Listen to "Living Room" here! fanlink.to/jasonchumusic
Based in Los Angeles, Jason Chu is a Chinese-American rapper and activist who writes music based on his personal experiences and views on diversity. He has lectured and spoken about arts, media representation, Black/Asian cultural interactions, and racial history at events and universities such as the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival and NYU. Jason Chu released his new album living.room in June, featuring songs inspired by his reflection on society and his culture.
In your music video for “Honor,” you highlight the history between Asian Americans and Black people, showing a montage of clips – the good and the bad. What made you want to portray this visually and lyrically?
My buddy Tinhua Hsia who’s my creative director, I showed me the song and said I think I want this to be the first single for the record for us, it was super important. So often we see Asian Americans throughout history being erased. People have been in this country for 150+ years but its so common that you just don't think of Asian American bodies as present throughout history. So, in order to reflect Sandra Oh’s quote, it’s an honor just to be Asian” we really wanted to dive in and look through the history with these images of Asian American bodies throughout history – the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are definitely images there that are painful – images of racism, images of Japanese- American incarceration in concentration camps. There are some beautiful things there – Asian American families, celebrities, people who’ve really represented the community, who built a legacy for future generations. There’s the ugly – people who have been complicit in supremacy and violence in very negative things. But for us, we just wanted to show that being Asian American is a rich, deep experience and that’s something that we own the complete totality of, even when it has been difficult to look at, because we love our community and we love owning and learning from the complete history of our community.
In living.room, you incorporate incredible jazz sounds into your rap and collaborated with a variety of artists such as jazz-hop producer Elyonbeats and folk musician Shane Palko. What inspired you to want to collaborate with these artists and create this type of sound?
That's kind of you to say! So these collaborations were all based on real relationships that I've built up over the years... I grew up with Shane, like literally I've probably known him since we were 9 or 10 years old; and Elyon and I met on my first tour to NorCal to play a couple shows in Sacramento, where one of our friends introduced us. The album is based on my real life experiences and the community around me, and I kept that true with the collaborators I reached out to: all people I've known and grown with over my journey as an artist and human being.
What’s your favorite song off of living.room and why?
I really am glad for the records that made the final cut. Right now, personally, my favorite song is Delaware. That’s a record that’s very personal to me. I grew up in Delaware and still to me, Delaware is home. I've lived in SoCal for 8 years doing music, but still, Delaware feels like home. The singer on there, Shane Palko, he and I grew up together and he became a folk singer. He travels a lot and does a lot fo work in Africa and I do my Hip Hop. I reached out when I had the idea for a song about our home. I just said, Hey, I know you’ve been working hard and growing your artistry and I’ve been growing mine; we should really get together and do something.” And for the first time, we finally had an opportunity to get together and collaborate. Every time I hear that record, I really think he killed that chorus and it really just makes me feel like going home and it’s a place that not many people write about.
What’s your perspective on diversity in the music industry? Do you think the industry has progressed with more Asian-American representation?
The music industry as a whole, id say is not super diverse, but I feel like that’s the way that industries in general work. Industries don't exist to uplift and help people; they exist to make money. While they're making money, they don't care who isn’t being heard, who isn’t being represented, who isn’t being talked to. That’s capitalism, capitalism isn’t here to lift burdens, its here to make money. So honestly, I think that the music industry has progressed with labels like 88rising and Bohan Phoenix There are more Asian American voices. But we should never look to the entertainment industry to be leaders and activist. The communities, we need to be the ones speaking up and getting active and demanding better when the industry doesn’t give us things, we need to sustain ourselves. We need to demand better and to build that for ourselves – support kickstarters, support local artists, support people from our communities who are making the content that the industry is not willing to make.
There are many Asian stereotypes that exist in the entertainment industry and in general, whether people notice them or not, such as shown in films/television. Have you experienced any moments where you felt prejudiced and if so, how did you deal with it?
I’m not really in the entertainment industry – I have an agent, shoutout to Andrew he’s an amazing film TV rep, I’ve got publishing and some people in the industry who have helped me and I really appreciate them. But I honestly don't consider myself in the entertainment industry – I'm a community artist making art for people who mess with my art and if they don't, I'm ok with that. So, I've been fortunate to get out some music, shoutout to Chops my producer who helped me get on some tv shows with some music we did. If people don't want me, I'm not here to really convince them that I'm worth their time. Because I think there are people who are naturally drawn to what I'm making and what I'm saying in who I am. And I'm here to feed those people, so the Asian American college circuit, certain social justice spaces have been very welcome with open hear, so those are the people that I'm open to serve and to give to. I've personally been very fortunate and largely received in open welcome because I'm really trying to go out and invest into our community. With that said, I do know that a lot of my friends face discrimination. I think about my boy Alan Z, who’s a Chinese American artist in Atlanta, and he’s really out there in the black hip hop industry. The way that it goes for him looks very different than how it goes for me, so I definitely hope that more people are open to hearing authentic voices from different communities.
As an Asian American artist who practices a Black-rooted art form, can you elaborate about the importance of learning and understanding something from another culture?
It is so crucial to explore and understand different cultures. That’s how we grow and throw off oppression, by solidarity with other people who share an Emmy. In this country, a lot of oppression is promoted by white supremacy. For me, as a young Chinese American man, it is so powerful for me to listen to black voices and black experiences from their community and see how they marginalize it, being disrespected and not listened to. That really helped shape me as a person of color in America. Having listened to black artist and black voices who helped me find myself, part of it was also listening to their struggles and pains. If they're saying that something’s hurting them, I cant just enjoy the benefits of black wisdom without also joining into the struggle for black liberation. So its important for me as an Asian American artist to say like, even if I'm making stuff for our community, I also understand myself in the bigger picture of things as a person of color, as an America, as a cisgender man. The more I understand that, the more I can understand how to be in solidarity and what ways I can bring my community out and really assist in fighting these battles alongside other communities.
In addition to being an artist, you’re also an avid activist, which is amazing! How did you get started in activism and speaking out about what you believe in at important events?
A lot of it was through mentorship. I'm a big fan of looking for older, wiser, experienced figures who can guide me in my path, so I always look to Diane Ujiiye, Rick Eng, and Ed Lew. There are these incredible organizations – OCA, JACL that tap into this longstanding history of speaking out and being part of the community. I got into activism by seeking out these people and saying, “I see you talking about these issues and I care about that issue and I want to learn more about it. What experiences have you had that have formed you into who you are?” listening and learning helped me steer through a lot of pitfalls that I see a lot for young activists falling into. We cant come through activism from “ here’s an idea that I had” it has to come from “this is what really helps communities heals and helps marginalizes people” if activism is an idea, then it doesn’t really work. If its something that you carry out in a community, that you use to help uplift the people around you, that’s a powerful thing.
What advice do you want to give to aspiring activists?
I would say tie yourself into a legacy of activism. Don't read three pieces online and think you're going to solve Asian American racism and Anti-blackness, that’s stupid. If you think that no one has been doing this work for 40, 50, 80, 120 years and you're going to be the one to jump in there, that’s very arrogant. We gotta connect with the people who have been doing the work and working on the frontlines. Look at organizations like OCA and JACL and 18 million rising, if you're in entertainment, organizations like CAPE, there are people out there who are already on the frontlines. Find a mentor, someone who has been to the protests, who has been reading legislation. When we can connect ourselves and root ourselves in a foundation of legacy and heritage and activism, that’s when we can really contribute to the movement.