With his new album, Los Angeles rapper Jason Chu brings an all-American voice to the forefront
A lot of stereotypes plague Asian-Americans, but none bother Jason Chu as much as the perpetual foreigner myth.
It regularly manifests in the following situation: someone asks Chu where he is from; Chu will say he’s from Delaware; and then he’ll hear, “No, where are you really from?”
To the Los Angeles rapper, that common interaction implies he, as a Chinese-American, can’t claim the United States as a homeland.
“The immigrant narrative is the American narrative,” he says. “For us to act like immigrants are second-class citizens or like immigration is a controversial thing, I think that is not just harmful to minorities in America but that’s incredibly anti-American.”
Chu’s love for the promise of America is what informs his critiques of it, and he acknowledges that it’s his uniquely Asian-American experience—raised in a state with far more African-American culture than Asian—that makes his new album, Arrivals, possible.
“The American dream is not stay in your lane and do what’s been done. The American lane is learn and grow from diversity and create something that’s never been created before,” he says, smiling. “I’m just trying to do America right here.”
Chu brings his Arrivals tour to Sacramento on Saturday, October 22, with former Sacramentan Joe Kye. The pair met while studying at Yale University, and in a sense, Arrivals is an accumulation of 10 years of their conversations about hip-hop, life, spirituality and Asian-American issues.
“I was very interested in hip-hop,” says Kye, who is best known in Sacramento for his indie-pop songs on violin. “There are very few movements and art forms that very directly call out the injustices that exist in America.”
On Arrivals, Chu balances the serious—mental health, exoticism, media portrayals of women—with stories of love and family. He raps with heart over a dynamic mix of electronic and organic sounds, which sometimes lean toward pop and R&B. Other soundscapes are left sparse to make room for Chu’s powerful spoken word.
Arrivals marks Kye’s first time producing a record, but it doesn’t sound like it. And for the live show, he has assembled a crew of artists across disciplines to help express Arrivals in new ways. Capital Dance Project will perform. Visual artists Gioia Fonda, Jiayi Young, Raphael Delgado, Ryan Beltjens and Sarah Marie Hawkins will all provide works. It contributes to Chu’s idea that Arrivals isn’t just about Chu or Kye or even Asian-Americans—it’s about voices, storytelling and listening. As such, audience members will be encouraged to share their own tales, and Chu and Kye will create songs on-the-spot inspired by them.
It’s all laid out in the first lines of the album’s opener: “I don’t tell the Asian-American story / I tell our American stories / In hopes that one day our people will see glory.”
“I think my music, if it truly empowers the Asian community, that has to be good for the American community as a whole,” Chu says.
But achieving mass empowerment is a collective effort.
Chu calls out Asians in the entertainment business for not speaking on important issues—like racism on Fox News—on his song “Sound & Fury.” Or, in the case of actors Ken Jeong and Bobby Lee, for actively perpetuating demeaning stereotypes.
He does give a shoutout to celebrities like Aziz Ansari and Constance Wu who are fighting the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood. Still, Chu takes the battle further.
“The narrative is, ’The media is so bad, they’re whitewashing our stories,’” he says. “But for some reason, we don’t talk about what we’re doing to ourselves.”
That’s a statement loaded with potential meanings, but Chu is specifically referring to plastic surgery, the subject of his song “New Eyes.” Korean- and Chinese-language magazines are usually stocked with ads for cosmetic surgery, touting the benefits of more Caucasian-looking noses, reduced cheek bones and, most commonly, eyelid lifts.
“We don’t talk about the insecurities. We don’t talk about the pressure from magazine covers, Asian mothers and men,” he says. “Nobody is talking about why it is so common for 15-year-old Korean girls to fly to Korea for the summer and come back with new eyes.”
Why the silence?
“As immigrants who voluntarily moved here, there is definitely a pressure to assimilate, a pressure to put your head down and do the work,” Kye says. “To be a rebel means to make the sacrifices of your parents for naught.”
Maybe that’s why Chu can be that voice of dissent, the Asian-American who openly talks about Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump.
He never truly felt accepted into a group until he found a hip-hop crew while studying abroad in Beijing. After graduation, he moved back to work at the Beijing International Christian Fellowship, splitting his time between leading Bible studies and hanging out with rappers, skaters, deejays and pot dealers.
“I was not a normal Chinese kid, but in hip-hop I found an expression of that outsider experience and I found people who welcomed me,” he says.
His experiences there inspired him to move to Los Angeles at 26 to pursue a music career. Four years later—putting out his best record to date, working with the White House to prevent bullying in Asian-American communities, hosting a new NBC Asian-American miniseries on Asian artists and religion—he’s understandably in a reflective mode.
“At 30, I think I sit here wiser, more cynical but also more hopeful than ever,” he says. “The culmination of those experiences have helped me arrive at the man I am today.”