Rapper Jason Chu talks music, activism, and the Asian American experience

By Jen Warner

A portrait of Jason Chu courtesy of his website.

 “We don’t get active about racial issues or gender inequalities out of hatred, anger, or rage at oppression. We do it out of love for the community,” said rapper Jason Chu in a recent Zoom conversation with DCCC participants. “We do it because there are things to learn and ways to help out and, in the end, there is a better society to be envisioned. That’s where the music comes in.”

This was the heart of Chu’s message in a virtual seminar held by the college on April 15. Chu was interviewed by DCCC’s chief diversity & inclusion officer Simuelle Myers via Zoom in the presence of more than 20 students, administrative staff and faculty members.

Chu is a hip-hop artist and an activist who uses music to share his deep knowledge of history, his lived experiences as a Chinese American, and his ideas on improvements for those who are marginalized in America.

According to his website, he’s led workshops and participated as an expert on Asian American identity and hip-hop culture in speaking engagements at the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, New York University, Yale University, and more. 

Jason Chu called in from his home in L.A. to converse with the faculty, staff and students of DCCC. | Photo by Jen Warner.

The hour-long conversation began with an interview between Myers and Chu and ended with a live performance of two of his new songs, titled “New Eyes” and “Honor” respectively. 

Myers opened the discussion by giving Chu the virtual floor to talk about his work and current projects.

Chu shared his recent achievement of having his music appear on TNT’s show “Snowpiercer” and HBO’s show “Warrior.”

“I love the fact that the music that I do gets to be this thing that bridges entertainment and performance with history and culture.” 

– Jason Chu

He shared his desire to perform in a way that leaves his audiences feeling not just entertained but educated in the ways people can make the world a better, healthier, more connected place.

Myers asked Chu to elaborate on how heritage has shaped his artwork.

Chu first expressed his gratitude for hip-hop culture. He credited black and brown people for first using the art form to share their lived experiences in 1970’s New York, which would eventually shape his passion for the craft.

“Growing up, hip-hop was the first place that I found people who were smart, knew history, knew community, knew culture, and didn’t use it in a way to ingratiate themselves with a dominant culture,” Chu said.

Chu shared that it was hip-hop that taught him how to move through the world with resilience and creativity as a person of color with a specific story to tell.

That story began with Chu’s parents, who were both born in Asia and who raised Chu within the views and values of Chinese culture.

Being raised as a Chinese American, Chu talked about the time and work it took to arrive at a place where he understands both his own journey, and the journey of the Asian American movement.

“The more I learn about it the prouder I am, so when I call myself an Asian American, I’m very much identifying with this 50-year movement that has had a lot of successes and a lot of setbacks,” Chu said.

Myers later pivoted to the role of activism in Chu’s artistry. 

“America has always politicized race,” Chu explained. “From its inception, race in America was a legal qualifier that dictated what you could legally do.”

Chu cited an example from the late 1800’s in which a white man killed a Chinese man in front of only Chinese witnesses. As per Chu, the judge ultimately ruled that a Chinese man’s testimony could not convict a white man.

Chu said that he’s spent much of his life deep diving into these examples in history in an effort to understand what has happened to marginalized people in America, and what society can do to improve those experiences. 

“We can’t gloss over what’s being done to women, to queer folks, to trans folks, to different groups of people of color, or anybody who is distal to power, because it’s not good,” Chu said. “But for me, so much of activism is about bringing to the table a vision for what could be done better.” 

In Chu’s experience, connecting with the masses through his music allows him to share that vision in the most broad and meaningful way.

“Music and arts have such a way of teaching without teaching and of speaking without preaching,” Chu said. “I very much see my music as a way to naturally introduce my activist principles.”

Next, Myers and Chu reflected on the impact of recent events, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the presidential election, and the protests following the murder of George Floyd, on Chu’s life and art.

“On top of a year consisting of a public health disaster and a political regime change, we also had a year of racial awakening,” Chu said.

He used the word “awakening” to communicate that the acts of racism that took place in the last year are not new, but rather more evident to those not on the receiving end who are just now starting to notice and become angry.

“A lot of this was already simmering in marginalized communities, and last year it bubbled over and became evident to people outside of those communities,” Chu emphasized. “It’s not that anything has changed; people are just more aware.”

An overview of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism’s report on Anti-Asian hate crimes in America’s largest cities in 2020. | Source: Curated Database by CSHE, drawn from data by policing agencies.

Chu was referring to acts like the separation and deportation of Latinx families, the police brutality against African Americans, and the assaults on Asian Americans.

According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism’s analysis of hate crimes in 2020, hate crimes targeting Asian people in those cities rose by 149% in the 16 largest cities in America.

“In the last year, more people are awakening to some of the Asian American experience, and as tragic as that can be, it’s also beautiful that now our burdens are shared a little more widely,” Chu said. 

In the face of these events, Chu said he strives to perpetuate that awakening through his music and his community service.

Chu began working with the organization Hate Is A Virus which, according to its website, is “a nonprofit community of mobilizers and amplifiers that exists to dismantle racism and hate.”

He will also be releasing new music next month in collaboration with his team and some friends in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Their album titled “Face Value” will educate listeners on Asian American history through the art of hip-hop.

Chu ended the Zoom call with a live performance. He first performed “New Eyes,” followed by “Honor,” which contained a loop of Emmy award winning actress Sandra Oh’s acceptance speech in which she said, “It’s an honor just to be Asian.” 

To learn more about Chu, his music, and his mission, visit http://www.jasonchumusic.com.

Contact Jen Warner at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu.

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