Consider this Awkwafina’s victory lap.
When the New York-born-and-raised actress and rapper hosts the iHeartRadio MMVAs on Sunday, she’ll be capping a whirlwind season where she has been literally everywhere. The summer began with a scene-stealing supporting role in Ocean’s 8, a blockbuster film that she’s followed with yet another one in Crazy Rich Asians. In between all the attendant glitz and red carpets, Awkwafina (civilian name: Nora Lum) managed to release a new EP, In Fina We Trust.
Before her arrival in Toronto, The Globe and Mail caught up with Awkwafina by phone in New York, where she’s lost her voice a little bit.
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The MMVAs are a pretty big deal here! Have you ever MC-ed or hosted live before, outside of a gig?
Not to this capacity, so I’m really excited for it. The pressure’s on, right? I’ve been watching other live gigs and I really like that this one’s a little different, it’s very close to the fans and outdoors. You capture a certain energy when you’re that close as opposed to a giant theatre. I think the energy will keep me going.
What have you been listening to lately? What’s good?
I’m listening a lot to the new Travis Scott. Lately I just go on Spotify and search similar artists and go down a radio hole. But you know I haven’t had a lot of time, I’ve been running around like crazy for the past four weeks promoting a movie.
Oh yes, about that movie. Crazy Rich Asians is huge. But what’s up with all the teary eyes about it? Why am I crying? Why are you crying?
[Laughs] Why are you crying! Why am I crying! I think this movie is just really emotional, and watching it is emotional, especially seeing how people are responding to it. When we were making this movie we knew that this would be bigger than all of us, and it means a lot just to see it come to life and matter to people.
And on the day of the premiere, it was very emotional for me because I saw them close down Hollywood Boulevard and it was for our movie. It’s everything that you’ve been waiting for – I think I’ve been looking for this movie since I was a kid. It speaks to me as both an actress and an Asian-American girl who’s always been looking for representation like this.
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Was that The Big Moment for you?
I‘ve had a lot of Big Moments in my life [laughs]. That was definitely one of them. I think I found closure on things that happened to me at the beginning of my career. I was able to have an out-of-body experience and be able to really look at who Awkwafina is in 2018.
So now you’ve done movies, music, a talk show. You’ve written a book. How would you describe Awkwafina in 2018?
In the past two years, Awkwafina was someone who people were asking a lot like, well who is that? I think in 2018 a lot of people know who she is now. And maybe that’s something that [laughs] that’s not necessarily a good thing but maybe it’s something you always wanted. I think that Awkwafina in general has represented someone Nora isn’t, but in many ways they are also the same. And in 2018 I’m celebrating the summer of Awkwafina.
When you’ve been so emotional and outspoken about the importance of representation in Crazy Rich Asians, who’s talking: Awkwafina or Nora?
I think it’s coming from both, you know. A lot of the stuff I say in terms of how far I’ve come and what my life was when I first began, that’s both Nora and Awkwafina. In many ways Awkwafina saved Nora, but in many ways the reverse is also true.
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Let’s get back to some music. Any favourite Canadian bands?
Oh my god, I love Feist, I love The Stills, Broken Social Scene. I’ve got to show some love for Drake – I know you guys are probably sick of hearing that. There’s so many. The thing is you never who’s Canadian or not. I didn’t even know Sandra Oh was a Canadian until recently. You guys are a talented country.
Okay, some real talk: We’ve been so good about the whole importance of Crazy Rich Asians. Where are you landing these days on diversity in music and hip hop?
I think there’s a higher degree of diversity in music. When I was growing up there was always a conversation as Awkwafina. “Well there are no Asian women, there are no Asian women doing it.” But two of my favourite bands growing up, Deerhoof and Blonde Redhead, were bands led by Asian woman. I was really into indie music, but you know they’re out there in any genre if you look for them.
When it comes to hip hop I don’t think there’s as obvious a display, especially in big radio music. We haven’t had a lot of Asian representation, but there are people doing it and that’s what's really important. I got my videos out on YouTube, it’s as simple as searching for it. But are we recognized in a big way, in terms of like a big Hollywood release? I don’t know, that’s a question that still needs answering.
With the MMVAs, I’m super honoured to be considered, especially among these amazing past hosts. I looked them up. Oh my god, I’m not worthy you know? But I think at the same time it does celebrate a lot of things, especially for me coming off this amazing press tour of Crazy Rich Asians. It’s definitely a personal feat I’m really excited about.
My bad, I’m still thinking about diversity in hip hop. How do you pull it off? Besides another language, how else could I see myself better reflected in a rap?
There are certain ways to do it and certain ways to not do it. Especially in America, hip hop is primarily performed by African-Americans because there’s a very adversity-filled history grounded deeply in those roots. If you want to do hip hop in recent times, it’s very important to be aware of that history and reflect that in your music.
But you know I’m Asian-American. You pretty much have to choose between what’s out there. I have a love affair with hip hop. I love it so much. I love J Dilla, I love A Tribe Called Quest, Run-DMC, all these bands. My music really grew out of that love. And if you want to participate in hip hop, your music has to feel that love and evoke that love.
So for you, how much of hip hop is being seen, and how much is what you rap about?
For me it goes beyond being Asian-American. I think being Asian is definitely part of my music. But I want to use hip hop to communicate with people who are just like me. To communicate with people who watch the same things, who grew up on the same things. My music speaks a lot to growing up in Queens and New York City, it’s really part of my fibre and reason for being. I try to use hip hop to get across these experiences. I’ve never tried to push my music to a mainstream audience, it’s always been proven for a specific audience that really understood exactly where I was coming from. To those who didn’t, they just never needed to listen to it and that’s okay.
So what’s next for Awkwafina?
I’m just gonna chill for a little while. I’m gonna hang out for a little while. Take a little break.
Awkwafina hosts the iHeartRadio MMVAs on Aug. 26 at 9 p.m. (EDT) on CTV.
This interview has been edited and condensed.