88rising & Shaping an Image for Asian Musicians
Rich Brian, Joji & The Higher Brothers are making their mark in the music industry.
It’s interesting when trying to find a role model in the art industry as an Asian American. You connect with certain artists, messages and images portrayed, but you honestly lack that connection that “this person is like me and they are doing something I would like to do.” It is discouraging to grow up without seeing Asian filmmakers or musicians that are prominent in the American cultural hemisphere, however, this is something that is now trending in the opposite direction. Of course, there has always been Asian artists attempting to garner respect. Rappers like MC Jin have had success in the music industry, but have failed to hold any staying power.
However, enter the age of the Internet where a new playing field was introduced. Artists from across the globe could now get their hard work directly in the hands of the consumers in an instant. It may have taken awhile, but there is finally a hub of Asian artists that are successfully blending American culture and their own. 88rising, created by Sean Miyashiro, is a media company that represents and distributes music from Asian artists all over the globe that vary in genres.
Miyashiro has referred to his former company VICE when discussing 88rising, but puts his own spin on the idea, focusing on showcasing Asian talent. However, the company isn’t just a showcase; Miyashiro has said the company is a record label, management and video production hybrid. Over the last few years, 88rising has continued to grow in size and popularity with artists like Rich Brian and Joji leading the way, as well as with content collaboration with artists like Ski Mask the Slump God and Lil Yatchy, helping to bridge the cultural gap. It is debatable when 88rising began to pick up steam, originating with artists like Keith Ape who has been a staple from the beginning. After creating (and leaving) THUMP, the electronic music and culture channel of VICE, Miyashiro knew he was onto something that was capable of making Asian culture “cool.”
While 88rising has many artists involved in their label-hybrid company, it is Rich Brian (formerly known as Rich Chigga) who is their front man and most recognizable among their American audience. Rich Brian is an Indonesian born rapper who debuted his first song at 16 years old, which is somewhat a parody, but also a “foreigners” interpretation of American rap culture. “Dat $tick” introduced an Asian adolescent whose fanny pack laden exterior did not match the violent lyricism delivered with a precision that garners respect. Released by 88rising, the video soon gained the attention of American acts and a follow-up was soon released titled “Rappers React to Rich Chigga.” Featuring artists from 21 Savage to Ghostface Killah, “Dat $tick” plays in the background, while the various American talents praise the then 16-year-old Rich Brian.
The novelty is part of what made Rich Brian go viral, as it subverts the expectation of the viewer seeing a small Asian kid point guns at the camera and speak on killing the police. Although in order to become a real artist, Sean Miyashiro knew his new front man would have to diversify his image. After garnering the respect of his newfound peers, Rich Brian was set to release a new song titled “Hold My Strap,” but Miyashiro advised him against it. The New Yorker details this dilemma, “Miyashiro was afraid that another dose of gunplay make-believe would permanently entrench him as little more than a meme.” This decision may have just saved Rich Brian’s career and put 88rising on the map, as the label’s front man has adapted a unique monotone style that showcases his rapping talent that one would never guess he learned from watching YouTube videos.
The now 18-year-old rapper has seen his career skyrocket and take shape since his 2016 viral hit “Dat $tick,” making music with American artists, like 21 Savage and Offset, but also collaborating with other artists from 88rising in a talent showcase of sorts. Coupled with a name change in an effort to be taken seriously, and in response to backlash due to his original name, Rich Brian has been the poster child for Asian rappers. He has also made an effort to create relationships with American artists in order to make himself relatable.
The second player at the table for 88rising comes in the form of a former YouTube icon, who nowadays finds himself recording melodies of agony and heartbreak. George Miller is a man of many names, which some know him as Filthy Frank who is a YouTube personality that is vulgar, unapologetic and has multiple personalities of its own. Also, some know him as Joji who is the piece de resistance to 88risings label. Filthy Frank is George Miller’s original claim to fame, having created the “harlem shake” dance that is to the Baauer song of the same title. Acting as the ultimate troll, George spoke in a raspy voice mocking essentially anyone he could sink his teeth into.
It’s no surprise that his first stint in music came under an alter ego named “Pink Guy” that raps as more of a parody than something to be taken seriously. Regardless of the intention, “Pink Guy” was a hit among YouTubers, and he made music with DJs like Getter and other Internet personalities. Despite being on top of his niche genre of comedy, there was an internal struggle brewing. Led by stress induced seizures and throat tissue damage as a result of producing Filthy Frank’s voice, George Miller decided to leave behind all of his built success and start new.
He took his experience in recording music and formed a new alias in which he goes by Joji, a melodic singer with a haunting message. It is down right bizarre to see the image being portrayed now by Joji in comparison to his former acts, but it works. Much like Rich Brian, Joji wanted to be taken seriously, and saw the writing on the wall for his acting out on camera. With an understanding of the Internet culture and it’s power, Joji knew he needed to be a part of something bigger, and being of Australian-Japanese descent, he decided to side with a label giving Asian artists a shot at doing anything their creative freedom desired. The result has been outstanding for both parties as Joji has risen to become one of the labels most popular artists. His surreal and nostalgic video companions to his Lo-Fi style create a unique image that the Internet community tends to connect with. Singles like “Will He” and “Yeah Right” sport melancholic lyrics that have made Joji an icon for mixed Asians upcoming in the music industry. This also showcased that 88rising is not just a label for rappers.
Finally, we come to the last piece of the 88rising pie that I will be discussing, which is a rap group from China that has the backing of both American and Chinese fandom. Similar to Rich Brian’s rise to success, 88rising went back to the same formula for the Higher Brothers. A single titled “Made in China” was released, featuring Rapper Famous Dex under the label’s YouTube channel. The single is half English/half Chinese and speaks on the idea of pride in their country, flipping the idea of a cheap product being made in China on it’s head. Soon after the videos release, a follow-up was introduced as a companion piece called “‘Rappers React to Higher Brothers,” and much like Rich Brian, it featured American artists praising the group. This approval from American acts helped in making the Higher Brothers go viral, but also helped them to find collaborators already in the industry.
The group has collaborated with multiple artists like Blockboy JB, Ski Mask the Slump God, and the already mentioned Famous Dex. They are attempting to bridge the gap of foreign language in American music by blending the cultures. The most interesting part of the group’s rise to fame, however, comes in the treatment by the Chinese government. China is known for a tight grip, regarding censorship of media, but for some reason the group has not received any ban and continues to sell out shows in China. The reason for this is that they are rapping about their pride of being Chinese, and they are blending American culture with their own; at their core they love their heritage and that’s something China can get behind. As a result of this multi-racial fandom, the Higher Brothers have seen an extremely quick rise to the top, which is similar to all the artists under 88rising.
Asian musicians are on the rise, but that is not all thanks to 88rising. The sudden rise of K-Pop has also catered towards the assimilation of Asian personalities into the American cultural lexicon. With groups like BTS breaking music records left and right, they are also attempting to collaborate with American artists to bridge the gap. BTS also has endorsed 88rising with group member RM tweeting the labels seasonal single “Midsummer Madness” (featuring every artists I talked about) to his millions of fans, and sent the single to number one on the Melon charts, a hub for Asian music. This community of Asian musicians has continued to act as a support system for one another, which is something that has never existed before.
88rising artists continue to collaborate and mix fanbases in order to gain popularity, and because of the diversity in both musical genre/style and Asian heritage, the support only continues to grow. Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, the label does not discriminate and wants to act as a platform to showcase Asian talent. Now, 88rising has their first female artist with NIKI who has opened a whole new spectrum of influence and supporters. Acting as a revolutionary platform, 88rising hopes to reach the level of success K-Pop has worldwide, and they recently announced their first North American tour. The success comes from one simple idea: they are not catering to the idea of being Asian. Instead, they act as a showcase for Asian artists to just be themselves and reshape the idea of what it means to be an Asian musician in American culture.