It’s been almost two years since a 16-year-old Chinese-Indonesian kid named Rich Chigga dropped “Dat Stick,” one of the most unexpected rap hits in recent memory.
And now, Rich Chigga has publicly requested that people stop calling him by the name that made him famous. He will now go only by his real name: Brian.
Depending on how you look at the world, your reaction to 2015’s “Dat Stick” may have taken you through the following roller coaster of emotions:
- Who the hell is this weird Asian kid?
- Whoa, this is pretty good.
- Hm, this “Rich Chigga” name seems kinda offensive.
- Wait, did this guy just say the n-word?
- …Fuck this guy.
“Dat Stick” was bound to be controversial. Twenty-eight years after Vanilla Ice, and 19 years after Eminem, American hip-hop fans still haven’t quite figured out how to deal with a non-black rapper. And it's only compounded when said non-black rapper is Asian, because America at large views race as a white-black binary, and hasn’t quite figured out how to deal with Asian people, period.
The concept of an Asian rapper is fascinating to Americans. People find the idea either exotic, or offensive. And for a lot of people, Brian’s casually dropping the n-word within the first 25 seconds of his debut single pushed him squarely into the second category.
Brian Imanuel, now 18, who had never actually been to the U.S. when he dropped his single, had put himself in a strange position. On one hand, it’s a little unrealistic to expect American adult-level wokeness from a 16-year-old foreigner who taught himself English by watching Rubik’s Cube videos on YouTube. But for some people, that context doesn’t matter – the mere existence of “Rich Chigga” represents yet another example in a trend of cultural appropriation.
And from that viewpoint, a “Rich Chigga” using an anti-black slur in a black genre felt like a slap in the face.
Within a few months of the song, Brian had started apologizing for using the word. By his first public performance of “Dat Stick” in September 2016, he mumbled the lyric so it wasn’t really audible. In a May 2017 interview with Genius, he censored his own lyrics when he read them aloud. When an interviewer asked him why, he explained:
I was basically trying to make people less sensitive to the word [“nigga”] and making the word… taking the power out of the word. But then I realized like, I’m totally not in a position to do that. I was like, ‘I fucked up.’
While the inappropriateness of the racial slur was pretty cut-and-dried, his name was a more complex question. The portmanteau of “Chinese” and “nigga” didn’t sit well with some people, but they seemed to be a minority - to which Brian himself belonged. Brian said in numerous interviews that he regretted using the name, but clearly most of his fans didn’t really mind the moniker – at least, not enough to stop listening to him. The name didn’t stop him from getting features from black rappers, or from selling out tour dates.
But on Monday, Brian made a surprise New Year’s announcement, that he was abandoning the “Rich Chigga” name.
“I have been planning to do this forever and I’m so happy to finally do it,” he tweeted. “I was naive & I made a mistake.”
He paired this announcement with a new single, “See Me”:
His label may have had something to do with his decision. In June, I interviewed his manager, Sean Miyashiro. At one point, Sean started talking about a new song that “Rich Chigga” was working on, then caught himself mid-sentence, saying, matter-of-factly, “I think we’re going to have to change his name, though.”
The name change could be totally Brian’s decision, or it could be 88 Rising’s influence — or a combination of the two. It doesn’t really matter, though, because it’s Brian’s career that is on the line here.
“Rich Chigga” was steadily gaining more name recognition – each single he’s put out has gotten millions of streams on YouTube alone, he’s been all over and an entire US concert tour with his name as a headliner has already sold out. Even as I write this, I keep having to remind myself to stop calling him “Rich Chigga” – and I’ve talked to him in person before (he introduced himself as “Brian”). By changing his persona right now, only a month before his first album drops, he is almost certainly hurting album sales.
Politically (artistically?), Brian has made the right decision. Financially, it’s hard to say. He built his initial fame on his shock value, and now he’s stepping away from the thing that made him most recognizable.
And now that he’s taken the training wheels off, he’s got a much harder task than proving that he’s not a cultural appropriator or a racist – he’s going to have to prove that he’s not a gimmick.
So, rest in peace, Rich Chigga.
And, good luck, Brian.
RELATED: Chengdu's hottest rappers want to make it in the U.S.