The late David Rakoff left us with this insight: "There are some questions in life, the very speaking of which are their own undoing. Am I fired? Is this a date? Are you breaking up with me? Yes. No. Yes." One of these questions could be seen headlining an article in New York Magazine early this week: Can an Asian woman be taken seriously in rap?
Beginning from this premise, one need not get past the third paragraph of the short profile before Awkwafina (a rapper alter ego for Nora Lum) is compared to the literary heavyweight Haruki Murakami. Don't be alarmed — the comparison is not made from race, but rather finds that both speak with the same "awe." The writer really dodged a bullet with that one. Or maybe a throwing star.
To ask whether Lum can be taken seriously builds a frame for considering the rapper already. It precludes serious consideration by asking if a serious consideration can take place. Compare this to asking whether Awkwafina will be taken seriously — that construction has a decidedly different connotation. It presupposes that the rapper is already worthy of serious consideration, and that it is the task of everyone else to catch up to this realization. Alternatively, you could ask should she be taken seriously. That question poses a still more neutral frame; it actually sounds like a real question.
Still more doubting is the use of "Asian" in the question's frame. That women can be taken seriously as rappers is not asked much, if at all, anymore. The question has lost its novelty to the the likes of Lil Kim, Missy Elliot, MIA, Azaelia Banks, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, and until fairly recently, Nicki Minaj. It's telling that we have to ask whether an Asian woman rapper can be taken seriously. What it tells is that there are still some salient expectations and stereotypes governing what can pass as normal in the game. The question therefore becomes self-defeating in its redundancy —translated, it asks: Can a stereotyped archetype be judged free of the stereotyped archetype in the rap game?
Unpacking one's knapsack aside, there's another reason this question is its own undoing — it is currently unanswerable. A reasonable definition for "taking something seriously" might include the option of finding the subject bad. But Nora Lum may not yet exist on the plane of good-or-bad. At the risk of sounding uncompromising, this argument will be made by analogy from the following clip by Hari Kondabolu:
In other words, the path taken by many to Awkwafina's emergence on the scene is to celebrate her ability to emerge on the scene. When enough Asian female rappers join her such that we stop primarily identifying them as Asian female rappers, then it might be appropriate to judge them.
That sounds contradictory, hypocritical even. Why is it okay to celebrate a female Asian rapper for her Asian-femaleness when it's not okay to judge her based on her Asian-femaleness? Because race and ethnicity are complicated. But more so because positive and negative judgments hold differing consequences. To pose negatively the judgment by linking it to the randomized qualities of Asian-femaleness perpetuates the social context that makes it weird for Asian women to be rappers. To celebrate Awkwafina's Asian-femaleness doesn't judge her as a rapper either — but as a judgment, it's difficult to argue this is as deflating.
If you have to ask whether Asian women can be taken seriously as rappers, they aren't, and won't be. If you celebrate them as Asian women who rap — or better, as just rappers — that builds an emerging social context for more to come onto the scene.
If the asking of some questions are their own undoing, perhaps it is better to just do. Here is Awkwafina, on her own terms: