Not many rappers can rock a pair of nerdy "chemistry glasses" and still look legitimately cool.
But then again, there aren't many rap songs about stealing an iPad on the subway to "sell it to buy more live chickens," either.
To a generation obsessed with taking the perfect selfie and adding dozens of filters to hide all our flaws, a breath of awkwardness can be a refreshing surprise. Combine that with some shamelessness and you start to understand what makes Nora Lum so appealing.
Lum, better known by the stage name "Awkwafina," started making waves with viral YouTube videos like "My Vag" in 2012 and again in 2014 with "NYC Bitche$" as part of her album Yellow Ranger. Lately, she's been co-starring in films like Ocean's 8, alongside the likes of Rihanna, Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, and Mindy Kaling. She's also landed a major role in Crazy Rich Asians. Lum has just released her latest EP, "In Fina We Trust," via AWAL Recordings, and her newest single, "Pockiez," comes out next week on June 15th.
I recently sat down with Lum and her manager, Brandon Hixon, in a chic creator's studio tucked away in Brooklyn to talk about the evolution of her career, recent projects, and sources of creative inspiration.
"I've always made music that I felt would've empowered me as a young woman. Pockiez is my first single in years and is in a way my reintroduction into the genre. I hope that this song adequately does that, and that it reaches and speaks to the audiences that have supported my music from the jump," says Lum.
Music has been a lifelong passion for Lum, starting with the trumpet at age 11. And while Lum's nonchalant and down-to-earth demeanor makes her success look easy, she's definitely put in her "10,000 hours" as a musician and entertainer.
Follow these three tips from Lum to take your career to the next level, whether you're an aspiring YouTube star, a startup founder, or inventing a new product in your garage:
1. Find your cult of misfits and grow with them.
It seems counterintuitive that embracing your weird side could bring mainstream success, but that's exactly what has happened to Lum. She's earned herself a loyal cult following by creating truly unique rap videos like "NYC Bitche$" and "My Vag." Meanwhile, her signature "chemistry glasses" and blunt commentary on heated topics like gentrification and sexism have also earned her plenty of fans.
Just like startup entrepreneurs are told that it's much better to find a small group of passionate enthusiasts than a large group that's half-heartedly engaged, Lum's special style and sense of humor helped her carved out a niche early on. It's not surprising that highly talented creatives and big Hollywood producers have taken notice of Awkwafina's one-of-a-kind personality. After Lum starred in the Tribeca Film Festival documentary "Bad Rap," Grammy and Emmy Award-nominated stand-up comedian and actress Margaret Cho reached out to her to collaborate on a music video that became the hilarious and catchy song "Green Tea." Even as Lum's success and notoriety increases in Hollywood, she's careful to maintain the Awkwafina persona in a way that remains loyal to that audience.
"I don't want to try to force Awkwafina on [people who don't like her]. If you like Awkwafina, there's obviously an understanding we have, and that's one I want to keep. And if you don't like Awkwafina, I'm not going to force you to like her--that's just you," says Lum.
2. Recognize shamelessness as a superpower.
"Whatever your profession is, you need to know who your audience is, but you have to be willing to do things that other people in your industry aren't willing to do...[that's what] will set you apart," explains Lum.
Lum tells me she embraces shamelessness because she knows it's Awkwafina's superpower. While she doesn't exactly feel comfortable being pigeonholed as a role model for young Asian Americans, she likes knowing she can inspire people to try new things. Lum believes her shamelessness was cultivated by her grandmother's encouragement of her outgoing personality, who regularly referred to Lum as "spunky." Her other major influence growing up was the aforementioned Margaret Cho.
As far as her collaboration with Cho on "Green Tea," Lum has this to say: "If I got a tattoo of Margaret Cho on my body, it wouldn't be one I would ever regret. She is an idol; I had never seen an Asian woman like that...so shameless and sincerely funny. I don't think I had ever seen a female Asian comic ever [before that]. She was incredibly important to my upbringing because she was the one guiding light that said 'It is possible. I did it. It's okay; I don't care.' That was the biggest thing and that's the message I think Awkwafina gives a lot of young Asians. 'You can do this too.'"
Lum adds that it's an especially amazing superpower for girls and women because it resembles courageousness.
3. Pay attention to what you obsess about.
Talking to Lum, it's clear she's bursting with creative inspiration. I was curious about how she and her team choose which ideas to pursue, so I asked her and manager, Brandon Hixon, about their decision-making process.
"As creatives, we are supposed to pitch crazy ideas. And then a manager helps [us] decide," says Lum.
Hixon chuckles and adds, "As a manager, I just try to gauge passion. Good ideas always stick. If she's really passionate about an idea and the next week she's still on it...it's there."
Lum says she always calls Hixon when she has her "Back to the Future" moments. These are the times where she feels extremely excited about an idea, as was the case with "Queef" and "My Vag." Lum explains, "A lot of things...are based off just an idea, and then you pursue it, and then if it comes it does, and if it doesn't, it doesn't."
Take the Awkwafina team's advice and allow your passion to be a compass: if you're fixated on an idea for more than a week, start thinking about how you can put it into action. And if it doesn't stick, maybe it wasn't ready to pursue just yet.