It’s hardly surprising that the internet has expressed such a divisive reaction to Rich Chigga. In name alone, the 16-year-old rapper (real name Brian Imanuel) has fielded accusations of racism, cultural appropriation, and opportunism, evoking ire after going viral with his breakthrough single “Dat $tick.” The song shot to viral fame in the past few months with almost nine million views of its video on YouTube and 4.38 million plays on SoundCloud.
While it’s easy to dismiss him as a novelty (in the video, he rocks a pink polo and a Reebok fanny pack, spilling liquor onto the curb while his crew waves guns behind him), it’s hard to deny that he has skills. The hazy, lugubrious hit is topped by slippery rhymes delivered with a deadpan affect, the type of rapping that suggests he’s far beyond his teenage years. And yet he's new to this. Imanuel first started listening to hip-hop four years ago—when he was 12 and his first introduction to it was Macklemore—and has developed such a grasp on the American lexicon that a video released last month featured artists including Ghostface Killah, Cam’ron, Desiigner, and Tory Lanez incredulously reacting to the visuals for the song.
The web-savvy sect might know Imanuel, who currently lives in Jakarta with his parents and is homeschooled, from Vine (his first video was posted on July 21, 2013 and is entitled "I'm can rap mom i swear") and Twitter (user since August 2010), where he’s built cachet as a comedic figure. Skyping in from Indonesia, he spoke to Complex about making the transition from social media and whether he's serious or not.
People know you from making Vines and Twitter but not so much your musical side. Were you always a rap fan?
I started listening to rap music in 2012 or something, because that was when I started becoming friends with American people and they showed me rappers to listen to. I actually started listening to Macklemore a lot. He's the first rapper I started listening to. But since then, I started to listen to other rappers like 2 Chainz, Drake, and stuff like that. I haven't stopped.
What did you like about rap music in particular? You were 12 when you started getting into it?
Yeah. Back then, I really loved the lyrical stuff, like rappers telling stories in their music and sometimes getting comedic with it. But as I explored more about hip-hop, sometimes I like listening to the lyrical stuff, but sometimes I like the turn-up type rap.
When did you start writing rhymes?
That was 2014. I just did this rap song for fun, because I had this friend that did music on Twitter, and he wrote really stupid stuff and uploaded it for fun. But it was funny—I really enjoyed it. I wanted to do the same thing, so I started writing and it was fun. At first, I was like, Holy shit! That rhymed! And then uploading [music], it turned out people liked it, so I kept doing it.
Some people have taken offense at your name. How did you come up with it?
My name is kind of controversial. Some people like it, some people don't. It started out with me messing around and using that name on my songs. I didn't really know what I was doing, because I didn't know I was really going to pop off. Now that I did, I can't really do anything about it or change it at this point. But I'm not going to let it be the only thing that defines me. It motivates me to do better, so when people look at the name Rich Chigga and they actually listen to the music, they're like, There's more to this.
Have you been getting that reaction a lot?
It's been kind of 50/50. I've seen people getting offended by it, and that's totally understandable. And I've seen people who just don't care, because I've talked about changing it before and people are just like, just stay with that.
Some people refer to you as a novelty act. Are you offended by people saying?
Novelty? What does that mean?
Novelty as in you're playing a joke.
Ah. It's really semi-serious, because I feel like the only thing.... The song itself, I was pretty serious about the song. As for the video, that's satire. I'm definitely not trying to be hard in the videos. Some people don't get that, though.
You have two songs out and just teased a third. The ones that are out are so short. Was that intentional?
Not really. I don't know why for some reason. It has two verses and two hooks, and it's two-minutes long. I'm definitely trying to make longer songs, but if it's short and good, I'm not going to do anything about it.
Are you surprised by how quickly people gravitated toward "Dat $tick?"
Yeah, definitely. I did not know it was going to be this big when I made the video. I knew there was a possibility it was going to get big, and by big, I meant 200,000 views. But it was something way bigger. It was definitely overwhelming at first, but I learned to control it. I'm definitely more focused now in a way.
How has the reaction been in Jakarta?
People are going crazy. Especially my parents. My dad is constantly looking up my name on Twitter, every single day. He made a Twitter account just for that.
I'd imagine one of the things that you loved the most is the video of all the rappers reacting to it, and unanimously, everyone was in awe. What was that experience like watching that?
That was pretty surprising. I was not expecting a lot of them to really like it. Because these guys are like the real shit. They got Ghostface and Cam'ron, but they're actually really cool about it. I guess some people would see it as a parody, like I'm making fun of rap music. But they're actually really cool about it.
There was one video that just came out on YouTube asking if you were culturally appropriating or just dope. What do you make of people saying you're culturally appropriating?
I don't really know, because honestly, I don't.... When people say "cultural appropriation," at least about me, I don't know what they mean exactly. Because I don't think I'm appropriating any culture. If it's my name, it's understandable. As for the music and the video? I don't know. It doesn't really bother me if people misunderstand me. It's cool, but you can't do anything about it.
So what comes next? Have labels been trying to sign you?
Yeah, definitely. It's been super crazy. So many people started hitting me up and stuff like that, but I don't know. Right now, I'm trying to focus on my art. At first, I didn't even know that I was going to take this music thing seriously or not. It's like stepping in a world that I don't know much about. But since I made this next song, I can really see where this is going. It's definitely exciting.
Has anyone surprising reached out to you to collaborate?
Yeah, Carnage. So far, I think the craziest one was Ghostface and Carnage.
So there's no official Ghostface remix of "Dat $tick" coming anytime soon, or is that something that could be in the works?
That's something that could be in the works, definitely.
Do you have an idea of making an album in the future?
It's definitely on my mind. I'm going to work on an album or EP maybe. I don't know exactly when, but right now, I'm trying to make as many songs as possible and practice my skills. If they're good, then I'll definitely release them. But right now, I'm trying to focus on music.
Do you feel welcomed by the hip-hop community?
I think so. Definitely since I saw the reaction from the rappers react video. That was crazy, like, these guys are so welcoming. I was definitely surprised. At first, I wasn't sure if they were going to be welcoming or not. Like, should I do this? I was definitely going to do it anyway, but seeing how welcoming they were was surprising.
Do you feel like there's now added pressure to be taken more seriously the more that your music is heard?
You mean like looking like a hard rapper? I definitely do not care about being taken seriously, if that's what you mean. I'm just trying to have fun and I'm all about being myself and being who you are. I just really want to be myself on everything that I do. I'm just figuring it out as I go and it's the learning process almost. As for being taken seriously? I don't think that's something that I'm worried about.