Maryland-based rapper J. Han made time to chat about his debut album last month as he attended the White House Summit on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).
At the summit, over 2,000 AAPI influencers from across the world joined Cabinet Officials and Administration leaders in Washington, D.C. to examine economic growth, education, healthcare, civil rights and immigration issues.
J. Han received an invitation to the event with his rap group, AMP, which is formed by three second-generation Korean Americans. AMP had missed previous summits because of concerts but made a point to participate this year.
“We didn’t realize that being activists, being involved with policy and caring for the greater Asian-American population was something for us,” J. Han said. “But with the platform that God has given us, we can’t deny that, for some reason, God is using us and people around us to be a voice for Asian Americans, specifically Christians.
“We’re definitely the least qualified to be here. We’ve done no public policy — nothing. We just make music.”
Feeling out of place is commonplace for J. Han — music included. When people ask him what he does, his answer — rap — is typically returned by startled looks.
“Oh yeah,” someone who did not believe him laughed, “and I’m a clown.”
J. Han may not look like a rapper, but he wonders if Christian hip-hop listeners even want him to sound like one.
Many of AMP’s most popular songs sound melodious and worshipful. J. Han can carry a tune, but he went a different, edgier route with his single “Han Solo,” track No. 6 of his album Tower Ivory, which dropped in May.
“When ‘Han Solo’ came out, I just saw some of the comments. I guess criticism sticks out more than encouragement, right?” J. Han said. “Some people were just like, ‘Don’t try to copy people. Be yourself.’
“I vibe with that, thank you. That’s awesome advice, and I welcome constructive criticism and feedback. But a part of me is wondering … for me, hip hop is in my blood. Yeah, I’m not black, and I didn’t necessarily grow up with [hip hop] in elementary school, but middle school and high school, that was my life. That was my language. I don’t know if me wanting to rap a little more or be a little more edgy is something that throws people off.”
In this uncomfortable space, growing pains became the theme of Tower Ivory. To be “in an ivory tower” is an idiom which means that one exists somewhere removed from the realities of life. On his album, J. Han aimed to remove himself from any sort of ivory tower and face his insecurities.
One of those insecurities was about his platform.
J. Han, along with AMP and their record label, Good Fruit Co., have grown into a prominent, Asian-American voice — as evidence of their invitation to the aforementioned White House Summit. To say they never imagined gaining this much influence would be cliché. However, it’s who they’re speaking for that surprises them the most.
“When we started AMP in 2010, our vision was, ‘We want to worship God and make great music,’ but we didn’t necessarily know who are audience was,” J. Han said. “But as we started doing more music with AMP, we started realizing, ‘Whoa, there’s a big need for an Asian-American voice in the Christian community.’”
The void, J. Han explained, is for someone to address the clash of second-generation, Asian Americans’ eastern culture with western Christianity. Growing up, he witnessed cultural preferences trump biblical principles in church. No one in pop culture spoke to those issues, though.
Today, one of the artists who shoulders this unique burden is 24 years old, lives with his parents, grew up in a culture that can look down on musicians and has a sound that is atypical to his genre of music. And he did not fully comprehend his platform until last year at the Grant Mint Festival in Seoul, South Korea, where he performed in front of a crowd so large that he couldn’t see where it ended. This crowd shared his ethnicity, and, at a secular event, congregated to hear his group perform worship music.
“It’s scary — really scary,” J. Han said. “I didn’t ask for this.”
On the same trip as Grand Mint, AMP performed at several churches, including one with a membership of over 60,000. This is why Chad Horton, director of marking for their distributor, Syntax Creative, encouraged them to focus on their Asian audience — they have access to masses that no one else in Christian hip hop has.
J. Han may have not tried to be a leader, but he’s emerged as one. And Tower Ivory is the soundtrack to his emergence.