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Toronto rapper Honey Cocaine may not be a household name in hip-hop (yet). But, despite the lack of mainstream commercial success, Honey Cocaine—stage name of Canadian-born Sochitta Sal—has gained attention for her style, which features “braggadocio, assured confidence, and swagger,” notes Kenneth Chan.

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All that, even while she also controversially borrows language from Jamaican patois and makes liberal use of the n-word in her rapping.

As such, Chan asks: “What does Honey Cocaine’s appropriation and performance of Blackness and the ‘bad gal’ seek to accomplish, and what does it reveal about her position as a Cambodian diasporic subject?”

Cultural productions by artists and writers in the Cambodian diaspora tend to explicitly address memories and testimonies of the Khmer Rouge-era genocide and violence. Honey Cocaine, however, offers a different approach to Cambodian life stories, as Chan observes of her music video “Bad Gal.” As the title of the music video suggests, Honey Cocaine embraces a patois-inflected “bad gal” image that Chan traces to her upbringing in Toronto’s low-income, heavily Caribbean Jane-Finch district.

From her opening line (“Yo, play the game with no problem / The whole fam slanged, bitch I came from the bottom”), she presents herself as a girly, feminine, Asian figure, while also tough and strong. Her language is, uh, explicit.

At the same time, the video integrates this “bad gal” with incongruous, seemingly exotic motifs from “the Orient.” The music video features only two settings: Honey Cocaine smoking a hookah and holding a parasol beside a robed Buddhist monk, and Honey Cocaine in an SUV, decked out in black jacket and gold chain.

“Visually reinforcing her message with the occasional middle finger interjection and gun-firing hand motions, Honey Cocaine intervenes as a refugee subject who refuses to be saved,” Chan says.

Cambodians in North America, like other Southeast Asian communities, are caught between two dominant and opposing images: the “good refugee,” who is hardworking, respectable, and, above all, grateful; and the “bad refugee,” associated with criminality and deviance, who may be earmarked for deportation. Still, Chan says that Honey Cocaine’s performance in the low-budget “Bad Gal,” which was released in 2013, can’t be easily classed as either “good” or “bad.”

“Honey Cocaine, with her use of the n-word, vulgarity, and rejection of respectability politics, may not fit neatly within an Asian American project that looks to assign critical value to ‘progressive,’ ‘conscious,” or ‘politically resistive’ work,” he writes. “Yet neither can ‘Bad Gal’ be simply assessed as radically resistive…especially considering that this rejection is contingent on the performance of Blackness and the ‘bad gal’ figure.”

Though Honey Cocaine’s music can’t be read in the same way as memoirs about the trauma of genocide, such as Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father and Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats, Chan argues that “it still functions as a way for Sochitta Sal to enact her own agency as a post-refugee subject.”

Ultimately, Honey Cocaine uses her art to tell a deeply personal story about historical violence. “‘Bad Gal’ emerges as this return of disavowed violence, from the imperialist wars in Southeast Asia to failed resettlement policies,” Chan suggests, “revealing the ways the Cambodian refugee subject is simultaneously affirmed (in particular with its relationship to Blackness and the ‘hyperghetto’) and devalued.”

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Biography, Vol. 41, No. 3 (summer 2018), pp. 484–508
University of Hawaiʻi Press on behalf of Center for Biographical Research
MELUS, Vol. 39, No. 4, Gender, Transnationalism, and Ethnic American Identity (Winter 2014), pp. 210–212
Oxford University Press on behalf of Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)
The Sewanee Review, Vol. 110, No. 1 (Winter 2002), pp. 150–157
The Johns Hopkins University Press
The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 59, No. 4 (November 2000), pp. 1089–1091
Duke University Press