While being an independent artist carries some risks, independence is indeed an important aspect for many, especially musicians. Not only does it allow them to communicate directly with their audience, it also enables them to promote their music whenever and however they wish. Frankly speaking, you don’t need to have a label to be a successful artist. Yes, being signed to a label can have its perks, but one ought to realise that being independent doesn’t always mean you have to be tight with your money or doing it all on your own. On the contrary, it means grabbing your chances consciously – chances that can turn into something big.
Although there is no particular formula for success, those with talent, drive, and a dedicated fan base are going to thrive sooner or later. And one of those artists is James An, an independent hip-hop artist, who entered the Korean music industry in 2020 when he released Impressions, followed by Young (2020), We Love The Vibe (2021), and Meditation (2021).
James makes music he loves and believes in, and he knows there will be an audience for it. The rapper is unafraid to touch on societal themes, including racism, in his lyrics. As he mentioned in our interview, although not all his songs tackle the aforementioned topic; with his EDUCATION (2021) release he “wanted to look inwardly and outwardly at privilege and oppression”.
In 2022, James unveiled One For The Old School that brought him back to the Golden Age of hip-hop, followed by Role Model and Small Talks & Sweet Truths. During our interview, the artist reflected on the music he loves, the creative process behind the aforementioned releases, and shared his views on the tasks and responsibilities of being an artist.
Prior to discussing your music, I was wondering what got you into hip-hop and how you came to realise that music was the way forward for you?
When I moved to Vancouver, Canada in fourth grade, someone gave me CDs with music from rappers including Tiger JK, Dynamic Duo, Eminem, and 50 Cent. I would listen to their songs and memorise their lyrics every day. This really helped me gain self-confidence, especially while trying to adjust to a new environment. I was immediately drawn to hip-hop then, but it wasn’t until college that I started to write my own lyrics. For a long time, I believed that I didn’t have anything to share, but the more I wrote, I began to think that I actually might have something to share. I started to perform at any place and event I could, and I just felt so alive when I expressed myself through hip-hop. This self-expression became more and more important to me, and I started to take it more seriously, step by step. It seemed too unrealistic at first—the thought of making music professionally—but the more I expressed myself, the more I knew that this was what I wanted to do.
In February of this year, you released One For The Old School, on which you pay a tribute to hip-hop scene of the 1990s. What made you go back to Golden Age hip-hop in the first place? What inspired you to write One For The Old School?
I thought about the hip-hop music that I first fell in love with. I think it’s important to remind myself and my listeners that the reason I can rap and create music that I love is because of the rappers I grew up listening to. Part of me also wanted to create a song in which I can just enjoy the process of creating and not worry too much about how it’ll turn out. For example, I didn’t want to write something too heavy or abstract, but something enjoyable, positive, and real. I hope the song reflects the hip-hop that I respect and fell in love with. Shout out to my friend, Haz Haus, who produced the dope beat!
After the aforementioned single, you released Role Model and Small Talks & Sweet Truths. What was the creative process behind those two releases like?
For Role Model, I wanted to write about the discrepancy between others’ impressions of me and my perception of myself. I’m really lucky and thankful to my fans, many of whom are high school or college students. I’m incredibly humbled to be able to read very kind and uplifting comments, and I noticed that quite a lot of them showed that my listeners look up to me and aspire to be someone like me. This made me think back about the people in my life whom I aspired to be like and have impacted me so much. Positively impacting others has always been an important part of my life, and as much as I want to be a positive role model, artist, and individual, I wasn’t so sure if I could be one. How do I make sense of my unshared vulnerabilities, flaws, and complexities with others’ impressions of me, and how could I express this through music? Can I still be your role model if you really knew me?
For Small Talks & Sweet Truths, I wanted to rethink the importance of conversations and my way of writing lyrics, especially on certain topics. The first song from this double single is called Mia Wallace, and when I first received the beat by Jaydubb, I was like damn! Wow. It just inspired me right away. It gave me a lot of visual and locational inspirations; for example, I felt like I was walking down the street in Manhattan, New York, trying to find a taxi. Lyrically, I wanted to write as a narrator of a story more so than a rapper rapping directly about one’s own life or thoughts. Mia Wallace, a fictional character portrayed by Uma Thurman in the movie Pulp Fiction, inspired me a lot, and I asked myself: Who could be a “Mia Wallace” in my life? What would happen if Mia Wallace got my wallet? I’m not sure if anything crazy happened, but it got me thinking about conversations.
For the second song, Sweet Truth, when I first heard the beat by Noane, I was absolutely drawn to it. I knew I wanted to write about something serious accompanied by a dreamlike vibe, inspired by a particular memory. I went to a local church in Florida when I was 7 years old, and Easter egg hunting was one of my fondest memories from childhood. Back then, I didn’t care about truth; I was frantically in search for the plastic eggs that contained something sweet. I wanted to ask the listeners what truths they may have been told, and how and why they might be so sweet, if at all.
After translating the Korean part of your lyrics, I have noticed that you are not afraid to touch on societal themes, including racism. This and other topics were strongly present in your 2021 album, EDUCATION. I am very curious about the writing process behind this release? You collaborated with various artists on this album as well; did you experience any creative differences while writing and making EDUCATION?
One of my privileges is that I’ve had access to education, from prestigious and elitist institutions, to be more specific. I’m incredibly lucky and thankful to have learned more critically about education (and miseducation) at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I studied racism and how hip-hop can play a powerful role in youths to dismantle racism through counter-storytelling. The message, and what I choose to write about, have always been central to me as an artist. The challenge was trying to express my message through hip-hop, not through more conventional approaches like academic papers or talks, so it needed to be dope! I still have so much to learn, but what is something I could actually rap about? Not all of the songs touch on this subject, but I wanted to look inwardly and outwardly at privilege and oppression.
Another goal with this project was to work with different artists because I haven’t had much experience collaborating on music before that. I wanted the process to be fun, enjoyable, and a learning experience for myself as well. In that process, I would share what the song and project is about to the artist I had in mind, and fully respect their creative freedom. I personally really like the synergy with mechilling’s verse on MODEL MINORITY MYTH because we both tackled the same topic with our own unique individualities, yet shared identities and experiences. Throughout the process, I learned that, even though I often feel very alone with my creative process partly because of the topics I want to write about, it’s always fun and more enjoyable when we do it together, and I realise I’m less alone.
What do you hope that people will take away while listening to your music?
These days, I hope my music can be a time and space where listeners can come, rethink, and actively participate in creating an experience together. Part of me also hopes that it could perhaps remind them that we’re in this together.
As a rapper and songwriter, what is more important to you, the subject of your song or the way it’s executed?
The subject of my song, or what I choose to write about has always been a central part of my work as an artist, but I try to experiment with the way it’s executed. Finding new ways to express myself through music also gives me a lot of joy.
Would you say the music that inspires your work matches what you listen to when you are a part of an audience? Or are you a fan of genres other than your own?
The hip-hop music I listen to definitely inspires a lot of my work. For example, if there is a certain element of another artist or song that I really admire, I try to think about why that resonates with me in the first place, see how I interpret the experience as a listener, and explore how I might possibly share that inspiration as a creator. It’s a blessing to be inspired, but at the same time, what is something that only I could do, if there is anything at all? I also find it really fun and interesting when I’m inspired by artists of genres and styles that are more different from the music I make, and I’m definitely a fan of genres other than my own. For example, some of my most played songs on Spotify are by artists like The Black Skirts, Neon Bunny, and BIBI.
You lived in Canada, USA, and now you are based in South Korea. To what extent do you think your surroundings shaped you, creatively speaking, and in what way?
I think there’s a lot that can be discussed here, but what immediately comes to mind is that the diverse people I’ve met have inspired me so much in life. Many of my friends in school in Canada and the US have been the best and kindest friends, and they’ve really helped me gain a sense of identity, belonging, and self-confidence. I still remember playing basketball with my friends, listening to music together, and sharing our favourite rap lyrics. My high school teachers and college professors expanded my perspective, and made me rethink the momentum and trajectory of my life, and to think critically about my location in the context of the greater society. I thank them for giving me questions instead of answers.
The comrades I’ve met in the Republic of Korea Army have become good friends, one of whom has introduced me to his brother who’s a poet – this made me love Korean modern poetry, which inspires me lyrically. They’ve all played unimaginably important roles in shaping me, and I hope to be able to reflect and share a bit of that through my art. There’s a lot of my own effort in writing what I write, but I like to believe that it’s all made possible by the amazing people I’ve been lucky to have encountered. Present day, however, I spend most of my time alone, focusing more inwardly on my work and life.
On which of your songs do you think you delivered your personal best performance so far, from an emotional and technical point of view?
I would say Sweet Truth, Mia Wallace, and AIN’T NOBODY FREE TILL EVERYBODY IS. The vibe of each song is different, and I think my creative intentions and emotions materialised well, with enough space to invite the listeners to experience and interpret it as their own.
Improvisation is a large part of the creative process for many artists. How strictly do you separate improvising and composing in your work?
I’m usually on the side of sitting down and spending a lot of time planning and thinking about how to create a certain song as opposed to improvising, but I think there are many aspects of improvisation throughout the process of creating a song. For example, when I find myself stuck on a certain lyric or message, or feel that my creative intentions are inadequate or unconvincing, I try to have faith in the process, and sometimes take myself a little less seriously. I think fear prevents me from creating more, and that’s where improvisation seems to really help me. I personally think that I should improvise more and create more freely. I hope to find a good balance.
You rap in English as well as in Korean. Have you ever found it difficult to combine both languages in your lyrics? Which one comes easier to you: English or Korean?
I’m definitely more comfortable with English, and I feel that I can express what I want along with the nuances of phraseology and language in English. Although I am fluent in Korean, my vocabulary is comparatively limited because I spent most of my life abroad. I’m a bilingual artist, and that is an important part of my identity and expression, because each language allows for different cognitive processes, cultural heritage, memories, relationships, and experiences. My concern though is that, by choosing one language or the other, it inevitably becomes a barrier for someone who does not understand that language. As an artist, there are certain things I can talk about in either language or both languages, and I do try to be deliberate about which lyrics I write in Korean and/or English for Korean-speaking listeners and/or English-speaking listeners. I do hope that this invites the listeners for further exploration of different languages expressed in music and the beauty of it.
Looking at the Korean music industry, and since you became an artist, have you suffered any ‘resistance’ or scepticism from within the industry? What would you say are currently your main artistic challenges?
This is more of an individual and inward observation and experience I think, but in the beginning, I was very insecure about how the industry, other artists in the field, and listeners might perceive or judge me. This changes and evolves overtime in different places, but I think there are certain dominant narratives in hip-hop (which I respect), and I definitely felt that I did not fit into the mould of the hip-hop I fell in love with. I definitely didn’t have much shared experience with the lyrics I loved – I received education from the most prestigious institutions, and personally felt like what I wanted to write about didn’t really resonate as much in Korea. Dismantling oppression, promoting diversity and inclusion are important to me, all while expressing myself, but is trying to do so through hip-hop in Korea the right way for me? It takes time, and I believe it’s up to me and my own efforts, because I surely have a long way to go. I definitely want to say that my fans in Korea (as well as globally) have been incredibly supportive. Their affirmation means the world to me, and I’m so thankful that many of them went out of their way to find my music and give it a chance.
The role of an artist is always subject to change. What’s your view on the tasks of artists today (e.g. political/social/creative), and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
I want everyone to be free, and I want to play a small role in creating a world where we can liberate ourselves from different circumstances and oppressive systems. That being said, I don’t want to say that someone has to do certain things, or that you should do this or that. You should be free to do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone, but we have to be aware of how we might unknowingly and unwillingly perpetuate the existing oppressive constructs in society. In that sense, I hope that we can all do what we love, but also in a way that can best shape a more equal world.
Who motivated you to work hard and stay on track?
Personally, I’m very lazy and often find myself unmotivated. My parents’ support has meant the world to me, and I try hard not to take it for granted, but I know I need to try harder. It’s hard to put in words how much they’ve done for me. In terms of staying on track and creating quality work, my friends at Passport Seoul have been incredibly supportive and helped to make a lot of this possible. My personal friends and fans have always motivated and uplifted me, and their affirmations really keep me going.
What’s your plan for the next few months?
I don’t have a set release date yet, but I am currently working on an EP-length album with songs that are stylistically and sonically different from my previous releases. I’ve been mostly releasing single albums recently, so I hope to be able to play around with the structure of the album that is longer in length. It really depends on how they turn out, but I think some of them might have a more chill and laidback vibe with lyrics that are more personal. I definitely want to take more time to experiment and grow.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts, and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop / K-music and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, music, and arts, worldwide.
One Comment Add yours
Obviously one of my favorites thinker From the khh industry !
He is not just doing rap but carrying ✨Reflexions✨.
And this is a thing that will make me stay as one of his supporter for a long long time. 😊