Rich Brian’s Glow Up
Rich Brian keeps twisting his head around, checking out the hotel lobby behind him. Perhaps the incessant flow of chatter and suitcases is irritating him as he talks through his journey from viral sensation to bonafide hip-hop star. Or maybe the 18-year-old is just bored.
As it turns out, it’s neither. He has discovered US rapper J. Cole is also staying here and every time he hears an American accent his ears prick up, just in case. “I might have been stalking the corridors a bit,” he says, without a trace of embarrassment. Rich Brian, the Indonesian artist born Brian Imanuel, is a dyed-in-the-wool hip-hop aficionado, and he’s damn proud of it.
He has been a fan of the genre, he says, since the age of 11 or 12, having spotted a music video by Californian rapper Tyga on TV. He joined Twitter around the same time, drawing followers with surreal Vines, while also doing comedy rap and learning English via YouTube. It filled the large gaps of time in his days that came from being home-schooled from the age of around “seven or eight”, which gave him little contact with people offline. “I didn’t make friends until I was about 15,” he recalls blithely.
“There was no real home where these Asian creatives could be celebrated and more people could understand what they're doing”
© Charlotte Rutherford
Blazer: Olubiyi Thomas
Shorts: Olubiyi Thomas
Shirt: Bianca Saunders
Sunglasses: Gentle Monster
Times have changed. Brian now moves in wide circles in both his homeland and the US, and the latter includes his labelmates, such as Joji, NIKI, AUGUST 08, Higher Brothers and Keith Ape – the young rappers and singers on the Asian-focused label, 88rising. Theirs are the voices of not just a generation but of an entire race who have been woefully under-represented in Western music and the visual arts. Rich Brian might be softly spoken in person, but his voice, amplified by 88rising’s savvy, self-made visibility, is reaching millions of kids, teenagers and adults who in him see a facet of themselves they’ve been unable to find elsewhere in the mainstream.
This cultural impact started in February 2016, when Brian uploaded the now-infamous Dat $tick video to the platform, rapping like an OG over a doomy trap beat while wearing a bumbag and a pink polo shirt. It blew up – currently it stands at 98 million views – putting 16-year-old Brian in the spotlight for its visual absurdity, but also for his moniker at the time, Rich Chigga, and use of the n-word in the lyrics, which he censored after attracting criticism. Talking to Complex earlier this year, he admitted regretting it “almost as soon as it came out… I was like, what was I thinking, just because I was totally not in a position to do that, honestly.”
His aspirations were not to remain a YouTube star but become a legitimate artist. He made that intention absolutely clear with his first self-produced track, Seventeen, released in December 2016, as well as a move to LA and a management deal with 88rising, which has become his second family. Sean Miyashiro, Brian’s manager, founded the company in mid-2015 after realising the people around him were, in his words, “creating in different fields, from music to directing to graphic design, and they all happened to be Asian as well. But there was no real home – whether it be a brand, a collective, a safe haven – where they could be celebrated and more people could understand what they’re doing.”
Rich Brian’s ingrained connection to 88rising is clear; the only piece of jewellery he’s wearing is a plain cast of the 88rising logo on a necklace. They’re all individual artists as much as they are a collaborative crew, the sum of which can be heard on Head in the Clouds, a new compilation album that showcases the 88rising roster as well as drawing an impressive number of features from the likes of Goldlink, Playboi Carti, BlocBoy JB and 03 Greedo. 88rising itself is becoming a formidable creative Hydra, a company that not only releases music, and creates videos and artwork, but is looking to expand towards TV. In May this year, the collective announced their first festival, which takes place in September in LA’s 18,000+ capacity State Historic Park.
Miyashiro’s unique platform grew from a grassroots level (namely his car, out of which he worked in the early days), while being accelerated by his enterprising spirit. In the case of Dat $tick, the reaction video he made, where the likes of Cam’ron, Ghostface Killah, 21 Savage, Desiigner and Flatbush Zombies are amused, taken aback, then impressed by Brian’s work, helped trigger the song’s viral explosion. “There’s so many boundaries or difficulties in breaking through that we may as well do it ourselves,” Miyashiro tells me. “When I was growing up, the first time I saw an Asian person on TV in a cool way was Jackie Chan. Now I think we’ve flipped it on its head.”
Miyashiro’s knack for networking is clear from Brian’s quick succession of singles following Dat $tick, which included a remix of the track with Ghostface Killah, and new collaborations with Keith Ape and 21 Savage. These helped cement his status as more than just an internet personality. Most notably, Glow Like Dat, which promptly divided fans but was, he says, a turning point. “The Dat $tick fans were like, ‘What the fuck is this, this is so shitty, it’s a soft love story about a girl and it’s auto-tuned’. But a lot of new people saw it and were like, ‘Yeah, I fuck with that’.”
The reaction, and the leveraging of Rich Brian’s self-confidence, came as a relief. “It’s so hard to come out of your shell sometimes,” Brian says, sucking on his vape. “I’m trying to make new stuff everyday, but, for example, I can’t tell what people like more – me singing or me rapping – there’s some people who say, ‘Oh, you sound the same on every song’ and I’m like, ‘Oh shit, what do I do? I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing wrong’. That’s the stuff I think about.”
It’s a little disconcerting to hear such frank admissions of doubt considering his debut album, Amen, scored the No.1 position on the iTunes Hip-Hop Chart (making him the first Asian artist to do so), and peaked at No.18 on the Billboard 200. Just before its release in early February 2018, having long been acutely aware of the backlash around his moniker, Rich Chigga, he’d also changed his name to Rich Brian, tweeting to his one million-plus followers on New Year’s Day, “Yes I now go by ‘Brian’…I was naive & I made a mistake. new year, new beginning”. Even now, he seems uncomfortable having used it for so long. “It’s something I wanted to change even before Dat $tick. I felt like, ‘this name doesn’t fit me anymore’.”
Oddly enough, however, his evolution has confounded some. Is he still Rich Chigga but with a woke name change or is Rich Brian an entirely different entity? If his former persona was the imaginist, the joker, and the real person behind it a serious one who lives for music, then it’s fair to say Rich Brian embodies the best of both.
“I want to star in a huge movie one day, and have that character that everyone can relate to, not just Asian people."
© Charlotte Rutherford
Jacket: Xander Zhou
Roll Neck: Xander Zhou
Leather Trousers: John Lawrence Sullivan
Necklace: Artist’s Own
He points out that interviewers have asked if he’s still a comedy rapper because he has “some funny lines”. Thus far, his lyrics have been a mix of fictional (the sex-gone-wrong story on Kitty) and autobiographical (Flight, which charted his arrival in America), shot through with his distinctive, wry outlook. “I’m like, just because you have witty lines doesn’t make you a comedian,” he says with incredulity in his voice. “Rappers like 2 Chainz, Drake or Kendrick have some ridiculous lines where I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this is real’. I love being witty, I like entertaining people, and that’s where that comes from.”
His fans get it. Not far from the hotel, under a blistening afternoon sun in London, they’re already lining up at the venue to secure a spot though he won’t hit the stage until nearly 10pm. It’s a mixed crowd, but there’s a predominance of young Asian fans, both men and women. He’s a famous, 18-year-old, chart-topping Indonesian rapper and very much someone his fans aspire to. He also looks like he could be one of the guys in the audience, and that’s a reason they love him.
“I have a lot of Asian fans but they’re also from all over,” Brian points out, smiling. “I went to this Japanese barbecue place one night and this 40-year-old lady, who was super drunk, came up and was like, ‘Rich Brian I love you so much, I wanna kiss you right now’. But in Albuquerque there were like 10-year-olds in the front row.”
Fame, of course, comes with price tags and pitfalls. As social media removes personal boundaries, artists find themselves in situations that run from skeevy to legitimately terrifying. “Sometimes people just straight up come over and, y’know…” He adopts a selfie pose. “And don’t say thank you and I’m like, ‘dude’. One time this guy walked into my house in Indonesia. It was just me and my grandma, and she was downstairs, and he said he was my friend, so she let him in. He checked every room and came upstairs. I was in a t-shirt and boxers, working on music, and he was like, ‘I’m a fan of you, so I brought you some food’. I was super weirded out and pissed but I didn’t want to freak him out. He kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, this is really creepy!’”
There are two very endearing elements to Rich Brian – contradictions and irony. Every time you think you’ve got him pegged, he throws a curveball at you. Unlike his name, he claims he’s “not rich, but doing pretty well” – enough to buy himself a house in Indonesia, to which he goes back every few months and where, he says, they’ve only recently begun to catch on to him.
“When I started blowing up, no one knew I was from there. I would only sometimes say I was from Indonesia, so I remember playing my first festival there and people were like, ‘yo, Brian’s finally coming to Indonesia’. They had no idea. Now I’ve gotten offers to do television commercials and I don’t want to do it all. I’d hate to be the artist who’s just mediocre in other countries but on billboards in Indonesia. If I’m not at that level in other parts of the world, I don’t want to be on that level in Indonesia either.”
© Charlotte Rutherford
Vest: Bianca Chambers
Shirt: ReDesign Reserved
Trousers: Chin Mens
Shoes: Xander Zhou
Belts: Xander Zhou
Jacket: Feng Chen Wang
Trousers: Chin Mens
Shoes: Xander Zhou
Belts: Xander Zhou
In LA he continues to live in Airbnb’s. He doesn’t like it, mostly because he loves cooking, buys too many groceries and ends up abandoning them on the next move, which is usually once a month. Despite being young and moneyed, he’s uninterested in the trappings and toys of the wealthy – the watches, cars and designer clothes – and says he never buys anything except food and what he needs for work. Then he pauses. “Oh, and air powered guns. I love them so much, I don’t know why. I fire them at stuff in my backyard. I’m a really good shot.” His father, like most, constantly offers him financial advice. “I take it but my least favourite thing is talking about money. It’s so confusing sometimes and I just want to make music,” he laughs.
One of his favourite things to do is “read all my Twitter mentions and comments and stuff” where he’s grown adept at taking on constructive criticism while weeding out the “people who straight up don’t know what they’re talking about and just wanna piss you off. And I’ve been listening to Tierra Whack, she gave me my old vision back,” he says of the 22-year-old Philly rapper, whose latest album consists of 15 diverse one-minute songs. “There’s been times when I’ve been making stuff and thought, ‘people won’t like this’, and scratched it. But I listened to her and was like, ‘dude, it doesn’t matter, I just want to make anything and put it out’.”
Yet when it comes to meeting girls, social media is a no-go. He wriggles in his chair. “I’m not really that kind of person, strangers freak me out. Like, if I meet someone and talk to them, then that’s cool, but I can’t just DM someone on Instagram. I’ve never used Tinder in my life, that concept is weird to me.”
He stops to consider the fact that an internet-spawned artist recoils from the tool that made him. “Yeah, that’s very ironic. But I hate people who do Instagram live streams all the time, it’s just so stupid. I had this thought the other day, that there’s so much to life but people can be so embedded in just one thing. Like, ‘I love chasing money’ or ‘I love being with girls, that’s the one thing that makes me happy’, but there’s a lot of things that can make you happy. You have to go out and explore, and I kind of want to make a song around that.”
His desire to constantly learn and the rate at which he works spurs Sean Miyashiro to call him “a very serious recording artist. When I look at him versus a lot of the younger generation rappers, he’s in the studio, making his own beats, and becoming this very well-rounded musician and creator. That’s really exciting.” Miyashiro mentions Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) as a yardstick for Brian’s future endeavours and Brian echoes the sentiment in terms of occupying a creative space
“I want to make everything,” Brian tells me. “I’m gonna take acting classes soon. I used to be really into making short films. I want to star in a huge movie one day, and have that character that everyone can relate to, not just Asian people. I’ve never seen an Asian artist in America who is as big as Drake,” he continues, his eyes lighting up. “And I want to see that happen, to have other people see it and think: it’s possible, I want to do it too.”
Photography: Charlotte Rutherford
Photographer’s Assistant: Emmet Green
Styling: KK Obi
Hair: James Oxley
Head in the Clouds is out now via 88rising