88Rising's logo. (Photo courtesy of Amped Asia)
Crossroads School

Are Asian musicians still a joke in American music?

If you’re up to date on popular music, chances are you’ve heard the name “88Rising” being tossed around more than once. 88Rising is a fairly new music label behind notable artists such as Joji, the mind behind internet legend Filthy Frank; Rich Brian (formerly Rich Chigga), a young Indonesian rapper breaking the mold, and Kris Wu, the ex-K-pop star who entered the American rap game by collaborating with Travis Scott. 88Rising’s mission is to bring Asian music artists into the mainstream, and has done so with success that I’ve never seen before.

The last time an Asian artist found everybody-knows-his-name acclaim in America was Psy with “Gangnam Style” — we remember that, right? Everyone was doing the horse-riding dance and singing along to the Korean lyrics with painfully incorrect pronunciation. I remember “Gangnam Style” was just about the only song I heard through the entirety of 6th grade.

What a big step for Asian music artists,” you might have thought. “Psy’s smash hit success is going to be the catalyst that helps other Asian artists finally break into the American music scene!” If I was thinking about race politics in 6th grade, I would have disagreed. Why? Psy was considered a meme, not an artist. American kids saw no actual artistic value in his performance or songs. He was a chubby Asian man providing Americans comic relief in a thoroughly non-sexy way.

Psy actually has ballads to his name, created a lot of new songs after Gangnam Style and Gentleman, and is a renowned musician and producer in Korea. America, though, never got past Gangnam Style. There remained next to no Asian presence in American popular music. Psy’s momentary presence in American music didn’t change stereotypes of Asian men or Asian music artists. In fact, it emphasized them: when Asians aren’t doing math, they’re making fools out of themselves. Asians are fundamentally uncool, and pop music artists are required to be cool. And so Asians have continued to wait for a musician that represents the community in a way that garners American respect.

This is where 88Rising, perhaps the great change agent for Asian musicians, comes in. 88Rising’s mission is to introduce contemporary Asian musicians into American popular culture. American society was introduced to Rich Brian through his viral hit, “Dat $tick,” which came with a music video in which Brian raps with a surprisingly low voice while holding various guns and sporting a fanny pack.

88Rising, after signing Brian, released a video titled “Rappers React to Rich Brian ft. Ghostface Killah, Desiigner, Tory Lanez & More.” In this video, 88Rising collected notable rappers who watched Rich Brian’s video on camera and offered their opinion on it. Most feedback was very positive, with Ghostface Killah even volunteering to rap on a remix of the track. MADEINTYO said in the video: “I think people will take [the song] as a joke at first, but it’s like, if he ran with that, and kept doing videos like that…”

The video to “Dat $tick” is not inherently comedic. Rappers “flexing” with weapons, drinking and singing about violence is common enough. It’s those activities and actions that, when paired with a small Indonesian boy, become ridiculous and comedic. With “Dat $tick,” Rich Brian was extremely close to falling into the trap of America’s token Asian scapegoat, laughed at and not with.

Perhaps all press is good press, but as an Asian American interested in pop culture, my heart sank to hear people mocking his performances with thinly veiled racism. I thought maybe it was useless to even try anymore, that Brian was just another viral spark that would go out as quickly as it was created. Instead, perhaps with MADEINTYO’s advice in mind, Rich Brian turned the tide for Asians. He made himself from a joke to a legitimate artist: respected, celebrated and incredibly popular. And it was something I’d never seen before in my life.

“Dat $tick” made Brian a sensation and led him to collaborations with notable rappers, which grew his audience and also brought his own solo music much more attention. But where Rich Brian truly broke free of the mold was when he released his single “Glow Like Dat,” a ridiculously catchy, unique, and surprisingly melancholy song that captured the American public’s heart. The song was about heartbreak, the video was artistic, and Brian was not portrayed as an imitation or joke of but instead as something interesting and all his own.

This was the point Psy never got to, and that may be because Brian was supported so well by 88Rising, whose sole focus was formulating Brian’s place in the American rap music scene. (Psy’s spark of fame in America never seemed intentional — more like a pleasant surprise in a different market for a musician who was already well established elsewhere.) Rich Brian released his first album in February 2018, and his future is only looking brighter.

Rich Brian’s success was the first time in my whole life I’ve ever felt there was someone who represented me in any capacity in the American music industry, and he’s not the only 88Rising member making waves: Kris Wu’s song “Deserve” peaked at number 4 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart; Joji’s latest album “In Tongues” reached position 58 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart, and I know that there’s so much more to come. 88Rising has somehow figured out how to make the typical Asian artist’s 15 minutes of viral joke fame into a prosperous, successful career in the American music industry.

I get a little thrill when I realize that Rich Brian is a table name like Post Malone or Cardi B. It’s a huge step for Asians in American media, and a huge step for young Asians (especially Asian Americans) interested in music. 88Rising doesn’t ask Asians to change themselves to be famous, or to hide or overlook their cultures for the sake of American acceptance.

As more of 88’s artists start hitting the top charts, I can only hope that young Asian Americans will get a different message than I did: to be an Asian in American music in music isn’t impossible. And Asian culture isn’t just okay, it’s cool.

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