His name is Jin — short for Jin Auyeung.
But as a high-schooler in Miami, he was better known as “the Chinese kid who raps,” a reputation he’s developed after frequenting local talent shows and rap competitions.
In 2004, at 22, he became the first Asian-American to release a solo rap album on a major label in the U.S.
Almost a decade later, Jin, now 30, has sold thousands of records, won awards and even acted in TV shows and movies — not in America, but in Hong Kong.
After a failed career at home in the U.S., the Chinese-American rapper found an unexpected second chance at stardom on the other side of the world.
The ‘Elephant In The Room’
The American-born son of Chinese immigrants, Jin says he remembers sticking out as a teenager growing up in Miami in the late 1990s.
“There was the inevitable elephant in the room [at local rap competitions],” he says. “Everybody’s like, ‘Hold up, hold up! That Chinese kid is going to go on stage and rap?’”
In 2002, after moving with his family to New York City, Jin hit the national stage with live appearances on BET’s music-video countdown show 106 & Park.
For seven consecutive weeks, he dominated the program’s “Freestyle Friday” rap battles, fending off his challengers’ ethnic insults with rapid-fire retorts like:
“Yeah, I’m Chinese / Now you understand it / I’m the reason that his little sister’s eyes are slanted / If you make one joke about race or karate / NYPD be in Chinatown searching for your body.”
His success led to his signing with the hip-hop label Ruff Ryders Entertainment as the first mainstream Asian-American rapper. It set the entertainment world abuzz.
“I thought I was heading to the moon,” Jin says. “Everybody was writing about me. I’m appearing on ESPN. I was in movies [and on] Entertainment Tonight. And I allowed myself to believe that ‘I’m here!’ “
In reality, “here” wasn’t what Jin had in mind. There was a two-year delay before his debut album, The Rest Is History, was finally released in 2004, and it peaked at No. 54 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
“The reception and the album sales just did not live up to the hype,” he says.
Breaking Down Doors
Most of the media hype over Jin’s debut focused on his ethnicity, a topic Jin addressed head-on with his first single, “Learn Chinese.” The track begins with, “Yeah, I’m Chinese, and what?” and later declares, “The days of the pork fried rice and the chicken wings coming to your house by me is over.”
Jeff Chang, a former music journalist and author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, sees Jin as an Asian-American pioneer in mainstream hip-hop, which, he says, may have been why Jin’s career failed to take off.
“Oftentimes, history isn’t kind to the people who break down the doors,” says Chang, who now runs Stanford University’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts. “Jin was trying to basically break the old mold of Asian-Americans being sort of kung fu artists or the folks who kind of stood in the background to play the supporting role. And so it might have simply been a case of Jin being there too early.”
Chang says Jin may have also been too late, starting his career at the tail end of hip-hop’s dominance of pop music in America.
As for Jin’s own theory about what went wrong, he points to one main factor: the music.
“The album [The Rest Is History] lacked direction,” Jin says, “because at that time, I didn’t have direction in my life.”
Finding A New Direction
It took a few years before Jin found a direction that would restart his career. It happened unexpectedly after he released a rap album in Cantonese, the Chinese dialect he grew up speaking with his parents.
Jin named the album ABC — not after the alphabet, but shorthand for “American-born Chinese” like himself. The album’s lyrics often touch on what it means to be an “ABC,” an outsider both in mainstream American society and in the Chinese community.
Jin says he’d thought about recording a Cantonese album for a long time. But he always brushed off the idea, until 2007, when it seemed like his career had stalled completely.
He originally planned to release the album as a small independent project in the U.S. But a few months after ABC‘s U.S. release, record executives at Universal Music Hong Kong came calling. They saw an opportunity for Jin to tap into Hong Kong’s growing Cantonese hip-hop scene, so they re-released ABC locally in 2008.
“I went out [to Hong Kong and] three months turned into six months, six months turned into a year, a year turned into two, to three,” Jin says, “and I’ve been there for four years now.”
Becoming A ‘Full-On Entertainer’
Known there as “MC Jin,” Jin has become a household name in Hong Kong — and not just for his rapping skills, according to Ben Sin, a journalist who covers music there.
“I see him on TV shows and movies a lot, so he’s completely branched out, like most Hong Kong celebrities, into just a full-on entertainer,” Sin says. “He’s not just a rapper anymore.”
In addition to receiving accolades for his music, Jin even won an award in 2011 for “most improved actor” from Hong Kong’s top television station, TVB, for his roles in TV dramas and hosting gigs.
Sin says Jin’s relatively smooth entry into Hong Kong’s entertainment world is partly due to the significant influence hip-hop still has on Asian pop music. Jin’s past experience in American hip-hop brought a sense of authenticity to Hong Kong’s local scene.
“I think the fact that he competed in rap competitions with black people was a big selling point [when Jin was first introduced to the Hong Kong audience],” Sin says. “[TV programs] were just showing clips of it and cut back to reactions of Hong Kong people going like, ‘Oh my god! He was rapping with black people!’ So it was a bit playing into the stereotype at first.”
Back To America
Now, at 30, recently married and a new father, Jin has come home, back to the U.S., ready to tackle another stereotype — the “has-been musician.”
He recently released a new English-language EP called Brand New Me, which he hopes will reintroduce him to an American audience. He is working on a full-length English-language album, tentatively titled Hypocrite.
Last year, Jin also put out a free album of faith-based music called Crazy Love Ridiculous Faith. It’s yet another reinvention for the rapper, who’s now eager to share his new identity as a born-again Christian.
“You know, I’m conveying and proclaiming, ‘You know what? This is where I’m at. This is where my mindset is,’ ” says Jin — the Chinese kid who raps and is all grown up.