Interview: Awkwafina


We sat down with NYC’s ‘Vag Rapper’ for talks on her beginnings, her latest book, and representing all queens and kings of awkward
(Photo cred: Awkwafina’s Facebook / Shirley Yu Photography)

In April, Hypr Creative Inc. brought Dumbfoundead aka Parker (check out our interview with him) back to the city for another show as part of their North American college tour. This time around, he was joined by DJ Zo and a name you know you’ve heard before – Awkwafina, a native of Queens, New York who first exploded on YouTube with a song about her vagina.

True, she’s most known for ‘My Vag’, but the rapper-slash-comedian has undergone quite the eventful journey since then: countless tour dates, a new book, a featuring in an upcoming documentary ‘Bad Rap’, and as a regular on the third season of MTV’s Girl Code.

Awkwafina’s latest release ‘Daydreaming’ (Dir. Court Dunn)

Born as Nora Lum to Chinese and Korean parents, Awkwafina moves the crowd with both self-composed songs and true-to-herself comic appeal, both of which I had the pleasure of experiencing first-hand in Studio Bar. Besides rapping on topics society likes to keep hushed, one of greatest things about the performer is how natural she is, and the ease in relating with her – she says she’s “awkward” and “nerdy”, but hey, so is the rest of us. We chatted about this more in length before the show – check it out below.

For the readers who have yet to be familiar with you, would you mind describing yourself and a little bit about your work and music?

My name is Awkwafina, I’m a rapper and a comedian. I rap about some x-rated material. They know me as the ‘Vag Rapper’.

Once again, welcome to Toronto. How has the tour been so far, with Dumbfoundead and DJ Zo?

Yeah, this has been a college tour. It’s different from other tours I’ve done, which have basically been clubs like this, like [Toronto] is our only club date. It’s pretty interesting. I think there’s something about the quality of my music and Dumbfoundead’s that really speak to college kids. I feel like they really enjoy our show, more than I thought. So that’s really cool.

On your Facebook it says that you were hesitant about releasing ‘My Vag’ when you first wrote it. But eventually you did. Was this when you were in college?

I took a year off and went to China. So I wrote this song a little bit when I got back from China; I wrote this song before I went to college, technically. I’ve always just had [this song], like I sent it to like one or two friends. And then years later, I was working at an office – I was a publicist – and a friend of mine who directs like Bone Thug, Wale and Waka Flocka videos, he just heard it randomly. He was emailed it or something. And he was like, “we need to do this.” And I was like, ‘Well, I work at this job” – you know, publicists are very touchy about their image, so my boss didn’t want me to release it. What ended up happening was that I quit my job. I didn’t work anymore, and the video went viral.

So who is this friend, the one who was like, “we need to do [‘My Vag’] right now”?

This is Court Dunn. He directs all my videos. And he was pretty much like, “we need to do this video, it’s going to catch on.” I was just like, “I don’t know, I think I’m going to get a lot of hate for it.” That’s why I wore glasses. I need glasses in real life, but not big ones like these obviously. I [started wearing these] to hide my identity because I was scared I wouldn’t be able to get another job. I was really scared. It was post-college, all my friends got good jobs, I wanted to move out of my parents’ house (I just did move out of my parents’ house). I wanted to live a good life, and I didn’t think I had the luxury of doing music that time.

But there was a point where ‘My Vag’ started doing well on YouTube. So I just said to myself, “you know, it’s doing well, maybe I’ll give it a chance.” So that meant no more applying for office jobs and going straight for off-the-book [gigs]. I worked at a bodega, you know, just these jobs. Eventually, I did well, and I didn’t have to work anymore. So that was cool.

That’s really good, wow.

What I tell people is that music is a privilege. Especially for Asian Americans. We have a lot of pressure to go into these fields, like medical fields. So it’s a luxury to do what I do, because Asian Americans can’t do this if they’re broke, you know. It’s not a thing.

‘Yellow Ranger’ by Awkwafina (Dir. Court Dunn)

On that note, besides being an Asian American, you’re also female. There’s not a lot of females in the rap game, let alone Asian Americans. How conscious must you be of that when you’re performing? Do you feel that obligation to represent?

I think there’s something I like to call ‘reverse sexism’ in female rap. You know, a lot of women think that just by being a woman [in rap], we represent strength because we do something that is outside of our ‘roles’. But I don’t think that’s enough. Just because they’re a female rapper, it doesn’t mean that they’re empowering [others]. What they’re doing is [writing], “I ride in my boyfriend’s whip,” you know. You have to use rap to be empowering. That’s how you become someone who stands out. And I’m not out there being super political about women’s issues. What I do is talk about issues that women are scared to talk about, and not only on rap, but on TV and anything. That’s how I feel empowered, and how I feel I’m empowering some women.

There are some girls [out there] who don’t like the music I make. They’re very put off by it, they’re offended by it. But other women, I think they feel liberated by it, you know, talking about our genitals in a very ‘angry’ way. It’s empowering.

I’m not the first Asian American woman rapper – there are tons before me. But I think I’m the first one to really go to that level that’s uncomfortable.

And it’s a risk.

It is a huge risk. And [once you do it], it’s no turning back.

To be honest, when I first checked you out, I was like, “woah, what is this girl about, this is great, okay!” Then I listened more to you, and I understand it’s material that girls can be put off by. But it’s empowering because they’re issues that need to be talked about, even if we don’t want to talk about them.

And I think for me, it’s not just about the content, it’s also about who I am as a person. I’m not an overly sexual performer. I’m actually just an awkward, nerdy girl. And I think that’s a very specific audience that doesn’t have representation in the hip-hop world. There are pretty girls that have their pretty rappers. Then there are awkward girls who have me.

Going from there, can you talk about where the name Awkwafina came from?

Well, it was always Awkwafina. Awkwafina was always Awkwafina. And there’s really no story; I’ve always taught it was a very fitting name. There’s no metaphorical [play on it].

And at this point, it did turn out to be a very fitting name.

Yeah, and we actually ended changing the spelling because we didn’t want to get sued by Pepsi! But it actually turned out to be really meta because I am awkward. People assumed I picked that name because it has ‘awkward’ in it. But it’s not, so.

So we did go into your music, like where you get your inspiration from and that’s very evident. But can we go a little more into besides your identity, are there other sources you draw inspiration from when you write your songs?

What I like to write about is stuff that were previously not rapped about, but what everyone knows. I think the same can go with stand-up. The best stand-ups for me are not [all about] shock-value, but when people talk about things that no one has really voiced, but are true. You know, like the way people act on the subway, or the way your friends act when they’re drunk. I like to hit on those [certain things]. I also want to speak to my generation, the millennial kids. We don’t have a lot of music out there that relates directly to us in terms of our social lives, the way we were raised, 90s stuff. I like to touch on that, I like to have solidarity based on that. It’s something that’s part of my life; I like to talk about my life.

Out of the songs you’ve written, what would be your favorites? If you were to talk to an audience who are still getting to know you, what songs would you perform for them?

I think I would definitely do ‘My Vag’ and ‘NYC Bitche$’. ‘NYC Bitche$’ is a song that doesn’t really fit the whole ‘vag’ brand, but it something that was really important for me to write because it’s something I’m actually upset about. I’m a New Yorker, so I think it needs to be known what kind of New York we live in. That song is very important to me.

‘NYC Bitche$’ by Awkwafina (Dir. Court Dunn)

Congratulations on your recent book launch, Awkwafina’s NYC, and in general for pursuing a non-musical project. Can you talk a little about what made you want to go down this path?

I was a journalism major in college and I worked in various newspapers. I was doing editorials for a while before being a publicist. I have a writing background, and I feel like the book was just a way for me to merge Awkwafina being a native New Yorker with Nora Lum; and being someone who honestly wants to share New York City with the world.

What do you want your audience to walk away with from engaging with your work, with the Awkwafina image/brand? Not just your music, but everything you do: you’re also on MTV’s Girl Code, you’re a comedian, and you have your book.

I don’t think I’m out here to ‘shock’, offend, or educate people. I think I just kind of represent something that’s different. I think that as long as they get that, and they’re okay with it, that’s all what I want people to walk away with.

Finally, how is a day like in the life of Awkwafina?

A day in the life of Awkwafina is not very interesting! I spend most of my days at home smoking weed, producing music, and watching Netflix. And eating.

And being a genius. And having a vagina that’s fifty times better than a penis.

‘My Vag’ by Awkwafina (Dir. Court Dunn)

Many thanks to Nora for taking the time to sit down with us, as well as to Hypr Creative, Inc. for making this edition of the Freedom Music Series happen. Until they visit again, go cop Awkwafina’s album ‘Yellow Ranger’ on iTunes.

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