Graphics: Harrison Renshaw

From Hip-Hop to R’n’B, artists from all over Asia are proudly making music in their language and America is loving it

It was 2016 when Sean Miyashiro, an Asian-American entrepreneur of Japanese-Korean descent, would drive to the top of a car park in the Bronx to catch a wi-fi signal from a nearby Dunkin Donuts and build his empire on his laptop, day by day, in his car.

His objective was to create an online platform for Asians and Asian Americans to share and celebrate Asian content, including music.

This is how 88rising (in Chinese 88 means “double-happiness”) was born: a “hybrid management, record label, video production and marketing company” which is now making its name heard thanks to Sean’s vision and the collaborative efforts of artists like Rich Brian, Joji and Higher Brothers.

Miyashiro’s company has a clear approach: it’s not just a record and a management label, it is also an online platform where its artists upload all sorts of clips, from music videos to challenges and reactions. It’s everything millennials already find online but this time it’s all under the same roof, no intermediaries.

Speaking on the matter, Sean said in an interview with Forbes:

“There’s four billion Asian people. There’s two billion millennials between 16-34. They’ve been waiting for a media brand that speaks to their taste, but also celebrates and communicates that to people outside of Asia… We want to not just cover culture, but we want to create it. We want to create big moments.”

The first big moment for the company was the South Korean rapper, Keith Ape, and his shocking trap anthem, It G Ma, a head-banging and nightmarish hit referencing painkillers, streetwear and cheap wine. The song, which has 65 million views today, inadvertently leapt over cultural barriers both in the east and the west.

It features five different rappers both from Korea and Japan, two countries which have a harsh history of conflict and discrimination to this day, screaming about their addictions and bragging about their rebellious attitude. Which is yet another thing that it is very rare to see coming from two of the most rigorous and reserved nations in the world.

The video, which was shot in one take in a cheap motel in Japan, helped popularise the psychedelic and in-your-face aesthetic of the track, gaining international acclaim and leading to an official American remix of the song with rappers Waka Flocka Flame and ASAP Ferg.

88rising had just taken its first steps towards popular success at the right time. In 2017, Hip-Hop surpassed Rock as the biggest music genre in the U.S.A. and even though the latter proves to still be dominant in album sales figures, streaming services biggest numbers are recorded by big-name rappers.

These platforms give people a chance to access music from all over the globe at any time and Hip-Hop, which thrives on collaborations, has gained even more momentum from it and has reached millions more fans around the planet. In fact, it is not rare to see South-American rappers and singers like J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Daddy Yankee populating charts in Denmark, New Zealand or the UK.

Attentive to both business and cultural trends, Miyashiro had the right intuition. The window was open and it was time now for Asian artists to join the world charts and live their “Asian-American dream.”

He described his company’s goal in an interview with The Hundreds as:

“(Representing) the hope and the dream. Just trying, hustling, trying to make it, and then the opposite end of the spectrum of actually the feeling of victory and making it. We (are) trying to represent for not only Asian immigrants, but for all immigrants. Every immigrant has the same kind of experience in America, from Latino Americans to Jews to Italian Americans, it’s like all the same and we’re trying to embody that dream.”

Possibly representing that dream at its best is Indonesian rapper Brian Immanuel, the most famous member of 88rising. When 16-year old Brian released the video for his song Dat $tick on YouTube nobody expected him to be serious about it, and at the time he wasn’t either. He had learned how to speak English all by himself listening to Macklemore and watching Rubik Cube tutorials on the internet only a few years prior to releasing the song, which was just an ironic act he and his friends had done for the mere sake of passing time in their hometown Jakarta.

Wearing a pink polo shirt, a yellow bum bag and waving plastic guns in front of the camera isn’t exactly the definition of being serious. However, the number of views steadily rose and so did the number of conversations people were having about the kid from “somewhere in the east”.

Blown away by his success, Miyashiro contacted Brian and added him to the 88rising roster, helping him reach validation by uploading a reaction-video to his song in which established American rappers like Ghostface Killah and Tory Lanez were complimenting Brian for his swagger and lyrical ability. Rich Brian turned out to be a great rapper and since has moved to Los Angeles and collaborated with globally famous artists like 21 Savage, Diplo and Dua Lipa.

Keith and Brian were two different, yet very successful and inspiring examples of Asian artists that made it to the other side of the world with their music and their uncompromising style.

They opened the door for many more to rise up and 88rising has been the haven for many of them ever since. From former Japanese/Australian YouTuber Filthy Frank who has now turned musician as Joji, to the “Chinese Migos” group known as Higher Brothers.

Last summer, the label announced the whole roster would perform together for the first time on a collaborative 88rising album and also at their own festival, both called Head in the clouds. Taking place in Chinatown, L.A., the festival did more than host an already impressive 15 artists line-up from all over Asia. Fans could also buy an exclusive merchandise clothing collaboration with fashion powerhouse GUESS, meet their favourite artists and eat at one of the many food stalls, that included some of the local Asian street food stalls.

The festival was a great success and it is expected to come back this year with an even bigger lineup.

88rising has proven that even without explicit social agendas, music can positively impact the stereotyped perceptions we have of other cultures and countries. It has proven that when something is done smartly, enthusiastically and spontaneously, people recognise it and support it.

It has proven that there is a (near) future for a global Hip-Hop music scene where languages are not an obstacle but a peculiarity to enjoy and celebrate.

88rising roster: Sean Miyashiro, Rich Brian, Melo, August08, MaSiWei, Niki, Psy.P, Dzknow and Joji.


Listen to the 88rising album here: