JOSEPH LITTAUA WRITES — Asians have always held a somewhat contentious place in American pop culture, with caricatures of Asians in movies and TV shows (i.e. the Asian comedy sidekick, or exotic Asian vixen) and minimal Asian representations on the music scene at large. Except for considerable Asian Youtube stars such as Ryan Higa (a.k.a. Nigahiga), Wong Fu Productions and Tim Chatarangsu (a.k.a. Timothy Delaghetto), it has always been hard to find Asian role models online, when growing up. It becomes an interesting story for Asian Americans, then, when an up-and-coming music collective of artists suddenly puts Asians on the map of American pop culture.
Enter 88Rising in 2015, a music collective, management/video production company and record label founded by Sean Miyashiro and Jaeson Ma. Both Ma and Miyashiro grew up during the 90s, a time when Panda Express was still a young franchise and most non-Asians’ exposure to the continent came from Hong Kong action films. While growing up, both became enamored with the music culture of the time. Rap was on the rise, while many were still in love with big boy bands/girl groups like NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls. Rappers tackled heavyweight subjects such as financial hardship, being raised by a single mother and gang life. These are the subjects that held interest for Asian Americans in the 90s, when we simultaneously thrived and struggled in the US.
Still, there was no Asian music figure for young Asian Americans to look up to. Ma and Miyashiro changed all this. Ma, whose first foray into the music industry was with the legendary MC Hammer, gained experience working on the digital distribution of music — a pioneering move that served him well for the rest of his career. Against all odds, and despite many American music companies disliking the idea of headlining Asian/Asian-American artists, Ma became part of the team that brought MC Jin, an Asian American rapper, as well as Far East Movement, the first-ever Asian American music group, onto the scene. While Jin’s career was one that was over before most people knew it here in the US, Far East Movement was guided along to become the first Asian American music group to chart the American music charts.
Miyashiro had a more direct role than Ma with regard to 88Rising. Back when the label was known as CXSHXNLY, only he, Sean Miyashiro, was able to sign on Asian artists. Starting with Dumbfoundead and Okasian, a Korean rapper known for his solo career and featured in other K-Pop songs, 88Rising has slowly accrued a group of artists who are changing the hip hop scene in a way that many well-known artists now acknowledge:
RICH BRIAN: the Indonesian artist who was originally a star on Vine and learned English through Youtube has become one of the preeminent superstars of the hip hop world. While seen as a controversial figure when his rap name was “Rich Chigga”, things have changed over the past few years in which he’s come onto the scene. He’s changed his image a couple of times over the course of his career. From using memes to his rap and keeping the monotone flow that kept critics wondering how his voice was so low, to singing a ballad about how he’s part of the new wave of artists from Asia to make a splash in the US, he’s evolved to fit into a niche market while also turning the heads of known stars in the industry. Considering the rappers who have already been featured on his discography, the world becomes more of his to explore as the Sailor.
NIKI: An Indonesian talent who has taken the world by storm, this R&B singer has become well known for her ballads and vocal range. Her first releases with 88Rising, “I Like U” and “See U Never,” were good, and gave me the impression that she will be able to grow even more into a better R&B artist should she be able to learn by working with other artists both under and outside of 88Rising.
HIGHER BROTHERS: A Chinese rap group hailing from Chengdu, this band of four first came together in 2015 before joining 88Rising in 2016. They named themselves after the Haier brand refrigerator the four of them owned in their apartment back in China in order to represent that they felt their futures would be full of riches, as Haier is a luxury brand in China. Their debut album with 88Rising, “Black Cab,” took the world by storm in 2017, with notable features from artists like Famous Dex and Jay Park. The peak of their debut album came with a reaction video that included the Migos, PnB Rock, and KYLE. Their popularity may well provide a worldwide gateway to Chinese Hip Hop.
JOJI: This Japanese-Australian artist, who has been written about on Asia Media International before, has staying power. Joji’s continued recognition and growth in the modern pop world cannot be overstated. Recognized by his soft singing, heavy but relatable lyrics, and “bedroom pop”-style beats, Joji has taken over music charts at least once so far, and fans wait for his next full album.
88Rising may well have true staying power — for its music, yes, but also for its symbolism. For me, and for all Asian American performers and fans, 88Rising has created a place for us in hip hop. For us, 88Rising has already changed the world. The music world, that is.