Brian Imanuel, better known by his stage name Rich Chigga, is an 18 year old rapper from Jakarta, Indonesia. In early November, I went to a show he headlined at the Theater of the Living Arts along with my friend, Junior Ariana Flores. The small venue was packed tightly with a young crowd mostly appearing high school and college age.
After an hour of openers, Rich Chigga took the stage to enthusiastic cheers of excitement. His presence and command of the stage soon became clear, and was contrasted but not limited by his small physique.
I believe that the crowd makes or breaks a show. This one was pretty good; high energy, loud, and responded to prompts from the performers. It was intriguingly not that diverse, a mixture of mostly white and Asian kids, something that came to the forefront of my attention towards the end of the show. Chigga was almost through the set, and had only yet to perform one song; “Dat $tick”, his 2016 breakthrough hit.
As the opening lines of the song passed, I started paying attention for one in particular, a line that was originally recorded including the N word. I was expecting and not surprised when Chigga said “people” instead of the word, but caught off guard by the large group of white boys next to me who did not hesitate to rap the uncensored version. I turned around to look at Ariana, who rolled her eyes with a sigh of reconciliation.
So what was the lyric, and why did Rich Chigga not say it?
The recording goes, “12 in the morning, pop shells for a living
Rogue wave on you n***as, no fail when I hit em,
everytime I see a pig, I don’t hesitate to kill em”
In an interview with Genius, Imanuel explained that when writing the song, “I sort of knew that it was bad, but I didn’t know that it was that serious. Nobody was around me to tell me that that’s f*cked up.”
Does an Indonesian rapper have the right to use this loaded word? Flores, who is primarily black and Puerto Rican, has complex feelings about it. “His initial use of the word was not justified, but it was expected. He didn’t have the context that that word has behind it.”
Junior Gregory Tasik, who is Indonesian, echoed this thought, saying, “Over [in Indonesia] they don’t understand what the word means or the history behind the word. They just think of it as something cool. They hear it in rap songs.” He added that there have been immigrant students at SLA who said it and “didn’t know what it meant.”
After an outrage on Twitter in response to the lyric, Imanuel decided to take the word out in the future. When talking with The Fader, he explained that his intention was not to “be edgy or stand out” and that he meant no offense.
He also said that “I’m not a big activism or politic guy. I wouldn’t say I’m super educated in that stuff, and I feel like I shouldn’t speak on things that I don’t understand too much. I’m just doing what I can.”
Although Junior Messele Asfaw, who is black, was originally critical of those who were offended by the line, after hearing it, he commented, “In the lyric he’s taking shots at someone. That’s why people are getting riled up. If you replace the N word with ‘black people’, you can see why people are mad.”
This idea of context is a common one brought up in conversations of this sort. Imanuel himself even said “I’m all about context.” In his mind, the context in which he originally used it was neither casual or derogatory, but with a purpose to desensitize people.
“I was basically just trying to make people less sensitive to the word and take the power out of the word, but then I realized I’m totally not in a position to do that… So, I just don’t say it anymore.”
But can the power so easily be taken out of a word that historically prominent?
“The way you say it and the context of the situation definitely determines how powerful it is. I think the word has been desensitised in the way that more people are using it casually rather than in a derogatory manner. I don’t hear people walking around using it in a derogatory way,” said Flores.
Asfaw expressed that “I don’t think you can take power out. The history’s always going to be there,” and Tasik agreed, saying, “There’s a lot of meaning behind it. The history is still rooted, you can’t make it happy.”
In terms of the white people who said it in the crowd, Flores reflected that “They think that it’s cool,” but that she “didn’t have a problem with them saying it,” and was not offended, but “noticed it more when they said it.”
Asfaw said that in that context, “They’re not trying to make a statement that black people are less of a human, they’re just going along with the song.”
In the wake of this controversy, Imanuel has expressed regret with his choice of the name “Rich Chigga”, which uses his Chinese descent to make a play on the N word, saying, “I’m kind of stuck with this. I might change it in the future… But as for now, I’m definitely not going to let it be the only thing that defines me.”
A lot of fans disapprove of this idea for various reasons.
“I think his name is a really clever way to brand himself, not a lot of Asian rappers would have the guts to do something like that. It’s kind of admirable. I think it does define him, even though it shouldn’t. That choice is a bold choice, and it makes him who he is,” argued Flores.
Tasik agreed with her. “I don’t support changing the name. When saying ‘chigga’, I don’t think that you’re making fun of the N word.”
In terms of taking the N word out of his song, everyone I talked to thought it was a good decision, since it didn’t add to the meaning of the song. However, at the end of the day, they didn’t have strong opinions about non-black people saying it.
“I honestly don’t care about other people saying the word, I don’t feel offended. I personally don’t use it but I don’t care if you want to express yourself that way,” said Flores.
Similarly, Asfaw concluded, “If you want to say it, say it.”