Pitchfork: Rich Brian Is Taking Over the World—or Is the World Taking Over Rich Brian?

How the 18-year-old Indonesian viral rap star once known as Rich Chigga is upending hip-hop.

via Pitchfork
words by Jace Clayton

iolence is the shortest way for strangers to make a connection. Before he was collaborating with the likes of Skrillex and Migos, before he was rapping on late-night TV, even before he’d adopted the troll-lite persona of Rich Chigga, Brian Imanuel was into violence. People shoot people a lot in his early YouTube videos.

“I feel like kids naturally love guns, so I was drawn to that,” explains the rap wunderkind from the micro-living room of his Airbnb on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When a random person buzzes up saying that she’s locked out of her apartment, Imanuel goes running to let her in. He’s naturally helpful, self-possessed in a low-key rap power suit of camo pants, black sweatshirt, and gold chain. Imanuel pulls up a video called “Time Freeze Shot” on his laptop. He made it seven years ago, back when he was a prodigious 11-year-old growing up in Jakarta, Indonesia. “Time Freeze Shot” lasts 15 seconds. There’s a shot of his feet running—cut to Imanuel firing a semi-automatic whose muzzle flash “freezes” in time—cut to a kid texting on a phone who inadvertently catches the bullet hail. Blood splatters, credits roll. Expertly applied sound design holds it all together.

The overall effect is thrillingly, impossibly real, more like a low-budget action movie than a goofy home video. A love for rendering special effects was what led him to create videos as a mischievous pre-teen. Only later did the storytelling impulse arise. In the years to come, Imanuel would transfer this knack for engineering hyperrealism from video to music.

Just as the predilection for special effects editing led to his early gangster shorts, Imanuel started fine-tuning his English by learning to rap big hip-hop singles with the speed and articulation of the original MCs. He taught himself to produce beats by rebuilding popular instrumentals. In each instance, the first concern is: How do I make this appear real? Then: Now where can this go? With the same intense skillset, he set out to make music that exploded the divide between mimicry and auteurism.

The web’s deepening influence on us is a hard-to-grasp mix of hotwired facts and feels. In many ways, Imanuel is a representative global citizen: Millions of kids goof off on YouTube each day, and the vast majority of them live outside the U.S. What makes Imanuel unique is how he’s able to feed back into that system, offering a glimpse of how culture travels in a digital era while opening up new channels of communication for kids far from the traditional centers of power.

At 16, when Imanuel decided to shoot a video for his song “Dat $tick,” he’d been producing YouTube shorts, Twitter fodder, and Vines under the name Rich Chigga for a couple of years. He had a good sense of what would work. His meticulously detailed scenes, camera angles, slow-mo moments, the whole deal. The key issue for “Dat $tick” was what to wear—a question of costuming as much as persona. “I decided I wanted to dress like a dad,” he says. “The day of the shoot me and my parents drove to the mall and got the polo shirt and fanny pack. It was either gonna hit or be a terrible mistake.”

It hit.

Ignore the screen and “Dat $tick” is a catchy trap song with thugged out lyrics rapped in a staccato baritone. “Rogue wave on you niggas, no fail when I hit ’em/Every time I see a pig, I don’t hesitate to kill ’em” runs the first verse. A sour-sweet synth doodle lands on each quarter note, marking time rather than offering melody. A textbook trap beat made of fast hi-hats anchored by a kick drum completes the tune.

Open your eyes, though, and everything shifts. The teen crew is Asian. They’ve got fake guns, real booze, and, from the looks of it, high school homework to return to later that day. Ringleader Chigga raps in impeccably slanged-out, self-taught English. It’s a good song and a great, not-quite-tongue-in-cheek video.

“Dat $tick”’s humor lives in the strange gaps between its component parts. The beat and lyrics tell one story—a story some found offensive for its use of the word “nigga.” The deadpan video goofing tells another story. Being the 85 millionth individual (or bot) to view the clip tells yet another story, one that implicates you in a sticky global web of looking.

But the thing that made “Dat $tick” go viral two years ago was Imanuel’s normcore dad drag. The buttoned-up polo shirt, fanny pack, and cargo shorts—and their unresolved distance from everything else going on—made him internet famous. Puffed-up machismo is the currency which “Dat $tick” both trades on and deflates, and the normcore dad figure is a nurturer who has aged from coolness into comfort.

The worldwide audience could relate: Young Thug’s androgynous dress on the cover of his 2016 mixtape Jeffery summed up rap’s loose vibe that year. Identifying particularities in a widespread mood then fashioning a meme around them is Imanuel’s particular gift. The deftness with which he hacked into timely pop soundworlds and long-running macho anxieties reflects how producing viral content can be a complex global skill.

No meme is an island. And YouTube is increasingly its own ocean, greedily overwhelming the various specifics of street, city, nation, race. “Dat $tick” traveled so fast in part by visualizing this fact. Get mad at Rich Chigga’s “Dat $tick” and reveal yourself to be humorless; laugh it off as teen-optimized meme rap, though, and you’ll miss how the rise of Asian hip-hop is decentering genre and aggrieving context in strange new ways.

Within a week of “Dat $tick’s” February 2016 video debut, Imanuel had signed to 88rising, a media company captained by Sean Miyashiro, a former Vice employee. Miyashiro manages a stable of pan-Asian MCs and often talks of bridging East-West millennial culture. His company’s growth—from a handful of employees to more than 40 in the past two years—is intertwined with that of its flagship artist, Imanuel.

Miyashiro produced a “Dat $tick” reaction video where big name rappers such as Ghostface Killah and Cam’ron gave young Chigga a massive co-sign. They acknowledged his humor while respecting his embrace of one of rap’s core values: a capacity for self-invention. “It was perfect,” enthused D.C. rapper GoldLink. “He should never change. He should get more ‘dad.’”

A raft of collaborations followed. On the toxic masculinity side of the spectrum, Imanuel recorded a track with SoundCloud rap sensation XXXTentacion and South Korean trap star Keith Ape. On the nontoxic side, his single “Glow Like Dat” made a concerted effort to step away from the “Dat $tick” persona. “Don’t test me because my skin ain’t thick,” raps Imanuel about his first love—an online-only relationship with a Trinidadian girl in Maryland. The video has him dancing in a field of flowers. It’s shot in Day-Glo tones beset by shadows.

That gesture towards vulnerability as asset was promptly derailed by the video for “Crisis,” featuring 21 Savage. Moody lighting, graffiti, car, warehouse, couch: We’ve all seen this video many, many times before. Two female bodies appear for a half-second, with their faces cropped out. “Crisis” isn’t funny at all. Of course, Imanuel’s persona doesn’t require humor to function effectively. The risk is that circulating in American rap networks without continuing to look for ways to bend their ruling logic will disavow the gleeful, dissonant oddness that landed him there in the first place.

On the flip side, some consider everything Imanuel does to be (racist) joke rap. Unlinked from lived experience, the argument goes, Imanuel apes black expressive forms whose power stems from painfully specific real-world conditions, and his distance from those conditions is what has given him attention—attention better due to rappers with some actual connection to trap life. Of course, music can reinforce all sorts of creepy power dynamics. If we want to discuss the murky ethics of Indonesian-American musical encounters, we should start with revered avant-garde composer John Cage, one of the biggest appropriators of Indonesian gamelan music. As for Rich Chigga, looking at how Imanuel arrived at hip-hop foretells a future as odd as how hip-hop arrived to him.

If you happened to walk into the right Jakarta mall at the right time in the early 2000s, you would have been able to see Brian Imanuel’s first public appearances. From age 6 to about 10, he played drums in his family’s Christian rock cover band. The group performed almost exclusively in malls. This is even less likely than it seems: Christians make up a mere 10 percent of all people in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

For the first decade of his life, Imanuel lived near a goat farm in a modest neighborhood of Jakarta. After that he relocated almost entirely online. His family is ethnically Chinese, although he’s not quite sure how they ended up in Indonesia several generations ago. Their family band’s blend of novelty (a 6-year-old holding down the beat!) and familiarity (Christian covers) seems to have seeded Imanuel’s subsequent interest in meme culture, which operates along similar lines, albeit in a radically different context.

Imanuel was homeschooled from the second grade; after a year, his parents stopped assigning homework, which freed him to surf the web for hours a day. “I felt guilty for a while, thinking I’m such a lazy piece of shit,” he recalls. “Turns out I learned a lot of things from being on YouTube all the time.”

A pre-teen obsession with Rubik’s Cube solution videos was his entrée to a world of online tutorials. When he was 11, Imanuel discovered a love for the English language. Crucially, it wasn’t the blandly functional international English that attracted him. He was hooked on the slang-filled, hyper-referential dialects of his long-distance American friends on social media.

Imanuel chides his mother tongue of Bahasa Indonesia for being so inflexible that people are reluctant to say “I love you” or “sorry”—the former too romantic, the latter too formal. Language gleaned from Twitter and rap offered another world entirely. “I learned a lot about American culture by listening to rap songs,” he explains, describing how he looked up every unknown reference on Childish Gambino’s 2012 mixtape Royalty. Imanuel would speak English with himself to practice. One day, he realized that, even without an IRL interlocutor, he had even begun thinking in English.

Though it seems like he absorbed internet culture with ease, throughout our conversation it becomes clear that his meme-making fluency in American pop sensibilities is hard-won. We Americans irradiate the world with our movies, music, and economic policies. Yet the uniquely American mix of underinformed optimism and over-armed aggression simply don’t make sense to much of the globe.

“It took me a while to figure out the U.S. sense of humor, a lot of trial and error,” he says. “I would write down jokes to casually tell my American friend over Skype to see which ones he’d laugh at.”

He used his virtual buddy as a focus group in order to make stuff for YouTube itself, and not for his few friends in Jakarta. Imanuel understood the site’s true power as a machine for reinforcing Anglophone, white American sensibilities.

Case in point: Grammy-winning white rapper Macklemore is the origin figure for Imanuel’s potent strain of black-identifying Asian hip-hop. “I started listening to rap when ‘Thrift Shop’ came out,” says Imanuel. “Everybody on Twitter was talking about it. It became a meme for a second, and I was like, Yo, what is this? This is interesting. What if I learn how to rap this song?” That a white guy from Seattle served as his initial inspiration points to the genre’s rowdy global spread.

Now is an incredible time for hip-hop worldwide. French rap duo PNL’s cinematic cloud-rap globalism emanates from some undisclosed Parisian suburb; Germany’s RIN explores Auto-Tune emotionality; Ghana-based singer Mr Eazi’s light vocal touch makes his exquisite Afrobeat-dancehall slowdowns go over, well, easy. The picture widens even further when you consider frequent rap collaborators from adjacent scenes, like nervy Barcelona flamenco vocalist Rosalía. To top it off, the aggro sonics of trap have landed pretty much everywhere, primed by EDM. Against this varied tide, Imanuel’s pursuit of American fidelity is striking. But if meme is your medium, then you’re bound to follow the largest crowds.

Imanuel has recently begun making original beats. He taught himself via mimicry: “My goal was to make the beat sound exactly like it does in the original. When you listen deeply to a song you find all the little sounds they use, and subconsciously learn how to produce and mix.”

Verisimilitude—not virtuosity—was the target. Copying is how we all learn. Copy enough and you end up creating. Participation matters, as does appreciation. Originality? A boring Western myth.

A term more fitting for what’s at work here is the Chinese concept of shanzhai. Commonly used to refer to knockoff smartphones that sometimes improve on the name brands they’re aping, shanzhai’s meaning gathers around the notion of unauthorized or unofficial productions. The flexible term can stretch from “bootleg” all the way to “parody.” In his book Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes: “In ancient Chinese artistic practice, learning takes place specifically through copying. Moreover, copying is considered a sign of respect towards the master. One studies, praises, and admires a work by copying it.” Like a meme, shanzhai “negates uniqueness in order to increase the efficiency of reproduction.”

Problem is, the dumb shit gets copied too. Back to Macklemore.

Black culture’s fundamental contentiousness regarding objects and value began with the importation of Africans as merchandise during the Middle Passage. Music, rhythm, style, “soul”: so much black cultural expression happens in these immaterial forms, which both resist easy commodification and are open to be imitated.

By the time “Thrift Shop” shows up in Jakarta, all those legacies of struggle and historical specificity take second seat to the music video’s opening shots of Macklemore: a blonde man literally supporting himself on two women, one white and one black. Images eat history.

The best headline of New Year’s Day 2018: “Rich Chigga Changes His Name to Brian.

Unlike Panamanian vocalist Nigga, who switches his name to Flex only when in the U.S., Imanuel seemed genuinely concerned that the wonky portmanteau that helped fuel his viral success might hinder a rise to wider fame. A few days after the rebrand, Imanuel tweaked his moniker once again. He split the difference with Rich Chigga to arrive at Rich Brian.

Four years prior, Imanuel went on Twitter to post a Photoshopped image of himself, stone-faced in a hoodie emblazoned with “Nigga” on it, standing next to a smiling President Barack Obama. That image was his first viral hit. Can he reroute that dubious catchiness into something resembling a career? His just-released debut album, Amen, is a clear bid for American pop acceptance. Fans will find it a pleasant enough listen, although Imanuel’s genius lies in his facility with shorter, web-native forms. But perhaps international rappers shouldn’t pay much attention to what us Americans say, anyway.

The Chinese hip-hop reality show “The Rap of China” was streamed 100 million times within hours of its summer 2017 premiere. The runaway success proved controversial because it was a top-down corporate affair, one that retrofit an imported cultural form to please ads sponsors, government censors, and, perhaps lastly, a young public. Last month, a women’s association accused the show’s co-winner, PG-One, of “instigating drug use among youths and publicly insulting women.” He responded in the worst way possible: by blaming black people. PG-One took to Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, to complain how “early exposure” to black music left him morally impaired.

These moves accompanied the Chinese government’s wider ban on broadcast programs featuring hip-hop culture, which was set in motion against “The Rap of China”’s unprecedented popularity. Given this environment, it’s not surprising that Imanuel’s recent China tour was heavily censored. “The culture bureau showed up to my shows like, ‘Yo, so these are the songs that you can’t perform,’” says Imanuel. “They brought my setlist down to about six songs, and no swears.”

The Chinese authorities are as anxious about rap music’s rise as an Asian youth platform as Imanuel and 88Rising are excited. While Rich Chigga required messed-up American energy to be born, Rich Brian may well end up making bank elsewhere.

And not just China. Imanuel has performed in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea to date. He reports that the hypest crowds were in Thailand, although Indonesia remains special.

To hear him tell it, Rich Brian’s visibility has elevated hip-hop’s popularity in his home country, and now major Stateside rappers are getting invited to play Jakarta. When Imanuel plays hometown shows these days, everyone raps along. No English? Don’t worry. Participation, with a little careful listening, is everything. “One thing about Indonesians,” he says, “is that a lot of them, even if they don’t understand English, have absolutely no problem memorizing English songs. Even my dad.”