by Judy Jiang
The American music industry has been so influential that you might find a store in China playing Ariana Grande’s “Thank You, Next.” Meanwhile, regardless of the broad Asian audience within America and across the world, Asian artists who release music in America have limited influence in the industry. In recent years, 88rising, an American mass media company, is gradually transforming the industry through its popularity as a musical platform and label primarily for Asian American and Asian artists.
This year in October, Brian Imanuel Soewarno, known by his stage name, Rich Brian, just completed “The Sailor” tour in support of his new album, where his fans filled every arena for him with their loudest love. Rich Brian has become one of the most well-known artists from the label, along with his fellow Indonesian, Nicole Zefanya, known by her stage name, NIKI. They have increased representation for the Asian communities worldwide through their success in the music industry and their activism.
88rising was founded in 2015 by Sean Miyashiro and Jaeson Ma, both Asian Americans with a hip-hop dream, a genre that contradicts the image of the reserved, subservient Asian.
Miyashiro grew up in San Jose, California, the son of a mechanical engineer from Japan, who had been a jazz DJ in college, and a stay-at-home mother from South Korea, who enjoyed listening to Michael Jackson and the Beach Boys. He went to San Jose State University without getting a degree, and was more interested in livening up the sleepy commuter school’s campus: he put on punk and hip-hop shows and organised events for black fraternities.
On the other hand, Ma earned his degrees in Bible theology and business management. Meanwhile, Ma’s musical journey began in underground hip hop clubs in Northern California where he would compete in rap battle competitions. In 1998, he dropped his first mixtape titled “2 Sides 2 Everything.”
When they found each other and officially started 88rising in 2015, they began to contact up-and-coming artists that they found on the internet. The first was Keith Ape, the South Korean rapper behind the 2015 hit It My G Ma, whose real name is Lee Dongheon. The New York Times called Lee “a clear inheritor of Southern rap rowdiness that requires no translation.” Other inaugural artists includes Brian Puspos (Filipino American), Dumbfoundead (Korean American), Josh Pan (Asian American (cultural heritage unspecified)), and Okasian (Korean American). Miyashiro said that their music collective goal is “to become the most wavy, iconic crew” and “trying to represent not only Asian immigrants, but for all immigrants.”
88rising has achieved their goal of professional success and social impact. In the video of his 2016 hit, Dat $tick, Rich Brian deftly parodies American rap culture and Asian nerd stereotypes, talking tough and dancing menacingly in slow motion while wearing a pink polo shirt and a fanny pack. Today, the video has been viewed more than 135 million times on YouTube. Started with making comedic music, Brian has transcended his work to make more legitimate and serious music with a variety of styles, as well as his own role from an “angsty teenager” to a positive influencer that shares more personal stories through his music. In 2018, his debut studio album, Amen, was released and made him the first Asian musician to reach number one on iTunes Hip Hop charts and went on to peak at number 18 on the US Billboard 200.
NIKI, relatively new to the label and being the only female face in 88rising, has been more active advocating for Asian and female empowerment. Her debut album, Zephyr, was released in 2018, with eight R&B-infused tracks largely produced herself. Her smooth and soulful voice has attracted broad attention to her songs.
Through her music, Zefanya is trying to empower Asians and Asian Americans. During the Head in The Clouds music festival, NIKI, took a moment to address the more than ten-thousand people gathered in Los Angeles’ Historic State Park. “I just want to say, as an Asian female, I do not take this day and this stage for granted. My hope is that above everything else today, that you feel heard, you feel understood, but most of all that you feel represented.” NIKI has made clear both on the stage and through social media her mission to empower young Asian artists under-represented in American music industry.
These Asian internationals have in turn impacted the Asian American community in America as well as Asians abroad. It is their perfect English, their engagement with the American music industry, their alignment with music genres usually associated with America, and certainly also the look — nationalities are harder to tell while one’s race/ethnicity is more visible — that highlighted their impacts. The pan-Asian identity emerged from these artists is one of strength and pride. This representation shows their potential to be a powerful mobilizing force for the Asian American community and to engage in the larger questions of belonging and prosperity.