In February 2018, an album called “Amen” rose to #1 on the iTunes Hip-Hop chart 5 days after release. The rapper behind the music was a 16-year-old Indonesian artist with the stage name of “Rich Brian.” This is the first time in history an Asian artist topped the ranks. More surprisingly, it came from an up-and-coming Asian teenager who obviously knew nothing about the rules to play in the American music industry.
So how did this happen?
Rich Brian grew up in Indonesia and was home schooled in Jakarta. When he was 12, he was intrigued by rap after seeing Tyga on TV. He taught himself English from watching YouTube just so he can rap. After trying his hand at rapping by posting songs on SoundCloud & YouTube, he quickly received attention around the globe. His original stage name Rich Chigga, a portmanteau of “Chinese” and “nigga,” also stirred up plenty of controversy. Within just a few years, he has transformed from a mere internet phenomenon to a shining star. Much of this success has to be credited to a young label company – 88Rising.
Aiming to put Asian artists on the mainstream radar, 88Rising has been the driving force behind many buzz-making Asian artists. Sean Miyashiro, founder of the company, started 88Rising to change the perception of Asian Americans in pop culture. It is not about assimilation, but creating a meta brand that celebrates the Asian voice. Today, 88Rising represents not just the Asian hip-hop culture, but a much broader cross-cultural appreciation that recognizes the distinctive culture each ethnicity has to offer.
Sean Miyashiro came from an interesting background himself. As a second-generation immigrant, he was not a stereotypical “model minority” Asian American. Instead of getting A+ in college, he stopped attending classes and began putting on shows for his friends in African American fraternities and Asian Christian groups. Eventually, he helped to launch Thump, Vice’s one time electronic-music site, where he brokered deals for brands who were eager to align with the dance culture. After leaving Vice in 2015, he has determined to build something more meaningful that combines his Asian heritage and passion in music. But he didn’t want to just start any label company. He wanted to change the insecurity many Asians Americans felt when it comes to pop culture and “being cool.”
You might recall Eddie Huang from “Fresh Off The Boat” who was also obsessed with black culture and rap music. This is very much a prevalent sentiment among millennial Asian Americans growing up in the 80s and 90s. Back then, Hip-hop was largely the only music that spoke directly to racial minorities, black and otherwise, especially when it came to the inferior treatment from white Americans. As Huang wrote in his memoir:”we listened to hip-hop because there wasn’t anything else that welcomed us in, made us feel at home.” But both hip-hop and American culture have changed drastically since then. As Asian Americans became more comfortable with their bicultural identity, they are no long seeking validations. Instead, they’ve turned to their own culture for inspirations in order to create something unique and meaningful. With hip-hop becoming mainstream in Asia, they found even more opportunities to collaborate and co-create, bridging the gap between Eastern and Western hip-hop culture.
The rest is history. 88Rising has been putting both Asian artists on high-exposure stages ever since. In 2017, Rich Brian was chosen to replace Justin Bieber on a high-profile collaboration with Skrillex and Diplo, who are both big names in EDM. In Feb 2018, Kris Wu performed during a Super Bowl LIVE, becoming the first Chinese artist performed at the event. 88Rising and Sean Miyashiro himself are still extremely involved with their artists, providing ample guidance from song writing to personal brand, to even the time of album release. It is a tight community in 88Rising- a very much an Asian way of running a company.
Today, 88rising is known as the platform for Asian rappers and singers, especially those who’ve adopted the sound of contemporary American hip-hop but reinterpreted it through the lens of their own lives. Its latest release “Head in the Clouds” is a fantastic music collective of 12 Asian and Asian American artists, across multiple music genres, with a mixed lyrics between English, Chinese, and Korean.
For those of you in Southern California, 88Rising will be town on 9/22 with its first-ever Head in the Clouds Music & Arts festival at the LA Historic Park. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience this groundbreaking music celebration that bridges the Eastern and Western hip-hop culture!