Pressed to prophesize on what the next decade of her career looks like, Awkwafina, née Nora Lum, hesitates to jinx her success. Though several outlets have dubbed 2018 the “best year ever” for the 29-year-old rapper, producer, comedian, and actress—whose upcoming releases include prominent roles in Ocean’s 8 and the adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, Crazy Rich Asians—Lum rejects the superlative because she doesn’t plan on peaking any time soon.
“If this is the best year of my life, what more do I have to look forward to?” she asks me at a studio in the same gentrified Williamsburg neighborhood she calls out on her track, “NYC Bitche$.” “I think it’ll be a good year—I’m not even putting big in there.”
Lum stands out from the contemporary class of multi-hyphenate millennials for her unrepentant willingness to explore themes of class, race, and gender, no matter what the medium. Her 2014 LP, Yellow Ranger, deploys over-the-top, sometimes garish hip-hop production as a vessel for heady, inside joke-laden bars about the poseurs and the privileged who populate her hometown of New York City. Similarly, Lum’s two upcoming major motion picture roles, her recurring spot in the third season of MTV’s Girl Code, and her award-winning short-form web series, Tawk, all feature her transparent, no-bullshit personality on prominent display.
Though she’s had to work hard at both her acting and music careers, Lum explains that comedy has always come naturally to her.
“I see it as one of those Venn Diagrams— two circles that meet in the middle,” she says. “The middle part would be comedy, and the other two would be music and acting. Comedy is the string that holds everything together—anything that can be borne out of comedy will happen with Awkwafina. It’s a house, and music is in the bathroom, down the toilet. The kitchen might be acting, cooking shit up.”
Lum began building the foundation of this house at a young age. Growing up in the Forrest Hills neighborhood in Queens, born to a first- generation Chinese immigrant father and a South Korean mother who passed away when she was four, the absurdity of gentrification has long been fair ground for her satire. She double-majored in journalism and women’s studies at U Albany before interning for various local New York publications. Each element of Lum’s history provides the fuel that stokes the Awkwafina fire—her love of reporting, her proud heritage, and a bold, NYC- bred willingness to speak her mind.
Lum has never been afraid to tackle questions of representation and identity, even before they became subjects of mainstream interest. Her breakout hit, “My Vag,” was written well before the Awkwafina alias even existed. Lum remembers laying on her bed and writing the track while she recorded it, something she hasn’t done since.
“You know, if I write a stupid, normal, fitting- in verse about nothing and make the flow good, it can take me three days. But I’ll always be able to talk about certain things to a very vast extent, like NYC. If I can spit about it, I can rant about it—whatever you can rant about easily, you can probably write a verse to really easily, too.”
Outside of acting, producing music remains her main focus in her precious spare moments, a craft she’s honed considerably over the years on her journey from bedroom beatmaker to MC. “If people say my rapping is bad, I don’t give a shit, but if they say my beats are bad I go home to cry,” she says. “Every minute that I’m not working, I’m producing in my home studio.”
While Lum is the captain of her own recorded output, she treats each acting role as a more collaborative experience—something she can lend herself to in order to help the project succeed. “Every movie is a blessing, and you can’t choose blessings,” she says. “They just kind of shit down on you from the sky.” With the recent announcement that Lum is set to co-star alongside Mila Jovavich in the upcoming sci-fi thriller Paradise Hills, the blessings keep coming.
Lum reflects warmly on her experience making Ocean’s 8. She attributes the positivity on set to the female cast’s ability to work together as a true team, obliterating any lingering stereotype about women being less likely to collaborate without conflict. She shares a memory from her time on set: she was struggling with a difficult take when Anne Hathaway pulled her aside and reassured her that she had been in the same spot before, and that Lum would get through it.
“When you put a group of women together,” Lum says, “a bitch fight is not the only outcome. Maybe they can actually work together to make something really cool. Maybe they can actually get along, maybe they can find each other funny.”
With such career milestones, Lum constantly reminds herself to check her privilege. “Being out of the zeitgeist, not being on the subway
every day and experiencing how shitty the commute is at rush hour, it’s going to be harder to call shit out,” she says. “Because you won’t know what to call out anymore! I work from home; I don’t need to go out to a job and deal with basic bitches over work drinks. I don’t even know what the margarita store is sellin’!”
Nonetheless, Lum says that the Awkwafina fire will never dissipate.
“If I was given a $3 million check tomorrow, I’d still find something to be mad about. I’ll still feel inadequate on the street, I’ll still feel like a civilian everywhere I go, and I’ll still also curse the lives of people that were born with a silver spoon,” she says. “I don’t think that it’s fair to say that you’re an asshole because you were born a certain way, but it’s important to point out how it’s affecting New York City, my hometown, and, more importantly, my people.”
Lum also acknowledges that privilege has shaped her approach to whether or not she accepts or rejects film roles. She walks out of auditions for films that she feels perpetuate one-dimensional portrayals of Asians. She doesn’t do accent auditions, though she acknowledges that many Asian actresses need the next job so much that they can’t afford to bail on an opportunity.
“Even being able to say no is a point of privilege. There’s a difference between representation and diversity. Representation is when we’re actually out there representing accurate portrayals of real people and real characters that haven’t been seen before. Then you have diversity, which I think can be a checklist situation, quotas. I don’t think that’s a good formula—it can lead to a mirage of representation.”
With Crazy Rich Asians out this summer, Lum hopes that the film’s all-Asian cast will not be viewed as a novelty, but instead set a new precedent, a prelude for a chorus of voices to come. “What happens to trends? They die. I don’t wanna be ‘hot’ right now just because that’s what they’re looking for. I want to be here to stay.”
Written by Justin Joffe
Photographed by Adrian Meško
Styled by Savannah White
Hair by Eloise Cheung @ Kate Ryan Inc. using Davines products.
Makeup: Deanna Melluso
Photographed at Acme Studios