“If Brian Imanuel wants to become a rapper, he's welcome to do it. And if he wants to become a comedian, which he clearly does, he's welcome to do that too. But if he wants to exploit hip-hop, and in the process black artists and black culture, to become a rapper-comedian, there's no place for him here.” —Nathan Slavik, "Rich Chigga: I Only Say Nigga When I’m Jamming to Rap Music"
When DJBooth’s former managing editor Nathan Slavik declared there was no place in hip-hop for Rich Chigga, I agreed. Nathan’s initial reaction, like that of many others, was a natural contempt born from a problematic first impression.
Brian Imanuel is of Chinese descent, born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. He entered hip-hop’s consciousness with an offensive moniker, an insulting use of the “n-word,” and a stylized viral video of modern rap tropes that can be deemed satirical or exploitive—the line is thin. “Dat $tick” was like watching the second coming of Slim Jesus, another poser whose mimicry crossed into mockery, but Brian Imanuel’s name and language made him a bigger subject of controversy.
An early stance against Rich Chigga was a stance against the further ridicule of black culture, Asian racial slurs, and hip-hop as a whole, but many who were introduced to Brian due to the boom of “Dat $tick” might be unfamiliar with his background as an online comedian. Since age 13, YouTube has been a hub for his satirical humor, where ideas he shot inside his home entered cyberspace. Twitter and Vine were later utilized as a way of expanding his base and building a community for those who watched him.
Born and raised in Indonesia, the internet is where Imanuel learned English, and it was through social media that he became accustomed to American pop culture. Like many teenagers raised during the internet age, he became a sponge of the content and culture, absorbing hip-hop and taking interest in how humor in the West differed from his homeland. He was physically an outsider, but the immense influence of what he internalized was imitated in his artistic output.
Imanuel's history predating “Dat $tick” was further explained after the viral eruption. Interviews with major publications like The New Yorker and Vulture were published, giving wider context to the artist who appeared as a shallow, superficial offender of cultural practice.
Initially, I didn’t read nor listen to any song or interviews by Rich Chigga. I wanted to be firm in my stance against “Dat $tick” and the fact it was such a horrendous example of cultural offense. He wasn't to be taken seriously, a joke that went too far. I saw him as a meme that would vanish when ignored and exiled, soon to be forgotten as a new sensation ushered our attention away. A name like Rich Chigga and a song like “Dat $tick” begs for attention, and I had so little to give in this economy of attention-cravers.
To begin the new year, Rich Chigga has changed his stage name to Brian. The name change has been advertised on all socials, his YouTube videos no longer read ‘Rich Chigga,’ and changes to streaming services will likely take place in the coming weeks. He tweeted about being naive, that the name was a mistake, and how he’s been planning to make the change for a while. Since the viral success of “Dat $tick” there has been an abundance of apologies, his New Yorker interview begins with regret, and finally, he has made action where once there was only acknowledgment.
We could simply call Rich Chigga becoming Brian a PR move, a rebranding for the sake of saving a tainted image. Or, we could see this change as growing up, maturing, and learning a lesson from the internet’s tough love.
In a 2016 interview with The FADER, Brian admitted that during the making of “Dat $tick” he needed a rap name, and a friend suggested he "pick the most controversial shit ever.” He was 16 years old, a teenager inching closer to adulthood, but still a child. Choosing a stage name built on creating controversy is the thinking of teenagers without any guidance, with no one supervising their imagination. Their desire to be noticed easily coincides with the internet’s attraction to the ridiculous. They were kids who grew up watching kids go viral doing nonsense, reaching the masses through the madness.
He was 16 and silly, innocent but idiotic, but weren’t we all? In most cases, the sides of ourselves that were ridiculous and deserving of ridicule was blessed by the fact they were unknown. We were saved from ourselves before making a damaging mistake underneath the glare of the world. There's poetic irony in the fact a millennial attention-seeker is becoming the biggest international Asian rapper to reach mainstream success in the States.
Brian’s interviews are selfies of a teenager who is obviously smart and sophisticated, but who towed too close to the edge and didn’t realize the ramifications that would follow. His innocence doesn’t outweigh the ignorance, but it does give context to who he was before and after. He could have easily fought for his right to be Rich Chigga and ignored the criticism surrounding the wrongs in his song. There was no battle, but acceptance. The same way he learned about American pop culture, he figured out what isn’t acceptable.
Whether or not the music is good never mattered. The offense Brian Imanuel made was cultural, not musical. He could have been the best rapper alive and most ears wouldn’t be enthused to press play on the latest Rich Chigga. It's why this change is such a great lesson, especially in the internet age. As seen with Odd Future and now Brian, controversial teens can become self-aware adults when given a chance to see and reflect on the error of their ways. Rebranding isn’t always a transformation in terms of fixing a problem, sometimes it’s the natural progression of learning and a desire to be better. I believe Brian wants to start the year as someone new, and not who we believed him to be. For his young fans, this is a great example of growth, and never being too big to be wrong. Millions of views aren't worth the many who are offended. They matter, and you should care.
Hip-hop is the most influential genre of music and culture impacting this generation. Not just kids in New York, Atlanta, or Los Angeles, but around the globe. Interaction and admiration won’t always translate into complete cultural comprehension. Everything absorbed isn’t meant for imitation or satirical reimagining, and this fact must remain at the forefront of discourse regardless of whether you forgive Rich Chigga or not.
Brian now seems to have a newfound appreciation for music, hip-hop, and what he wants to represent visually and musically. It feels more authentic and serious, far from parody music. The newly-released "See Me" leans harder on melody than trap, more honest reflection than fabricated slick talk. The vibe is early Cudi—he's a walking influence of the blog age. He’s more of an artist than a comedian, more so than someone like Lil Dicky, who similarly toes that line but tends to fall closer to a joke than serious artistry.
I still find Brian to be young and naive, but now also learning and growing. Nathan was right, there’s no place in hip-hop for Rich Chigga. But after some reconsideration, there’s a place for an older, more self-aware Brian.
By Yoh, aka Slim Yohsus, aka @Yoh31