last month, a Marvel movie arrived that challenged and changed who gets to dominate the silver screen. Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings – an all-Asian production – gave Asian actors space to be heroes instead of stereotype-stricken villains and put star Simu Liu (who plays Shang-Chi) in the role of a heartthrob instead of relegating him to being the butt of Hollywood’s “jokes”.
It was only fitting that the movie – which emphatically smashed all box office expectations, bringing almost $200m (£146m), and had the largest opening day of the pandemic-era in the UK – came backed with a soundtrack powered by Asian and Asian-American artists. Masterminded by Sean Miyashiro, founder and CEO of label and media company 88rising, it featured top artists signed to his imprint (NIKI, Rich Brian, Warren Hue), Asian acts doing their own thing (like Korea’s DPR Live and DPR Ian), and big names from the West like EarthGang, Rick Ross and 21 Savage.
Next month, 88rising’s California music festival Head In The Clouds – which was so pivotal for it and its artists in 2018 – will return, serving as a melting pot for some of those countries and cultures. Joji, NIKI and Rich Brian will headline, alongside rapper Saweetie and iconic K-pop soloist CL.
Although Miyashiro wasn’t officially enlisted by Marvel until 2019, he reckons the 2018 Pasadena festival sealed the deal for the 88 team. The cast and crew of Shang-Chi all came down to the event, which featured acts such as Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, Japanese R&B singer Joji, Indonesian singer-songwriter NIKI and more, to see what the label was about. “It’s a day I would love to relive all the time,” Miyashiro says.
“There were 20,000 kids just freaking out and being so proud to share this experience together, and then I saw Simu Liu side of stage.” He can’t remember who was playing at the time, but whoever it was had whipped the crowd up into a frenzy of “jumping, hands in the air, smoke and dust flying everywhere”.
He adds: “Simu was looking out into the crowd and I could just tell he was hypnotised. I could tell he really saw the people that he would be representing – he saw his future in that moment.” The label boss didn’t dare interrupt such a special moment for him, not least because, he jokes, “he might have done one of his Shang-Chi moves”.
In the interim, though, Miyashiro gave up hopes of soundtracking the Shang-Chi project, until a year later Marvel got back in touch and gave him the green light. “They told us, ‘You guys are perfect; you have the perfect vision at heart’,” he shares. “They wanted to represent a global Asian youth experience and that’s something I really take pride in. From day one, I wanted to represent a more broad, global mindset.”
In 2021, Marvel is about as big as it gets in terms of American culture – there are few things that draw a more passionate and sizeable audience. For the artists involved in the Shang-Chi soundtrack, it’s not just a career milestone but also the kind of representation that Asian communities have not been allowed to be a part of previously.
“I do think that Asian people have wanted this for a really long time,” NIKI says. “To see themselves in a Marvel movie, it’s just historic. It’s just empowering to see these people tell the story. To be a part of this historic moment in Western cinema is super gratifying, validating and exciting.”
Warren Hue, 19-year-old Indonesian rapper and singer and one of 88’s latest signings, agrees that both Shang-Chi and the label are doing their bit to push Asian talent out of tired, racist stereotypes and given the recognition they deserve. But there’s still work to be done, he says: “I feel like it’s starting to grow, but we’re always gonna reach for the next level. Shang-Chi was great for not only me but the label and just the craziest opportunity ever, but we’re gonna keep on building.”
Since its formation in 2015 as a video production company that slowly morphed into a record label, 88rising has become one of the most trusted names in independent music when it comes to both quality and cool. Miyashiro’s aims at the start were a lot simpler than the journey the label has gone on since. “It was really just YouTube,” he laughs. “How do we create a channel to consistently upload something that we like?”
That question is still at the core of what 88rising is about: “celebrating Asian creatives from around the world,” as the CEO puts it. What they can do to celebrate those acts has just grown in scope from what Miyashiro initially envisioned.
Regardless of an artist’s ethnicity, though, they’ll only get the coveted 88 co-sign if the team likes what they’re producing. For the label’s boss, what he looks for comes down to “a feeling”. He uses the Japanese girl group Atarashii Gakko! to illustrate what that is. When he came across the group and first watched their videos and “the way they perform”, he was struck by how unique they were.
“When things are one of a kind and there’s nothing else like it, those are the best feelings when you come across something like that,” he reasons. Being singular isn’t the only requirement to be signed by 88rising though. As well as the music needing to be up to scratch, artists need to know who they are and what they’re about. “We don’t typically work with artists that we have to do so much heavy lifting in terms of building their story versus their story already being identified. We’re just there as support to expand that.”
In 2017, NIKI signed with the label and released two singles ‘See You Never’ and ‘I Like U’ that year. She was introduced to the team by labelmate Rich Brian, who was one of their first signees and was immediately struck by how “tight-knit” the company felt. “Everyone was friends with everyone,” she recalls. “It felt like a family. It wasn’t very intimidating – in the best way.”
“No matter what opportunities we get, We just try to be our authentic selves” – Sean Miyashiro
Hue also points to the community spirit of the label as one of its many plus points. “Being able to work with people like Rich Brian is a dream for me,” he says. “Everyone’s just super talented, nice, humble people and I love working with them.”
For Miyashiro, that 88rising has that family feel is important, but isn’t something he’s forced. To have it come naturally, he reckons, stems from part of the label’s ethos – “to try and remember where we came from”. “No matter what opportunities we get, if we’re making a soundtrack for a blockbuster film or a historical moment, we always [need to be] incredibly down to earth,” he reasons. “We just try to be our authentic selves.”
Miyashiro might play down his role in that spirit, but his artists note that his hands-on, helpful approach to running the label elevates the sense of family. “He’s very open and accepting,” NIKI says. “He gives us total creative control and he’s been everybody’s number one supporter. It’s good vibes only when you start with 88.”
Part of the label’s close-knit bonds manifests in its artists jumping on each other’s tracks – on the Shang-Chi soundtrack alone, there’s a staggering amount of collaboration. “Those songs I find to be the most precious,” its founder says of watching his signings join forces. “When you listen to it, the artists just did that – they hooked up on their own and sent things back and forth. I think fans really love that and we have so many songs of artists doing stuff together – be it fully fleshed out ideas or full projects – we’re waiting to get out.”
When those songs do get released, it’s likely that they will play a role in 88rising’s ongoing part in the current cultural sea change – from K-pop and Korean Netflix smash Squid Game to the continued rise of Latin-pop – that’s challenging the idea that West is best. To be involved in that movement is “amazing”, Miyashiro says: “The reason why we started is that there wasn’t a firm place to even have these artists be visible. I’m really proud of what we’ve done, but there’s such a generation of creators now that are so inspired and they’re the people who are gonna push everything forward.”
The most important thing at the heart of what Miyashiro does is trying to bring people together. He points to music as something that can be an incredibly powerful tool to do not just that, but also open up listeners’ worlds. “NIKI, Warren and [Rich] Brian are all from Jakarta,” he begins. “As an Asian-American, I obviously know of Indonesia, but I don’t know anything beyond the surface. I don’t know what the food tastes like, I don’t know what the streets of the city look like. Through music, people can start to understand a lot of different cultures and countries and that’s what’s beautiful about it.”
“To see a lot of Asian people in one place at Head In The Clouds is just really cool” – NIKI
And next month’s Head In The Clouds festival will serve as both a showcase for and a celebration of all things 88rising. “It feels like coming home for me,” NIKI says, reflecting on the last time she played there in 2018. “And to see a lot of Asian people in one place at one festival is just really cool. It really feels like somewhere where you belong.”
For Hue, the weekender will mark his first performance. “It’s an insane show to start with,” he says. “I haven’t experienced it yet, but I’m really excited. I’m expecting [to make] more friends and [have] more opportunities after [playing].”
In the future, Miyashiro is plotting to expand Head In The Clouds and establish it in five different countries. “We definitely want to go to London and do something larger because we think that’ll be fire,” he says excitedly.
As 88rising continues to ascend, though, he aims to keep the label’s goals true to its roots and continue to do what they’ve already been doing. “We take great pride and excitement when we’re able to push talent, especially from other countries that don’t have a presence in music outside of their country,” he explains. “If we stick to our plan, we’re going to be the biggest Asian music company in the world – maybe not from a money perspective, but what matters is from an impact perspective. We’re gonna be the ones to do it and it’s gonna be dope.”
– 88rising’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings is available to stream now. Head In The Clouds 2021 will take place on November 6-7 at Brookside at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA