Nora Lum on Awkwafina

Photo by Shirley Yu.
"Awkwafina is a personality that I repressed after graduating high school and going into the quote unquote “real world." Awkwafina is confident and she has no filter, she doesn’t care."

Nora Lum, aka Awkwafina, is a rapper from Queens, NYC. She’s funny, smart, and wears big glasses are part of her persona. The self-taught Korean-Chinese American musician went from working as a publicist to pursuing a full-time career in music after several of her YouTube videos went viral.

Awkwafina will co-headline CAAMFest 2015’s Directions in Sound show with rapper Suboi from Vietnam. Directions in Sound takes place Friday, March 13 at Mercer and will be hosted by hip-hop producer CHOPS of the Mountain Brothers. Beats will be provided by DJ’s Kronika, Vinroc and Bluz.

I caught up with Lum over the phone. She talks about learning to play trumpet, the difference between Awkwafina and Nora, and what she’s looking forward to at CAAMFest.

—Momo Chang

Can you talk a little about how you got started in music?
I think the way I got started in music is a little different than a lot of other Asian Americans, in that I wasn’t forced into it. I was never forced to take piano lessons or any of that. I was asked, before I went to junior high school, if I wanted to to join the school band and I had never played any instruments. I said that I wanted to. When I got there I tried a couple of different instruments and the one I felt really good about was the trumpet, so I taught myself. I never had a teacher. I ended up getting into LaGuardia High School of Music and Arts. From then, I was really into classical and jazz. But it’s very based on academics and curriculum and not your own journey. So I started to get into producing music. When I was 17, I started making hip-hop beats and I wanted to fill them in with lyrics, and that’s how I started rapping. At first, it was just comedic songs.

How did you choose to delve into rap and hip-hop versus other types of music?
I was very influenced by urban culture. I liked the feel of hip-hop, it was kind of liberating. For anyone who ever felt like a rebel, or they were cast out by society, hip-hop is kind of music for that. Also for comedic purposes, there’s a lot of room in hip-hop, not to make fun of it, but just to be funny. And give you more allowance for words versus an acoustic, indie song. So yeah, I listened to hip-hop from a very young age, around 11. I really liked underground hip-hop.

Is there a difference between Awkwafina and Nora Lum?
I think there’s less of a difference than I’d like to think, especially at my core. I think if anything, Awkwafina is a personality that I repressed after graduating high school and going into the quote unquote “real world.” Awkwafina is confident and she has no filter, she doesn’t care. Whereas Nora finds the time to be an adult and to be quiet and be polite. I think that’s the only difference between the two.

How did you come up with the name?
There’s no real story. I think it was either that or Dasani. I think water brands just perfectly encapsulate a rap name…Evian…Awkwafina came up in conversation and I was like, “that’s it.”

So your breakout hit song, “My Vag,” went viral on YouTube. How did that song originate, and were you surprised by the response to it? 
Yeah, I was totally surprised at it. I wrote that song when I was 19 years old. It didn’t come out until like 5 years later when I was 24 and working at a publishing company. My friend, who I hadn’t been in touch with for a while, accidently heard the track and called me up and said, “We need to do a video for this.” I said, I can’t, because I work for a company but maybe if I put it out under different name and wore glasses in the video, maybe no one will recognize me.”

I remember the night before we released it, I was with the guy who made it, and he said, “What if this works?” It tooks 3-4 weeks to reach 60,000 views. It got written up on Jezebel, it got written up on Gawker, The Frisky. It happened kind of quickly.

Do you work as a musician full time?
The publishing office was my last real job. I stopped working there soon after the first video. Then I worked at a Japanese restaurant, a vegan bodega; I had a lot of random side gigs that weren’t even paying the bills to begin with. When I realized Awkwafina was bigger than I thought, I didn’t work [those jobs] anymore. I’ve made this my full-time career for almost a year.

For CAAMFest, do you have anything you’re looking forward to?
Yeah, I don’t play in California very often—I just played my first show there like three months ago. I know there’s a big Asian community out there. I’m excited to be at a festival where a lot of Asians will be and just seeing how that community functions out there, for sure, in terms of the arts.

Do you have any favorite places while you’re out there?
It would be cool to see the Full House house. I was in San Francisco when I was really young. I went to the Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghiradhelli Factory and all that. But I think I want to see the subculture. I want to see what’s really going on.

This year our theme is “Destination: CAAMFest.” Do you have any travel tips or essentials?
I’ll definitely bring, like, maybe some kind of face moisturizer. I don’t know. (laughs).