Two years ago, Sean Miyashiro was at Los Angeles State Park, navigating the festival showcase that he produces, Head in the Clouds, for his pan-Asian music company, 88rising. Among the 25,000-person crowd, Miyashiro spotted Simu Liu. The Kim’s Convenience actor was slated to play the titular role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – the first Asian superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Miyashiro figured that he should say hi.
After all, Miyashiro has been in talks with Shang-Chi’s director Destin Daniel Cretton about 88rising curating the film’s soundtrack for months. But at Head in the Clouds, Miyashiro couldn’t bring himself to tap Liu on the shoulder, because he recognised the stunned look on Liu’s face. Outside of, perhaps, a BLACKPINK concert, an 88rising showcase is the rare musical event that can draw a majority Asian crowd. “I can tell he was looking at these faces, at these kids, being like, ‘this is my future, these are the people who I am going to represent on-screen,’” Miyashiro says.
Shang-Chi was announced in 2018, which was also a landmark year for 88rising. The collective’s third year saw the online curios of flagship signees, like one of the YouTube stars behind that “Harlem Shake” dance, make their influence known by more traditional metrics. After Joji’s lo-fi, forlorn BALLADS 1 topped Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart, Rich Brian, the same artist behind the is-he-joking-or-not viral track Dat $tick, topped iTunes’ hip-hop albums charts with his debut Amen.
Until now, 88’s music has shied away from socio-political commentary about racial and ethnic representation. But the collective has achieved major milestones in contemporary music, in that Asian artists can now make repeat collaborators of mainstream rap acts 21 Savage and Swae Lee, as well as draw festival crowds Stateside. In creating the Shang-Chi soundtrack, 88rising has entered a Hollywood landscape where Asians still need to account for firsts or wait two decades between second chances: Fresh Off the Boat following All-American Girl, Crazy Rich Asians after The Joy Luck Club.
Shang-Chi’s first weekend $94 million box office sales – a new Labor Day record – can’t be taken for granted, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Neither should the movie’s success in introducing a new Asian superhero into the global public consciousness.
Miyashiro founded 88rising in 2015. The 40-year-old’s days seemingly consist of nonstop phone calls and constantly shifting priorities. The Head in the Clouds festival returns in November, and hosting artists of Asian heritage such as Beabadoobee and Audrey Nuna as well as the 88rising roster. There is also the third instalment of 88’s compilation series – also called Head in the Clouds – in the works. But on this call, he sounds relaxed and focussed, especially when he explains how 88rising’s album strips the superhero elements of Shang-Chi’s story.
In 2019, Indonesian singer and 88rising member Stephanie Poetri released her breakthrough track I Love You 3000, inspired by a line in the Avengers Endgame film which had gone viral. The Shang-Chi soundtrack isn’t as literal of a Marvel tribute. Despite how the film features two-thirds of the tracks from the album, Miyashiro – who is the soundtrack’s executive producer – didn’t want songs to speak too literally to plot points. Comparisons could be made to TDE’s soundtrack for Black Panther, which features tracks that were inspired by the themes of the movie, but don’t often reference it directly (save for King’s Dead, where Kendrick Lamar raps, “All hail King Killmonger.”)
Originally Miyashiro envisioned the soundtrack as being conceptually structured with three-time travelling acts taking place in the Bay Area, where the film is based and where he grew up. The first and final acts would give voice to today’s Asian Americans. Take Warriors, where Indonesian rapper and 88rising signee Warren Hue gets the soundtrack’s last, aggrieved word. He’s “pissed off” over seeing “magazines, cover books that don’t feature Asians with hella dreams,” underscoring Shang-Chi’s greater significance Stateside. “While loving music so much, I didn’t really have anyone to look up to, an Asian role model or anyone who looked like me,” Hue tells me.
Before that third act, Miyashiro wanted a slot of retro love songs to remind this current generation of their parents’ humanity, when Asian parents are typically known for being oppressive and overly demanding. “We really felt it was important to tell this beautiful love story because all of our parents once fell in love too,” he says. “They were young, wild and free.”
Part of that story comes courtesy of Every Summertime by 22-year-old Indonesian singer NIKI. Over text, Miyashiro asked NIKI to consider what Shang-Chi, who is a bumbling hotel valet when we first meet him, and his estranged father, at the helm of a terrorist organisation, actually have in common: “How much they both love their mother,” NIKI says. “That’s all he said.”
NIKI loved this sort of challenge, to write songs that aren’t autobiographical but still feel lived in. To producer Jacob Ray’s jaunty piano line recalling Motown’s golden years, NIKI reimagines how Shang-Chi’s parents might have fallen in love: “Eighteen, we were undergrads /stayed out late, never made it to class…” Yet another story unfolds in Every Summertime’s first visualiser, of a father (played by rapper and podcaster Dumbfoundead) and son (Minari’s Alan Kim) riding to and from baseball practice. “We were just trying to capture these slices of Asian American life that would otherwise slip away or be perceived as mundane,” NIKI explains.
Ultimately, while traces of Miyashiro’s original framework could still be heard, 88rising’s soundtrack is still in service to Marvel. (“I would say a lot of things changed, unfortunately,” Miyashiro laughs.) The album’s high-octane rap collaborations – with the likes of Audrey Nuna, DJ Snake, Earthgang, Rick Ross, Saweetie and 21 Savage – are clearly meant to evoke the movie’s Jackie Chan-indebted fight scenes. Shang-Chi’s debut trailer features Hue rapping “Swing jab (left hook), right hook…,” as heard in fourth track Lazy Susan.
For NIKI, growing up in Jakarta like Hue and Rich Brian, she didn’t always care about whether Asians were stereotypically portrayed, if they were at all, in Western pop culture. “Back in Indonesia, everybody consumed Western media. It was our form of entertainment. But we still led Indonesian lives,” she says. Now, though, as Saweetie and NIKI’s Swan Song plays during Shang-Chi’s credits, 88rising’s collective impact is on full display.
On paper, the Shang-Chi soundtrack feels like a logical stepping stone for a company that began as a lifestyle YouTube channel with aspirations to become the next Disney. In January, 88rising announced a first-look deal with Sony Pictures, promising original series about Asians and Asian Americans, like a comedy about K‑pop fans starring Dumbfoundead, called We Stan.
“It’s a very exciting time in filmmaking,” Miyashiro says. “You have Minari and all these great filmmakers. You can make a film for $2 million that makes history and a lot of cultural impact. You have massive blockbusters with $250 million budgets. If it’s done right, the momentum keeps going. More films get made, and if eight films are bad and two are phenomenal and inspire the next generation of people, that’s amazing.”
But working on the Shang-Chi soundtrack has also reminded Miyashiro of what makes 88rising’s work truly essential. He complains that most major labels would rather sell Ed Sheeran to these listeners than to scout for the sort of talent that has become 88rising’s single biggest attribute, drawing the sort of majority-Asian crowds in North America that Liu hopes to engage with Shang-Chi. He apologises for how his mind keeps wandering back to two female Vietnamese artists that 88rising has started working with, who are eager not just for the world to hear their music, but to “show what a street looks like, and what their lives are like as young people in Vietnam.”
“All of this film stuff and glitzy projects is great,” Miyashiro shrugs, before he reminds me of the core mission that made this Hollywood moment possible. “But at the heart of it, we want to put out good music with good artists.”