also confessed, “I didn’t really know what I was doing and I definitely did not know people were gonna pop off like this.” In a 2017 interview with The New Yorker, Imanuel expressed regrets over his name again, claiming to want to be seen as more than a “naïve Asian rapper who became a meme.” Instead, he wants to be “taken seriously as a ‘real’ rapper.”

28 years after Vanilla Ice made his debut, the hip-hop world has been introduced to the likes of Eminem, Iggy Azalea, Machine Gun Kelly, G-Eazy, Post Malone, so-on and so-on. Unfortunately, we still haven’t quite figured out how to deal with non-black rappers.

In a country that views race as strictly black and white, when introduced to breakout artist “Rich Chigga” two years ago, an Asian rapper fascinated many. When a non-black rapper is introduced, they are often seen as either exotic or offensive. And when Imanuel dropped the n-word 25 seconds into his debut single “Dat $tick,” it was easy to label him as the latter. In Imanuel’s defense, he said, “my intention was not to try to be edgy or like to stand out or whatever. I wasn't trying to offend anyone.” But, no matter what Immanuel’s intent was, it was only the impact that made a difference. “Dat $tick,” now at 80 million views on YouTube, was not only seasoned with the n-word for regurgitation, but also opens with Imanuel pouring out a bottle of Martell Cognac onto the ground. It is difficult to grasp if the video is supposed to be humorous, but the song, and its expletives, quickly detract from what is being seen, to what is being heard.

So, where does this leave us? On one hand, Brian Imanuel has proven to be a remorseful artist, a teenager who has been chastised for a simple “mistake.” Did we, as a society, really expect a 16-year-old foreigner, who had never been to the United States, to understand the implications of his actions and words? Is it fair that we hold him up to our standard of “wokeness”? Yet, on the other hand, Immanuel serves as a catalyst for a larger conversation on non-black hip-hop artists and their confusing (and often problematic) relationship to black culture. Whether or not Imanuel was young, foreign or even reportedly “taught himself English by watching Rubik’s Cube videos on YouTube,” does not matter. For many, “Rich Chigga” rightfully serves as another example of cultural appropriation.

Rich Chigga’s name change does not excuse his past, but it allows us to explore exactly why a foreign teen thought the commodification of black culture, and the use of the n-word, was acceptable? And unsurprisingly, our answer is (cue the dramatic music): the media.

In Imanuel’s home country of Indonesia, there are very few black people. In fact, Imanuel, never having met a black individual until his late teens, is not a far-fetched concept. Blackness and hip-hop culture is primarily exported by western media as if it were a commodity, thus allowing many Asians (born and raised in Asia) to view it as just that — a commodity. When this occurs, you have people who don’t understand the problems that black people and black culture are subjected to. Viewing blackness on a surface level allows them to piece together their own identities off the backs of the “cool” parts of black culture, which they received pre-packaged from the west.

In Nia Tucker’s “Sorry Asians, My Blackness is Not Your Counterculture,” she writes that she has no problem with other people of color partaking in hip-hop but “when you take traits of a culture that isn’t yours, for your own personal gain, with complete disregard for who made it? It’s unforgivable.” She goes to describe that issues arise when “the culture becomes your counterculture, and is what allows you to defy whatever constrictions you feel by your own personal ethnic identity.” Many that become involved in black-infused countercultures are not the least self-aware that they are using and abusing blackness to their advantage.

And so, Rich Chigga was born.

As we lay him to rest, we can only hope others learn from Brian’s mistake.

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