Across a nondescript conference table in Midtown Manhattan, music video director to the stars Joseph Kahn is explaining how his rap battle film, Bodied, was partially inspired by a Taylor Swift video. Kahn, who’s directed some of the pop star’s most iconic music videos, teamed up with Swift for 2015’s “Wildest Dreams,” a romance set somewhere on the continent of Africa in the 1950s. As Kahn previously explained in a Vulture interview, he and Swift were well aware that they were tiptoeing through a minefield—the metaphorical kind, where any single misstep could trigger the publication of a thousand think pieces. Taylor Swift’s “African colonial fantasy” was never going to end well.
“I remember at one point I was trying to defend myself, and I knew I was getting myself into this trap,” Kahn laughs. “I was like look, the reality is everyone that made this video is not white. A lot of my friends who made this video are black, like the editor and the AD and the producer and all that, and we all had no problems with it. And everyone was like, now you’re saying you have black friends so you’re not racist! So I literally could not say anything. And I thought, there’s a movie in that.”
“To be fair, it wasn’t just the Taylor video,” Kahn explains. “That was one of the catalysts, but around that time, it seemed like on a weekly basis I would say something on Twitter that would offend somebody. Like I would say something about Lady Gaga and all the monsters would jump on me. I’m saying these things, and people are hypersensitive around the famous music video director who says anything about any artist, and they’re dog-piling. And what would be interesting about the dog-piling is a lot of times the dog-piling would come from a race perspective or a sex perspective. It would be, you made fun of Beyoncé, you’re racist. You made fun of Gaga, you’re homophobic. You made the ‘Wildest Dreams’ video, you’re racist.”
Kahn has a lot to say about “offense culture,” call-outs, and millennials who use social media to brand themselves as “hyper-woke.” He thinks that “a lot of it came from Lady Gaga’s marketing,” explaining, “She was patterning herself after Madonna’s social awareness—and by the way, I’ve done three Gaga videos—but I think in the pursuit of marketing herself as the new Madonna, she took a lot of social activism in the exact same beats and amplified it, and all of a sudden a new generation of social media users glommed on to it. Now everybody became hyper-aware of, like, their social clothing that they were wearing, it became the avatar of how you interacted with people. And all of a sudden it just felt like young people now branded themselves as more hyper-woke towards each. You literally saw a shift from old people saying, ‘You can’t say that’ to young people saying, ‘You can’t say that.’”
The internet has given the gift of connection, Kahn explains, allowing social media users who might be in the minority at their high school to “clique up” and consolidate power. “So all of a sudden, you might be the only two Gaga fans in your high school but now you have an interweb of millions, all together. And all of a sudden, they’re weaponized. So that if you say one bad thing about Gaga, all of a sudden you've got millions of people dog-piling on you.”
These days, Kahn is the kind of person who can write a tweet about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and then wake up the next day to find he’s made headlines. But his interest in battle rap dates back to his early days as a music video director. Kahn was born in South Korea, and settled in a predominately white Houston suburb when he was 7 years old. “When I see how Asian-Americans today interact with the world and just feeling hypersensitive about things, that's interesting to me,” Kahn says. “You cannot build a thicker skin than an Asian guy that grew up in Texas in the '80s.” He got his start doing gangster rap music videos, and was exposed to battle rap for the first time through them. As much as he was bullied by his white classmates at school, Kahn recalls, “When I went to a black neighborhood and I was the only Asian person there, I was a walking target. I became the material.”
For Kahn, a backlash magnet and self-described “social critic,” now felt like the right time to finally return to battle rap. “Offense culture and woke culture are intersecting with each other to the point where we are completely afraid to say anything, but battle rap still exists in that weird little world, where people can say the worst things about each other and for the most part—not all the time—still stay friends. And I thought, that’s a wonderful prism to talk about the world today.”
Bodied is a film about a white UC Berkeley grad student whose thesis subject is the “poetic function of the N-word in battle rap.” While doing “research,” he gets pulled into a battle by his soon-to-be mentor, the legendary Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), and quickly rises through the ranks as a talented up-and-comer. Written by Alex Larsen aka the battle rapper Kid Twist, the screenplay is riddled with brutal rhymes, whip-smart dialogue, and stinging social and cultural critiques. Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy) is on a dark parody of a hero’s journey, transforming from a Bernie bro who doesn’t want to offend into a ruthless rapper who screams racist, homophobic, and misogynistic bars at his opponents (a mix of actors and enlisted battle rappers). He earns respect on the basis of his technical prowess, but also gets rightfully called out for his racist assumptions, his culture-vulturism, and his profoundly shitty behavior towards the people he purports to love.
Kahn previously guessed that men might “overcompensate” in reaction to the film’s misogynistic raps, so I ask him if his prediction has come to fruition. “100 percent,” he laughs. He points out that while the film critiques white feminism, he would have loved to dig deeper into “white male masculinity, still kind of transferring itself into kind of a savior position.”
“[White men] still have to be the leader somehow, you know,” he explains. “So if they see some sort of injustice, they insert themselves into the conversation by being the answer. And you know, you can view it two ways, you can either view as well, they’re being great allies, which is what they’re saying in their heads, or you can say that they’re still kind of taking credit for things that they shouldn’t be.”
Aside from the rap battles themselves, in which Kahn gives his highly-stylized vision free rein and actors scream and spit for dear life, some of Bodied’s most compelling scenes are caustic send-ups of “woke” intellectual elites.
At a stodgy party thrown by his professor father, Adam and his friends sit around a table partaking in what we’re clearly meant to understand as the go-to battle rap technique of privileged Berkeley students: calling each other racist. Despite their obsession with not being labeled racist, Adam’s hypocritical friends are prone to celebrating their “inner black woman,” while wondering why security has yet to kick the homeless people of color off their campus. Later on, when Adam’s girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) confronts him for rapping behind her back, Adam reverts to his battle rap mindset, running through a list of potential comebacks. He lands on accusing Maya of displaying colonialist tendencies, momentarily winning the battle.
Bodied plays with its seemingly problematic premise—why is there a white guy at the center of this battle rap movie?—by literally and figuratively pulverizing its deeply unlikeable protagonist. Larsen, a white battle rapper himself, undoubtedly pulled from his own life experience. But it’s impossible to watch Bodied without thinking of another white rapper, Eminem, who is repeatedly referenced in the soundtrack and the script, and occasionally roasted by Adam and his cohorts. Eminem also produced the film. Kahn says that the rapper, who has experienced his fair share of backlash for bringing the spirit (and bigotry) of battle rap into the mainstream, was involved with Bodied on “both an artistic and a spiritual level,” adding, “his shadow hung heavy over the making of the film.”
“I sent him the script early on, and he had thoughts about it,” he recalls. “But I did not go into the movie going, ‘It’s an Eminem movie’ because that looks cheesy, like I’m running around Hollywood and using it when he’s not even signed on yet. He’s just being a cool dude and giving me thoughts… If I had run around Hollywood and he heard about it, he would have never signed on board!” Luckily, Eminem loved the film. “He said, how can I help?” Kahn continues. “And he’s helping with the soundtrack, he’s helping with the notes. He’s a great creative partner.” The director insists that Eminem was totally cool with all of the 8 Mile jokes. “He loved it. He’s a battle rapper. You don’t think that people have taken shots at him every day now? That dude is not afraid of anything.”
And neither is Joseph Kahn. Attempting to articulate his allergy to censorship, he quickly suggests we “get into something really dirty”: the recent firing of Megyn Kelly. Discussing Kelly’s comments about black face (she didn’t get why it’s bad), he begins, “Of course most people that are ethnic right off the bat know that this stuff is offensive. I myself get annoyed when somebody does the Ching-Chong eyes at me, you know, like there’s nothing funny about it. She was wrong. By far.”
Kelly was called out for it, and then she apologized, Kahn narrates. “And I think that because she apologized, what a great teaching moment for her audience to have a discussion, you know, maybe bring on a few more guests. Maybe have a couple segments on the show talking about it. What a great opportunity to intersect her audience with the people that were offended, but instead the corporate structure of how things are made right now, NBC from on high goes, we can’t be the racist company. We have to show force. So they get rid of her, and the dialogue doesn’t even happen.” (To be fair, Megyn Kelly was lectured by two black Today show panelists on-air before she was fired).
“Now you just have all the people going, fuck those people, because they think blackface is bad and that you can fire people over saying something like that,” Kahn continues. “They’re still gonna have those thoughts, but now there’s no debate. If we keep doing that to every single person that we disagree with, these echo chambers are going to be there. How do you think we’re going to be less racist as a society—by not talking about it?”
“You want to confront, you want to take bad ideas and you want to debate them in public,” he adds. “That’s what battle rap does. And I feel that we’re in a dangerous zone where we think we can clinically fix the world by shutting it up, and I do not think that’s the way the world works.”
Kahn says that he was actually excited when Megyn Kelly left Fox for NBC, calling it “a step in the right direction.”
“I will argue that there’s actually a place on NBC for racist people. I’m a free speech absolutist.” He argues that a space must exist where people reach out and “accept the fact that there are imperfect people you’re going to interact with. You’re going to have to interact with racist people. I’ve done that my whole life, by the way, as an Asian person, like as soon as I hear a Ching-Chong joke, do I freak out and leave the room? No. At some point you sit down and you say, OK, that wasn’t cool. This is the reason why, you’re not going to get penalized for it, let’s move on. The move on part of life is not happening right now.”
In the spirit of battle rap, Bodied is an equal-opportunity offender. While the battle raps themselves mostly deal in broad stereotypes, taking truly un-P.C. shots at competitors’ race, gender, or sexuality, Bodied rapid-fire shoots through countless targets—social justice warriors, English majors, predatory male professors, public image-obsessed college administrators, social media vigilantes, white supremacists, white guys who just want to say the N-word, vegans, white women who wear “Kale” T-shirts, and battle rappers themselves. Kahn says that the handful of negative reviews he’s read all follow a similar template: “This movie is really funny—90 percent of it, I laughed my ass off. But 10 percent of it was not correct about a particular issue that I’m invested in. And that 10 percent was not funny, and therefore the film was terrible.”
“But here’s the thing,” he continues. “The film was not 10 percent offensive. It’s 100 percent offense! It was not designed only to make fun of your particular issue. It’s making fun of every issue. And the fact that you somehow said that the 10 percent that bothered you is problematic in and of itself. What about the other 90 percent you were laughing at?”
“You know, the biggest criticism that people give me is that I took a middle,” he says. “But you know what? Fuck you. That’s the whole point of it. The other thing that people criticize is that it doesn’t seem to define its politics, but I’m not trying to define politics. I’m simulating and satirizing a world.”