Dressed in a black Deus Ex Machina baseball cap, half-zip Nike jacket, and Balenciaga slides (with socks), Sean Miyashiro was hunkered down on an early February afternoon in the common room of his apartment building on New York’s Upper East Side. The 38-year-old cofounder and CEO of the Asian-focused record label and media company 88rising has an actual office in the label’s Chelsea neighborhood headquarters. But he was using this room as a makeshift control center while he and his team met to hash out plans ahead of the annual Coachella music festival, which was scheduled to take place in mid-April. Also, the space made a sleek backdrop for the cameraman who was recording their discussions.
This year, Coachella was planning to hand an entire stage to 88rising, the first time the festival was giving such curatorial control to a label. Miyashiro, who is of Japanese and Korean descent, was planning to bring a number of his label’s hip-hop and R&B artists from around the globe to the California event and fill the stage with interstitial cultural programming. He was also producing a behind-the-scenes documentary about 88rising’s appearance at Coachella, in the vein of Beyoncé’s Homecoming, which aired on Netflix and detailed all the elements of black culture that framed her now-iconic performance. “Our Coachella show,” Miyashiro said as the cameraman steadied a shot, “is trying to celebrate the best of Asian music, yesterday and tomorrow.”
Since it launched, in 2015, 88rising (the 88 is a nod to the Chinese character for double happiness) has become a vital artery connecting Eastern youth culture to Western audiences and beyond. In 2019, its artists—including Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, Japanese R&B star Joji, and the Chengdu, China–based trap group Higher Brothers—generated more than 7 billion streams and 3 billion video views. The label also pulled in more than 20,000 attendees to its music festival, Head in the Clouds, which was held in Los Angeles in August. (Another Head in the Clouds was scheduled to take place in Jakarta, Indonesia, in March, but was postponed due to COVID-19.) Later this year, 88rising will debut its own channel on Sirius XM, becoming the first major Asian radio channel in North America.
Though Coachella is now a dream temporarily deferred—Goldenvoice, the organizer of the annual music festival, has (perhaps optimistically) pushed the event to October. But the postponement has done little to diminish Miyashiro’s Beyoncé-size ambition for his company: to inject Asian artists into mainstream culture. “At the end of the day,” Miyashiro says, “we just want to show the world that Asian people are fire.”
WATCH: How 88rising is moving Asian culture forward
Miyashiro has experience creating music brands that resonate. Although the Bay Area native didn’t finish college, he managed to turn his work promoting campus events at San Jose State University into marketing jobs before joining Vice, where he spearheaded the creation of the now-defunct—but then successful—electronic music vertical Thump. He originally formed 88rising as a management company for Asian artists he had developed relationships with, including South Korean rappers Dumbfoundead and Keith Ape.
Miyashiro soon saw the potential to grow his roster and become a recording label. He began tapping his network to sign Asian artists working in hip-hop and R&B, genres where they haven’t gotten much recognition before, and develop a global audience for their music. Rich Brian, for example, joined 88rising in 2016, shortly after releasing the viral track “Dat $tick” under his former Vine persona Rich Chigga (a portmanteau of “Chinese” and the N-word). Miyashiro flipped the bad press around the Indonesian rapper’s offensive name—and the fact that he used the N-word in his song—by creating a video of established hip-hop stars endorsing the up-and-comer. (A name change also helped.) Brian is now one of the most prominent Asian rappers in the U.S.
88rising isn’t the only Asian-focused label making inroads in the West. South Korea’s Big Hit and YG Entertainment, which represent acts such as BTS and Blackpink, respectively, have been instrumental in K-pop’s global dominance. But 88rising is unique in championing artists who span geographies. “They have these phenomenal artists that are from throughout Asia,” says Andrew Spalter, founder of East Goes Global, a multimedia management company that helps entertainment brands break into China. “They’re in so many different territories.”
World of Talent: 88 Rising has created a global artist collective. Here are a few of its top names:
And instead of being a behind-the-scenes hit factory, the label acts more like an artist collective. Though 88rising’s artists put out individual work, there’s a heavy focus on touring and releasing music as a group. In 2018, for example, 88rising launched the 88 Degrees & Rising Tour, which culminated in the inaugural Head in the Clouds festival. The label also puts out group albums, with original tracks from the 88rising roster. The most recent, Head in the Clouds II, was released in October and has notched more than 731 million streams globally.
88rising prioritizes having “a personal relationship with the artists and understanding how important it is for us to be friends,” Miyashiro says. “The artists believe there’s a mission here too.” That’s helped the label attract such high-profile artists as Hong Kong native and K-pop idol Jackson Wang (he’s a member of Got7), who has collaborated with several 88rising members. In March, Wang partnered with the label to release the single “100 Ways,” and is now working with Miyashiro and his team on an album.
“They’re creating a big sense of pride for a community that I don’t think has had as much representation on the global scene,” says Nicolai Marciano, director of brand partnerships at Guess, which has worked with 88rising on several capsule collections (including bodysuits, jean jackets, and hoodies), the first of which sold out in 20 minutes. “They have an eclectic roster that crosses languages, crosses barriers. They’re playing in the global field.”
Miyashiro is now positioning 88rising to become a broader content hub. Like many other entertainment companies moving toward new (and remote) ways to connect with audiences, 88rising recently announced Asia Rising Forever, an upcoming online festival streaming on Twitter that will feature Asian talent from around the world.
The label’s forthcoming Sirius XM channel will feature music from its artists and others, along with original programming. There’s been talk of including an interview show helmed by Miyashiro himself, which could also be broadcast as videos on 88rising’s YouTube channel. He’s also relaunching the label’s Night Market e-commerce site, which has sold merchandise collaborations with Japanese illustrator Hajime Sorayama and Guess, among others. Miyashiro envisions the site as featuring products from Asian artisans, along with articles and videos about their process and craft. “It’s uncovering the person in Laos who’s dedicated her life to making the most premium bar soap,” Miyashiro says. “And it’s telling that story and bringing that to the world.”
Miyashiro’s work to reduce cultural barriers has never been more important, especially amid the xenophobic rhetoric that’s emerging out of the COVID-19 crisis. He says this prejudice has become apparent to all of 88rising’s artists: “It’s something we’re all feeling.” He’s now figuring out how he can flip the moment into a teachable one—88rising-style.