Does anyone remember Jin the Emcee? You know, the young rapper with a quick tongue and sharp wit who was supposed to be the Asian American breakthrough in the music industry ten years ago?
Alas, the great yellow hype turned out to be just that and never amounted to anything more substantial. Despite having great initial success on Black Entertainment Television (BET), receiving ample media coverage, and signing with major hip-hop label Ruff Ryders, Jin’s (Jin Au-Yeung) music career tumbled before it ever took a serious step.
After several delays, his album finally dropped at #54 on the Billboard charts, and kept on dropping off the charts. Jin disappeared from the American rap game but surfaced several years later to make a big name for himself in Hong Kong, his motherland, rapping in Cantonese and focusing his message on Christianity.
Jin had talent and was a great performer on stage so why did his career falter? He attributes it to being Chinese American and that people focused more on his race rather than his abilities. All the articles written about him mentioned his ethnicity as a major point and even his label tried to market him as the “Asian rapper”. America was just not ready for it, even more so after reality star William Hung ridiculed himself in front of the nation and the world – Hung’s album sold more copies than Jin’s. It was a slap in the face to Jin and created a huge dam for Asian American talents into the mainstream.
Fast forward to October 2010 and in one particular week, the No. 1 and 2 songs on the Billboard charts were by Asian American performers. “Like a G6” by Far East Movement (FEM), a hip-hop group consisting of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Filipino members, and “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars, of Filipino and Puerto Rican descent, were wildly popular and getting serious airtime on radios and television. What is the difference between these performers and Jin?
One thing is certain, the issue of race has been shuffled far from the front page.
It seems the new strategy for marketing Asian American performers is to not put a spotlight on their race at all.
Most people are not aware that FEM and Bruno Mars have Asian ties – I was not aware of it myself – and was quite surprised when I found out.
Some say this is because FEM actively tries to hide their Asian origin, pointing out that group members often wear sunglasses, usually large ones, for music videos and photo shoots, something they did not do before they hit the mainstream. Perhaps it is just a fashion statement but it does raise the question of what it is they are trying to hide. In one music video featuring Ryan Tedder, all the FEM members wear sunglasses except for Tedder, who is white.
Granted their marketing strategies may be questionable to some observers, it is harder to ignore the fact that they are paving the way for the next generation of artists who might otherwise give up. The same video mentioned above also shows Asians in prominent roles – as opposed to some random dancer in a club – and includes scenes where people from all different backgrounds intermingle. For the first time in history, you can turn on MTV and see four Asian rappers performing with legendary rapper Snoop Dogg.
Still, despite FEM and Bruno Mars having broken the sound barriers, the track to success for Asian American artists is still difficult to travel.
Recently on American Idol, a Korean American, Paul Kim, was unanimously praised by the judges for his singing qualities but was one of the first contestants voted off.
Locally we have performers like Nam, a Vietnamese American of refugee parents living in the Rainier Valley, who writes lyrics about what he knows best: being an Asian growing up in the “206”. For Nam, whose real name is Andrew Le, rapping has no boundaries.
“I don’t see myself as an ‘Asian rapper’, I just see myself as a rapper who happens to be Asian,” Le says. He performs with artists like Blue Scholars at various underground concerts around Seattle.
Le feels that his music is versatile enough to be marketed and successful but is adamant he would not compromise his belief, his lyrics, and his style in order to make it. He is out “to show that [Asians] are talented too and breaking the stereotype that we can only do Kung Fu movies and cover songs on Youtube.”
However, he acknowledges the struggle in this endeavour.
“I personally don’t think you need to sell out,” he states. “It’s just really difficult because…the mainstream is controlled so much by corporations, and unfortunately artists that are Asian aren’t considered ‘marketable’.”
But that will not stop Le from pushing on with his music. He is working on a new album while working the evening shift at Boeing to make ends meet.
“To me, anything is marketable.”