Hikaru Utada emerged from a cloud of smoke on a Coachella stage. They launched straight into their hit “Simple and Clean,” from the beloved Kingdom Hearts soundtrack. Between Rich Brian and Jackson Wang, the Japanese pop superstar performed his greatest hits, from “First Love” to “Automatic.” It was a surreal moment for anyone who grew up listening to Utada and wanted to watch them live.
Utada’s first performance at a music festival was certainly enough to make history, but soon after, CL and then the rest of K-pop girl group 2NE1 got together, which sent fans into a tizzy. a collective frenzy and brought the internet to tears.
Sean Miyashiro, founder and CEO of 88rising, orchestrated this from behind the scenes, who likened the process of putting it all together to a “summer camp”. “Head in the Clouds Forever”, the label’s ensemble performance slot, aimed to bring together Asian artists from the past, present and future to give a glimpse of what they had to offer. The set also included Indonesian rapper Warren Hue, Thai rapper Milli, Korean singer BIBI, Indonesian singer NIKI and K-pop girl group aespa, over the two weekends.
“To be honest, reaching out to Utada was kind of trippy,” Miyashiro recalled. “[Utada’s] not really in the public eye and is very straightforward in terms of what makes [them] happy and how [they] want to live with [their] family. But when we explained what we were trying to do, [they] never asked questions and was always just to chat about how we could celebrate [them].”
During a call with VICE, Utada mentioned that jumping on board was practically a no-brainer, citing Miyashiro’s “passion, vibe and good intentions” as the main reason for joining. Utada’s appearance at Coachella was their first public performance in over three years and was not without its set of challenges.
“It was a great learning experience because of the [physical] environment, and I wasn’t sure what to expect or what was going to happen. But throughout the preparations, I could hear people’s stories about my songs, how old they were when they first heard them and what it meant to them. I felt it was a bit overwhelming and very humiliating at the same time,” Utada said.
88rising’s poster, Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, is also reeling from his biggest gig yet.
“It’s been a really long time to mentally prepare myself for this, and having that much time makes it even more nerve-wracking because, you know, it’s building like this big thing that I’m going to do,” he shared with VICE. “But surprisingly, it was a really nice experience: people flew in from Indonesia and also watched the live stream, which was just a crazy time.”
Keen to please those who watched him represent the homeland, the 22-year-old rapper performed “New Tooth” with a photo of Jakarta’s national monument projected onto the big screen.
Rich Brian said that once he got off stage and scoured social media, he was overwhelmed by the positive response he received. A government official even compared his work to what BTS and Blackpink did for South Korea.
Although he says it’s a “crazy, crazy standard” to live up to, it’s a sentiment shared by many around the world. For this reason, it’s normal to find artists like him on pedestals: expected to behave in a way that represents their people and their culture, or to center all of their work on where they come from and what they crossed. But 88rising takes a different approach to their craft.
“We always talk about how our way of changing perception is to be undeniably good at what we do. That’s our role,” Miyashiro said. “We’re not politicians, we’re artists and creatives, and our job is to post things that make you feel some kind of a feeling.”
“We always talk about how our way of changing perception is to be undeniably good at what we do.”
Rich Brian agreed, explaining that his writing – although heavily influenced by his Indonesian upbringing and worldview – does not prioritize the country’s distinct styles and rhythms.
“There are times when I draw from Indonesian music that inspires me, but it would be weird if I imposed our unique elements on my work just for the sake of representation. I wouldn’t like to think about my art too much.
Instead of positioning themselves as idols speaking for or on behalf of their audience, 88rising seeks to show what can be achieved in a community of equally talented Asian artists.
Most, if not all, of the team members know the feeling of being outsiders, to some extent: between cultures, striving to carve out their own unique space, but lacking role models in the media that ‘they consume.
Utada, for example, grew up in a very international environment, constantly shuttling between the United States and Japan.
“My understanding of Japanese society and culture is a mixture of direct influence as well as contribution as a foreigner watching and studying Japan,” they said. “It endowed me with a universal language and gave me a wonderful perspective that allowed me to see myself from the outside. But I never felt that I was 100% worthy of claiming to be Japanese enough to represent them and their people.
Meanwhile, Rich Brian immersed himself in all things American from an early age and initially struggled to find both an avenue for his ever-growing love for hip-hop and a place in western culture.
“I remember being in Indonesia, watching The Earth for the first time, and I was crying because I believed so much in chasing your dreams. I was in a situation where I couldn’t do it yet and there was always this doubt in the back of my mind like, “What if I’m just dreaming and it’s not going to happen?”, he recalls .
But since joining 88rising, Rich Brian has felt much less alone, with fellow Indonesians NIKI and Warren Hue among his most frequent co-writers and closest friends.
“Working with Asians in this music industry, where it’s very rare to find other people like us, really inspires me,” he said. “Whenever I see someone from the same background, it’s always nice to have this conversation with them where we can share our experiences and just wonder how we feel, and know and understand where we come from, instantly.”
Utada, on the other hand, has always struggled to share his creative process as a soloist who treats his work as an “escape from the rest of the world”. But since opening up a bit more and working with 88rising, Utada has felt a deeper connection to Asia.
“In my previous experiences, my Asianness was usually pushed back in my face in an uncomfortable way. But being around brilliant people who were part of that set made me realize who I am better,” they said.
“In my previous experiences, my Asianness was usually pushed back in my face in an uncomfortable way. But being around the brilliant people who were part of this set gave me a better understanding of who I am.
“I remember this dancer who was part of Beyonce’s performance at Coachella, who said she was told to control her Asianness because [all the back-up dancers] had to fit in… But it was the first time she could feel proud and natural of who she was. I guess many others have felt that way on this project.
Both artists credit Miyashiro and his “spirit” for creating a unique culture they are proud to be a part of, a culture that relies on collaboration as the foundation of their creativity and is more like a family than anything else. When asked if he intended to avoid the bureaucratic style typical of Asian CEOs, Miyashiro said it was something that came naturally, given how 88rising was created in the first place.
“I was working on this concept every day in this little Dunkin’ Donuts, not knowing what was going to happen in the next 30 minutes, what more the next day. The core of it all [coming together] is magic, and I think it’s my job to protect that magic: to make sure that all these other forces don’t get in the way of understanding why we started and what mentality we had at the start,” Miyashiro said.
In fact, he’s so careful not to lose what he’s built for ego and pride that he says he completely avoids using “hierarchical” and “commercial” terms. For starters, he hates to say he signs artists to his label.
“Instead, I just want to say that I work with people I love and who inspire me. If I feel like we can nurture their creative vision, that’s great.
This goes for everyone, even their new recruits. All team members have the opportunity to learn from and work with each other. Case in point: “T,” Utada’s latest single featuring 88rising’s freshest face, 19-year-old Warren Hue.
It can be difficult to stay true to this ethos when titular names can mean easy and instant fame. Miyashiro admitted he’s been approached by stars who have a lot of influence but don’t have the vision he shares with his team.
“I prefer to have a real long-term connection, a real friendship, together. That’s what I can proudly say about every performer on the Coachella stage. These are the friends. They all love each other and hang out. That’s where it’s at,” he said.
Today they headline one of the biggest festivals in the world; tomorrow they might do the soundtrack or even star in our next favorite movie. Everything seems possible for the team, which keeps its feet on the ground and its head in the clouds.
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