Today, when we think of today’s example of Asians in Western music, our minds jump to either K-Pop or 88rising--which is highly reasonable. We recognize names like BTS and Joji because of how much they have contributed towards Asian representation in American media. However, a face that some Americans are criminally unfamiliar with is Jin Au-Yeong, more famously known as “MC Jin”. Jin rose to fame around 2002 after his appearance on a BET program. Back in the early 2000s, seeing Asian representation in the American music industry was almost unheard of. As a pioneer of Asian American rappers, MC Jin changed the game that arguably now allows modern Asian artists to thrive in.
Jin was born in Miami, Florida after his parents had emigrated from Hong Kong. There, his family opened a Chinese restaurant where he would busy himself listening to the radio and watching MTV. Around the age of 13, he slowly developed an interest in music, specifically hip-hop. Despite his love for multiple genres of music, he admits in an interview with the CGTN, “The one thing I can’t explain is that for some reason, hip-hop was the one that pulled me in.” By 16, rapping was not only an interest, but a prospective profession for Jin. After he graduated from high school, his family moved out to New York where his rapping career began, and by 19 Jin would perform his original work on the streets, in the clubs, and at any opportunity that he could find.
In 2002, MC Jin was given the chance to move from the small stage to national television. He was invited onto BET’s 106 & Park and participated in their weekly segment “Freestyle Friday”, a competition where rappers are given 30 seconds to perform a freestyle on the spot. Walking up to perform, there was one thing apparent about him: he was Asian.
Jin told NPR in an interview, “There was the inevitable elephant in the room [at local rap competitions]. Everybody’s like, ‘Hold up, hold up! That Chinese kid is going to go on stage and rap?’” In just his first Freestyle Friday battle, he impressed the audience and judges after beating 6-week champion Hassan, disproving any doubt they had of him. MC Jin continues to dumbfound the crowd after every appearance using his witty retorts and confident style.
Jin’s second rap battle was possibly his most iconic. His opponent, Sterling, like many others, took the low opportunity to poke at Jin’s race. Sterling mocked, “You acting like I ain’t the one / Why you got me battling Bruce Lee’s grandson / I’m a star, he just a rookie / Leave rap alone and keep making fortune cookies.” Instead of discouraging him like Sterling intended, the insults just fueled Jin’s spite. Once it was his turn, Jin responds to Sterling nonchalantly, “You wanna say I’m Chinese son, here’s a reminder / Check your Timbs, they prolly say ‘Made in China’.” With that sharp comeback, MC Jin made the crowd and judges go crazy, letting America have its first taste of “beast meets west”.
Jin continues to win a streak of 7 rap battles before his name was officially established into the Freestyle Friday Hall of Fame. Right after this major accomplishment, he continues to impress the public with his announcement of signing with Ruff Ryders Entertainment. At this point, he becomes the first Asian American to get signed to a major record label. MC Jin goes on to release his debut single “Learn Chinese” which charted 74 on Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop, and later came out with his first album “The Rest is History”, which reached rank 54 on U.S. Billboard Top 200 Albums. He even played in major Hollywood hit “2 Fast 2 Furious”, and contributed to the production of the movie’s soundtracks. It is evident that his accomplishments were ahead of his time, though some believe it hurt Jin more than it helped him. Music critic Jeff Chang observes, “Jin was trying to basically break the mold of Asian Americans being sort of the kung fu artists or the folks who...played the supporting role. And so it might have been a case of Jin being there too early.”
Jin, on the other hand, believed that he lacked direction in both his album and life which led to an ‘anticlimactic’ career.
After Jin left Ruff Ryders in 2006, he managed to keep a low profile while still pursuing his passion for music. He eventually began a career in Hong Kong as an artist, actor, and a celebrity icon. MC Jin was featured in popular Chinese variety shows such as ‘The Rap of China’ and ‘Idol Producer’, but he has also returned onto American programs such as MTV’s Wild ‘n Out. Despite Jin’s major accomplishments, he remains true and humble. MC Jin now continues his career both in America and in China balancing his art, family, and media presence. When discussing his Asian identity, Jin stresses its importance, especially in hip hop culture. In an interview with YouTuber duo ‘The Fung Bros’, he tells them, “It’s a matter of finding that balance…of where you do embrace it [your identity], [and] you do acknowledge it, but [you] don’t let that define you all the way.” Jin continues to emphasize the idea of balancing your identity with your art in an interview with Chinese media outlet RADII stating, “Yes I am an Asian artist, but I don’t want to be just a dope Asian artist. I’d love to be recognized for my art as well, as opposed to, ‘Oh yeah, he’s pretty dope for an Asian.’”
When talking about Asian American artists in the western music industry, it would be a crime to not acknowledge MC Jin’s influence. Jin’s work broke down doors for today’s Asian Americans, allowing America to see the true potential that Asian Americans have. Jin worked unashamed and relentless, putting down every stereotype along his way.
Today, we now have amazing artists like Rich Brian releasing songs confidently stating, “B***h hello, don’t fight the feeling ‘cause I’m yellow.” But we should remember that it all began with MC Jin’s unapologetic, “Yeah I’m Chinese, so what.”
Author: Quynhnghi Tran
DeclarASIAN Blog Contributor