How Jin empowered Asian-American rappers
MC Jin opened in prayer. He stood in a circle with six other Asian-American Christian rappers before the third concert of a four-city tour last fall.
Never before did so many Asian-American Christian rappers share a stage. Without Jin, though, this historic tour would’ve never happened.
Multiple amens ended the pre-concert prayer. Then NAK, a Filipino-American rapper born in Los Angeles, turned to his right to shake Jin’s hand.
“My childhood hero,” NAK said.
Jin meekly laughed off the flattery.
Ock credited Jin with more than influence.
“If Jin didn’t happen, I would have no musical career,” he told Rapzilla. “He really planted the idea that it’s possible for an Asian American to become an artist. Back then, the only other real, key Asian in media was Long Duk Dong. There weren’t Asians, so because of that, we didn’t think [being an artist] was possible.”
Every artist on tour felt Jin’s influence in some capacity, and most were introduced to him through his rap battles on Freestyle Friday, a segment on BET’s show “106 & Park.”
Gowe, a Korean-American rapper from Seattle, fell in the small percentage of hip-hop fans who knew of Jin pre-Freestyle Friday. Both were members of AznRaps.com, a discussion forum predominately for Asian rappers. Jin had posted on the forum to tune into his upcoming freestyle battle on “106 & Park” in 2002.
Gowe did, as well as Heesun Lee, a Korean-American rapper who grew up in Staten Island, New York. Every Friday, she would race from wherever she was on the Rutgers University campus to her dorm room to watch Jin compete.
Lee and Gowe had started to rap before they witnessed Jin win seven straight battles and be inducted into the Freestyle Friday Hall of Fame. But his mainstream breakthrough, which included a major label record deal with Ruff Ryders Entertainment, boosted their confidence.
“I was just so in love with the fact that I was seeing another Asian artist on TV,” Lee said. “At that time, there weren’t any Asian artists, so to know that Jin made it and was able to break through a lot of barriers, it really helped me want to continue rapping.”
As much as Jin inspired them, his influence on younger teens was even more pronounced. Sam Ock, J. Han, NAK, Korean-American rapper Mickey Cho and Chinese-American rapper Jason Chu were all introduced to Jin through Freestyle Friday, which was the first time they witnessed a hip-hop artist of their ethnicity on such a large platform.
“You see all the emcees coming in [on Freestyle Friday] and they’re like, ‘Who’s this Chinese guy?’ and Jin rips them apart,” J. Han said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness! Asian pride like crazy! I’m losing my mind!’ It was literal culture shock because I never knew that Asians could rap or that it was a possibility. I thought I could only be an accountant.”
Many of these artists were born to immigrants. On tour, they bonded over their unique, shared struggles as second-generation Asian Americans, which include an extra emphasis on the American dream.
“Oh my gosh, you guys understand the struggle,” Ock said, “You understand how your parents have told you that the most successful jobs are being a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman or an engineer — then for you to be a rapper, your parents are like, ‘What is rap? Why are you being like that?’ We’re able to resonate with each other.”
After being underrepresented in the media their entire childhoods, when Jin signed to the same label as DMX, worked with Kanye West and acted in “2 Fast 2 Furious,” he gave Asian Americans proof that these stereotypes were breakable. He impacted Chu so much that, years later, Chu wrote a song about him.
“[Jin] is our Eminem,” Chu said. “He’s our Jay Z. He’s our Lecrae. He’s literally, for 95 percent of young Asian [artists], one of our greatest rappers ever.
“Hip hop is all about seeing somebody who comes from where you come from, do things that you never dreamed would be possible and express themselves with a voice that you didn’t see your community having. That was true of Jin when he was a secular artist, and it was even truer of him when he became this faith-based hip-hop figure.”
When Jin announced that he had become a Christian, the Asian-American artists who shared his faith celebrated — and not because the odds rose they may tour together one day.
But that’s what happened. They became colleagues and friends with their hero. However, ask them about Jin, and the first thing they say will not be legacy-related, but instead about his humility.
“I still don’t think I am [a pioneer], Jin told Rapzilla, “to be honest.
“On one hand, it’s very encouraging and humbling — and I say that only after going through the fire, trials and tribulations of my career — but on the other hand, I’m also hesitant to affirm that proclamation. I think that just has to do with, on a personal level, looking at the big picture and the whole, entire scope of my journey thus far. I used to think, ‘I don’t get enough credit.’ Sometimes I feel now that I get more than I deserve.”
Last April, the New York City Asian American Student Conference asked Jin and Jason Chu speak. As Jin entered the event, the doorkeeper, making small talk, asked him what his role was at the conference.
“I’m just here to learn,” Jin, who was a keynote speaker, said.
“That’s totally who he is,” Chu said. “He would never take on more glory for himself. Especially as someone who’s looking up to that, it’s very cool to see him be so willing to let others speak for him … He’s just the most positive, most humble person ever.”
Heesun Lee performed at the Virginia and Maryland stops of the Fearless Tour, and she marveled at Jin’s interaction with his fans. Rather than relax in the green room, he chatted and prayed with fans at his merchandise table.
“[Jin] doesn’t just say, ‘You want an autograph?’ and then walk away,” Lee said. “He’s literally ministering to these people. It’s not even that he’s an artist — he’s just a brother who’s trying to reach out to people who look up to him. When I see that, it encourages me. He’s bigger than I am, and he’s doing more than I am.
“And it’s not something that he’s trying to do to look good because I see him doing it when nobody’s watching. There are no cameras on him … I never see that with big-time Christian artists. Not putting anybody on blast there, it’s just rare. You usually see them up in the green room trying to hide from everybody.”
Jin, 33, is grateful for this ability to influence. However, when an artist like Sam Ock credits him for his career, Jin, though appreciative, still denies it — which is consistent with his denial that he deserves any credit for his humility.
“What I’m saying, and I hope I don’t get misquoted, is that when I humble myself, it’s actually not me humbling myself,” he said. “It’s just that I’ve been humbled by God in such an immense way that spiritually, mentally, physical, I find it hard to go back into a space of lifting myself up in such a manner.
“[Ock] probably means that wholeheartedly, and I don’t question if he does or doesn’t. But my initial instinct is, at this point, I don’t deserve any credit for it. Especially if I’m conversing with a brother in Christ, both of us know we’re all just such small pieces in God’s design … I get the context of what he’s saying, but for me, the natural response is to point [credit] back to where it needs to be pointed to: ‘You’re not rhyming because of me.’”