Gowe: How learning he was adopted at 18 sparked his rap career
Rap legend Nas drew Gordon Tsai to hip hop, and the worst rapper Tsai had ever heard — who happened to be a fellow Asian American — moved him to pursue it.
“This is so wack. What is this?” 16-year-old Tsai said after a friend introduced him to the artist, whose name Tsai’s memory has since repressed. “The Asian-American community cannot push out something this wack. As a result, I have to start writing now.”
Tsai, a Seattle-native born to Chinese immigrants, soon adopted the stage name Gowe (Gifted on West East). And the first big break of his career was inspired by an event even more painful than his aforementioned listening session. At the age of 18, Gowe received an invitation from a youth pastor to go on a retreat to Canada. When he asked his mother over the phone for the documents necessary to cross the border, she hesitated.
Growing up, Gowe had noticed that his parents hid certain papers from him, but he didn’t think too hard about it. However, when after several moments of indecision his mother confessed that she had lost his passport, Gowe’s suspicion turned into frustration.
“I’m 18,” he exploded. “I really want to know why you guys are hiding this kind of stuff from me.”
His mother started to cry. She expressed a need to talk to his grandmother, and they hung up. Shortly after, his parents — at the advice of his grandmother — revealed to Gowe why they were protective of those papers.
Gowe was adopted. This news came with more: He wasn’t born to Chinese immigrants either. While he grew up around Chinese culture and spoke Chinese as his first language, Gowe learned in the same conversation that he was not born in China but Seoul, South Korea.
“At first, [learning that you were adopted] was almost like a punch in the gut, so you’re still trying to recover from that,” Gowe said. “Then, to find out you’re a different ethnicity, it just completely throws you for a loop.”
Second-generation Asian Americans are already challenged to find their identity as their parents’ culture clashes with that of their peers. But for Gowe to discover that he belonged to neither strained him mentally.
This strain didn’t last, though. Within the next few years, Gowe became a Christian and grew secure with his identity as well as his adoption.
Gowe’s family had told him that his biological mother conceived him at 18 and was subsequently abandoned by her boyfriend. She still chose to give birth and put him up for adoption.
“I step in her shoes,” Gowe said, “and I’m thinking, ‘As an 18-year-old, living in a super-conservative country like Korea, how easy would it have been to just get an abortion, to not carry it around and no one would know?’ But to physically carry a child out of wedlock, to receive that kind of shame from the family or from whoever, to still be able to deliver a child healthfully and, then on top of that, to be able to give that child away, to me, that takes a lot of courage, strength and love.”
When Kollaboration, a prominent showcase for Asian-Pacific Islanders, came to Seattle in 2010, Gowe rapped his way to the final round, where he knew exactly what he would perform.
“In my mind,” Gowe said, “I thought, ‘If this is the last time that I get to perform, or if this is going to be the biggest audience that I get to perform in front of, I really want to perform this song that’s dedicated to my biological mother.’”
Gowe performed the song “I Wonder,” his first expression of his adoption to anyone outside of his family. He created many fans with his performance, but the judges named singer Erin Kim the winner. Months later, Gowe asked Kim to sing the hook of the song, which Gowe released a music video for on Mother’s Day 2011.
Several videographers had approached him about helping with the video after witnessing his performance, and numerous news outlets promoted the video upon its release to help Gowe find his mother. He has yet to meet her, but an official search in South Korea is taking place.
Gowe’s emotion-stirring song earned him a following, but it wasn’t his last surge of new fans.
He also collaborated with Kim to make a promo track for Kollaboration 2011. Listeners loved the snippet of the song so much that they pleaded with the artists to release a full version. Fans personally funded the completion of “Star in My Eyes,” and the music video dropped a month after “I Wonder.”
This video performed just as impressively as the previous one, both accumulating over 300,000 views over time.
In October of that year, Gowe met AMP members Sam Ock, J. Han and CL for the first time at a concert in California. They stayed in touch, and a couple more hit music videos later — including the video game-themed “Aurora,” which was featured on IGN — AMP signed Gowe in 2014 after it launched the record label Good Fruit Co.
“We think he’s a great artist,” CL said. “He’s definitely creative, the way that he writes. We really like his music, but I think more so than that, we definitely value doing things with integrity, excellence and just being faithful to what God has given us, so watching Gowe grow over the years, I feel like we’re on the same page about that.”
This “faithfulness” is apparent off the mic, but on it, Gowe isn’t as overt — refusing to intentionally “sprinkle the name of Jesus” in his music.
“I never brand myself as a Christian hip-hop artist,” he said.
Unlike most artists who claim this, though, Christian hip-hop fans do not make up the vast majority of his fan base, much of which was built through the hit songs above. His first performance at a church was last fall on the Fearless Tour with AMP and MC Jin, among others.
“You don’t have to be a Christian to know what love and pain feels like,” Gowe said. “From the very beginning, my motive in creating music has always been to share the news of Jesus Christ. That is my absolute be-all and end-all. That is the reason I live. But for me, I’m really big on building personal, emotional bridges. I feel like if you could create music that other people can relate to on a heart level, it gives you a lot more leverage and impact in terms of the things that you say.”
Sam Ock said he couldn’t tell that Gowe was a Christian when he first heard the “Star in My Eyes” promo for Kollaboration, but he eventually heard through word of mouth. After all, Ock said, it’s difficult to interact with Gowe and not see his faith, which is the heart behind his latest album Music Beautiful — regardless of his Jesus-per-minute rate.
“[Gowe] seeks to make his listeners challenge their core values a lot,” Ock said, “which is I think something that Christians generally tend to do — try and point to deeper things in order to have the platform to point people to Christ.”
Whether or not he was pointing enough people to Christ was one of the numerous burdens that Gowe wrestled with while crafting Music Beautiful. He also contemplated how long he should continue to make music and got transparent about a failed relationship, the latter of which he does on his lead single “Lavender.”
“Most secular artists, I feel like there’s this image that is often portrayed of superiority or elitism,” Gowe said. “In my music, I try to really hard not just show the things that I’m strong in, but also my weaknesses and vulnerabilities because it’s in those times that we’re able to grow.”
Music Beautiful just dropped on Monday, but Gowe is already working on his next project. And if he were to finally reunite with his mother by the time it’s released, HeeSun Lee, who is featured on the second single of Music Beautiful “Take Me Home,” believes the artist who Gowe has become would make her proud.
“I think she’d be proud to know that was her son,” Lee said. “It would be shocking for her to see him doing music, but shocking in a good way.”