Standing up on this Coachella set and the community that made it possible
Hikaru Utada emerged from a puff of smoke Coachella Stage. They started straight away with their hit “Simple and Clean” from the beloved Kingdom Hearts Soundtrack. Between Rich Brian and Jackson Wang, the Japanese pop superstar performed her biggest hits, from “First Love” to “Automatic.” It was a surreal moment for anyone who grew up listening to Utada and wanted to see her live.
Utada’s first performance at a music festival was certainly enough to make history, but shortly thereafter, CL and the rest of K-pop girl group 2NE1 reunited, sending fans into collective madness and the internet crying.
This was orchestrated behind the scenes by Sean Miyashiro, the aspiring founder and CEO of 88, who likened the process of putting everything together to a “summer camp.” The label’s ensemble slot, Head in the Clouds Forever, aimed to bring together Asian artists of the past, present and future to provide an insight into what they 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, it was pretty trippy getting to Utada,” Miyashiro recalls. “[Utada’s] not really in the public eye and is very basic 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 any questions and was always just downstairs to discuss how we could celebrate [them].”
Speaking to VICE, Utada mentioned that jumping on board was practically a no-brainer, citing Miyashiro’s “passion, spirit, and good intentions” as the main reason for joining. Utada’s Coachella appearance was her first public appearance in over three years, and it wasn’t without its difficulties.
“It was a great learning experience because [physical] environment and I didn’t really know what to expect or what was going to happen. But during the preparations I heard people’s stories about my songs, how old they were when they first heard them and what it meant to them. I found it a bit overwhelming and at the same time very humbling,” Utada said.
88rising’s figurehead, Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, is also shaken by his biggest performance to date.
“It took a long time to mentally prepare for this, and having that much time makes things even more nerve-wracking because, you know, it’s building up as this big thing that I’m going to do,” he told VICE. “But surprisingly, it was a really pleasant experience: people flew in from Indonesia and also watched the live stream, which was just a crazy moment.”
Eager to please those who tuned in to see how he represented the homeland, the 22-year-old rapper performed “New Tooth,” with a picture of Jakarta’s national monument starring on the big screen.
Rich Brian said he was blown away by the positive response he received as he got off the stage and scrolled through social media. Even a government official compared his work to what BTS and Blackpink have achieved for South Korea.
Although he says it’s a “crazy, crazy standard” to adhere to, it’s an opinion shared by many around the world. For this reason, it’s normal to find artists like him on pedestals: who are expected to portray themselves as representing their people and culture, or to focus their entire work on where they come from and what they do have gone through. But 88rising has a different approach to their craft.
“We always talk about how our way of changing perceptions 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 put out things that make you feel a certain way.”
“We always talk about how our way of changing perceptions is to be undeniably good at what we do.”
Rich Brian agreed, explaining that while heavily influenced by his Indonesian upbringing and worldview, his songwriting doesn’t prioritize the country’s particular styles and beats.
“There are times when I tap into the music from Indonesia that inspires me, but it would feel strange to force our unique elements into my work just for the sake of representation. I don’t want to overthink my art.”
Rather than positioning themselves as idols speaking for or on behalf of their audience, 88rising seeks to show what can be achieved when one is in a community of equally talented Asian artists.
Most, if not all, members of the team are familiar, to some degree, with the feeling of being an outsider: between cultures, striving to create their own unique space, but lacking role models in the media they consume.
Utada, for example, grew up in a very international environment, constantly commuting between the United States and Japan.
“My understanding of Japanese society and culture is a mixture of direct influence and input as an outsider viewing and studying Japan,” they said. “It has endowed me with a universal language and given me a wonderful perspective that allowed me to see myself from the outside. But I never felt like I was 100 percent worthy of claiming to be Japanese enough to represent her and her people.”
Meanwhile, Rich Brian immersed himself in all things American from a young age, initially struggling to find both a path for his ever-growing love of hip-hop and a place in Western culture.
“I remember being in Indonesia and watching la la country for the first time and cried because I believed so strongly in following your dreams. I was in a situation where I hadn’t achieved 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 recalled.
But since joining 88rising, Rich Brian has felt significantly less alone with fellow Indonesians NIKI and Warren Hue than some of his most frequent co-writers and closest friends.
“Working with Asian people in this music industry where it’s very rare to find people like us really inspires me,” he said. “Whenever I see someone from the same background, it’s always nice to have that conversation with them where we can share our experiences and just ask each other how we’re feeling and immediately know and understand where we’re coming from. “
Utada, on the other hand, has always found it difficult to share her creative process as a soloist who sees her 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 experiences so far, my Asian attitude has mostly been held in my face in an awkward way. But being with the brilliant people who were part of that set made me more in touch with who I am,” they said.
“In my experiences so far, my Asian attitude has mostly been held in my face in an awkward way. But being around the brilliant people who were part of that set made me feel more in touch with who I am.”
“I remember this one dancer who was part of the Beyonce performance at Coachella saying she was told to shut down her Asians because [all the back-up dancers] had to adapt… But this was the first time she was proud and natural of who she is. I guess a lot of others felt that was part of this project.”
Both artists credit Miyashiro and his “ghost” with this unique culture they proudly participate in, a culture that relies on collaboration as the foundation of their creativity and more like family than anything else. When asked if he intends to eschew the typical bureaucratic style of Asian CEOs, Miyashiro said that it’s natural given how 88rising was established in the first place.
“I worked on this concept every day in this little Dunkin’ Donuts, not knowing what was going to happen in the next 30 minutes, what was going to happen even more the next day. The core of everything [coming together] is magical, and I think it’s my job to protect that magic: make sure all these other forces don’t get in the way of why we started and what mentality we had when we started,” Miyashiro said.
In fact, he’s so careful not to lose what ego and pride he’s built that he said he avoids using “hierarchical” and “business” terms at all. First off, he hates saying he signs artists to his label.
“Instead, I just want to say that I work with people I like and are inspired by. If I feel like we can nurture their creative vision, that’s great.”
That goes for everyone, including their newest recruits. All team members have the opportunity to learn from and work together. case study: “T,” Utada’s latest single features 88rising’s freshest face, 19-year-old Warren Hue.
Staying true to that ethos can be difficult when solid names can mean simple, 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 crew.
“I’d rather have a really long-term connection, a real friendship, together. I can proudly say that about every single artist on the Coachella stage. These are the homies. They all love each other and are around each other. That’s where it is,” he said.
Today they run one of the biggest festivals in the world; tomorrow they could be the soundtrack or even star in our next favorite movie. Anything seems possible for the team that keeps their feet on the ground and their heads in the clouds.