Emotionally and spiritually exhausted by trying to do it all, Jason Chu learns that the only way to take off, is by not trying so hard.
My last morning in Hawai'i dawned lush and bright, like every morning of the previous five weeks. As I splashed water on my face, looking out over the small town of Hilo, I thought back on my unexpected journey to the Big Island.
Five months ago, I received a Facebook message through my music page. Newton, a church elder, saw a video on my YouTube channel. It led him to my website, where a slogan — "Faith. Hope. Love. Rap." — had caught his eye. Noticing the biblical allusion, he invited me to the Church of the Holy Cross in Hilo as a visiting minister/artist.
I responded with initial hesitation. Doubtful about the offer, I wondered how leading Bible studies in a small town in Hawai'i fit with my mission of speaking hope and healing through rap and poetry.
But as I struggled through a summer of writer's block and Netflix binges, I began to realize that something new might be the only way out of my listless cycle. And it's not like I was in high demand anywhere else; my music career's initial spate of college bookings had given way to months of empty inboxes and open calendars.
I wound up flying to Hawai'i for the last five weeks of my summer. And from the moment I first touched down in the fertile air of a year-round tropical island, every day brought new revelations.
I learned from Brennan, the local InterVarsity chapter staff member at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, as he loved and served students. Where I'd exalted philosophical answers and intellectual discourse in my college ministry, Brendan embraced simple and wholehearted love. For him, food, music, and volleyball fit integrally with Bible study, prayer, and outreach.
I learned from the octogenarian members of Holy Cross Hilo as they buried and mourned a member, whose sudden passing left her family stunned and sad. Their grief humbled me, reminding me of the vast swaths of life that lay beyond my young, single Los Angeles lifestyle.
I learned from the rural high school students as I shared my music on class visits. I learned that my words were valuable, not because they garnered Facebook "likes" or YouTube subscribers, but because they could share hope and truth with kids struggling with depression, sex, love, failure, and God. The looks on those kids' faces as my music hit home spoke more than any number of Instagram hearts.
Within my last few weeks in Hilo, I began writing songs inspired by the experiences of my generation: from the Internet and porn, to divorce, depression, and hope. As I prepared to head back to LA, I was returning with the makings of a new project that I'd started to call "Millennial".
After last words from the pulpit and countless farewell hugs at Holy Cross Hilo, I threw my bags in the black Dodge Charger that Uncle Newton lent me for my stay. My last sight of the Big Island was deep blue waters dropping under the belly of the plane.
Six hours later, I was in the passenger seat of my friend's car, speeding through the 110 Freeway through downtown LA — dusty browns and greys, a stark contrast to the blues and greens I was accustomed to. But no amount of dinginess could drag down my spirits; I'd left Southern California worn and uninspired, and was returning artistically re-energized and spiritually refreshed.
Hawai'i gave me the space and momentum to take off. Little did I know how far my journey had yet to go.
"I'm telling you, man — dropping out was the best thing I've ever done."
Not the words I'd ever imagined myself saying. But as Eugene and I sat in his car, parked in the Fuller Seminary lot on a warm Pasadena spring night, I found myself preaching the virtues of quitting school.
As fellow Asian American creatives, we bonded over our love of philosophy, shared connections in the Asian ministry world, and exchanged creative aspirations. In many ways, I looked up to him and hoped that my career would one day resemble his: respected in the seminary, in ministry, and in the art world as an award-winning filmmaker and co-director of Fuller's film institute.
Upon returning from Hawai'i, I jumped back into classes at Fuller. But I found myself less and less sure about what I was finding there. I was looking for something in seminary that it was never meant to fulfill: character. Growth. Conviction. Maturity.
I spent most of my life in hermetically sealed environments: homeschool, science and math magnet school, Ivy League education, campus ministry, and divinity school. What I needed lay outside the classroom. After the 2013 fall quarter, I simply stopped enrolling in classes.
Throughout my life, I buoyed up my shortcomings in other fields with the knowledge that my grades could secure my reputation as exceptional. But then, I was no longer a part-time student and part-time musician; I no longer had my studies to fall back on or hide behind.
All I had was a sense that God had led me to rap music as a way to serve and love a hurting world. Now it was time to put that conviction to the test, heading out beyond the insulating safety of theories and papers and concepts.
It was time to sink or swim in the real world.
Chris and I frantically recorded for the whole fall and winter. A young Taiwanese American musician and producer, Chris became my closest collaborator and friend. In his quiet suburban house an hour and a half west of LA, we pulled all-nighters recording with a gang of diverse and musically talented characters.
Having dropped out of school to do music full time, I felt an urgency to have something to show for my decision. This pressure was only compounded by the momentum of my time in Hawai'i, the sobering memory of the empty months before, and the need to get on the road in time for the spring college touring season.
For artists with college-based audiences, and especially Asian American performers, the spring is always a windfall. All thanks to two words: culture shows.
An up-and-coming artist might struggle to get 30 people in a venue on a Friday night. But even if you do miraculously drag 30 people out, you're lucky if you get a couple hundred bucks after the bar or club takes their cut. Get booked by a single college show in the same town, and that same, almost-unknown artist could easily get paid four figures, plus be on stage in front of a couple hundred to a thousand students. All it takes is one student watching a Facebook or YouTube video and deciding that this performer — out of the millions of voices online — would be a good fit.
But first you need that video. Meaning, you need to be releasing content. Meaning, you need to be creating content. Meaning — I needed videos and an album out ASAP.
And so, in four months, Chris and I recorded an album, shot a couple of videos, mixed the album, booked a venue, and promoted an album release party. While there were shortcomings, none of them diminished the fact that on February 7, 2014, "Millennial" — my first full-length album — was released.
IV. Hitting the Road.
"Let's never come back to LA — just keep adding more and more cities to the tour, fam!"
I punched Chase happily in the arm as we walked to the car on our way to dinner. A jovial and talkative rapper and producer from Philly, he was going to ride shotgun on the upcoming Millennial Tour.
The Millennial Tour included 13 dates and two months on the road, a huge improvement on my previous tour record: three performances over a couple of weekends.
I was elated. After a frustrating first year and a half in LA, and a winter of hard and seemingly endless work, all my efforts were finally paying off. More than just a return on my invested time and money, it was an affirmation of my faith. Moving to LA to rap hadn't just been a particularly vivid quarter-life crisis, but an actual act of divine guidance.
Two months flew by in a thrilling blur of all-night buses, T-shirt sales, and selfies with crowds of two to 200. It was a never-ending opportunity to talk about my music, life, story, and convictions.
And then it ended.
Every high has its crash because the high — the ride — isn't the real world; it's the escape. It works as long as you've got more to eat, more to inject, more tokens to spend. But when it stops, what you were escaping from comes back hungrier and stronger. Back in LA after traveling and performing, I was faced with the same nagging voice that had always chewed away behind my outward confidence:
"This was a fluke. An outlier. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — and you just had your one shot at it.
"You'll never be able to do this again."
I loved life on the road: sharing my stories of hope with students and hearing their own. It was everything I loved about ministry and service. But I also loved life on the road because it gave me the validation that I sorely lacked otherwise. Inside my own mind, I knew I wasn't an artist; I was pretending and prayed that no one noticed. But when kids lined up to take selfies, or buy "Millennial" CDs, I felt confident and strong.
It took me the better part of the next two years to find that confidence inside myself, to see strength as who I am rather than something that others could give to or take from me. The growing scope of my career exposed my human limits and self-perpetuated weaknesses.
Bombing performances taught me to bring my "A" game to every show. Broken hearts taught me that "I love you" means more than "You're a lot of fun to be with." And messing up some key relationships taught me lessons about boundaries and money.
In the two years of touring and recording, I learned about producing events and videos, crowdfunding, and how to sell T-shirts to college kids. I learned how to set up a merchandise table, grow an Instagram account, and eat healthy on the road. But most importantly, I learned about two things: God and art.
During my last year of ministry in Beijing, there was a time when my roles in two ministries grew too heavy. I was emotionally and spiritually exhausted. Attempts to juggle it all only resulted in a creeping stress that infected my relationships and led me to lash out at the people around me. Frustrated, I asked for help from two head pastors at the church. Their answer was simple: Cut back. Stop trying so hard. Let some things go either by delegating, or realizing that they might not need to be done — and certainly not at the cost of my own emotional and spiritual well-being.
This was a lesson that I'd have to learn over and over again in the years to come: God is more interested in my personal growth, than in the growth of my "ministry" or "audience". God will always give what I need; and what I need, and what I think I need, are seldom the same.
Investing in my relationship with God — setting aside time for prayer and quiet reflection — is the key to staying tethered amid the alternating waves of ego (when my career seemed to be steaming ahead) and depression (when my career seemed to be losing momentum).
But even as I arrived at new levels of intimacy with God — born out of living faithfully amid the ebb and flow of a career in music — I also set foot in artistic waters I'd never braved before.
"Salvation — music is salvation."
It was May 2015. I was in Hong Kong to perform in and judge a battle of the bands, raising funds and awareness for a local non-governmental organization fighting human trafficking and sexual slavery. I also spoke on a Christian podcast in its final minutes of recording:
"What I mean is: Before I was a musician, I was always the kind of Christian whose faith was in my head, you know? It was very much based on my thoughts about God, on doctrine and philosophy.
"But music — art — it cuts through all of that. Because, as an artist, I stand on stage and I can't just say something that's clever, or interesting, or well-written; art is all about telling truth with conviction. And so music has taught me what I never learned before — how to love truth."
It was a revelation that had been a long time in the making. It's a subtle (and maybe obvious) realization, but it cut to the core of who I was. I'd always been a workaholic, clinging to productivity as proof of my value.
But what if my value came not from what I could produce for others, but from the quality of my own soul? What if, as I'd always proclaimed (but rarely lived out), what mattered was not the outward appearance of progress, but the internal reality of it (1 Samuel 16:7)?
This simple, internal revelation sparked a seismic shift in my core values — from performance-oriented, to process-oriented. And so, I began making more and releasing less. I started creating with the faith that a creative process, grounded in care and thoughtfulness, would result in more honest and powerful music than one demanding a particular end product by a particular date.
Instead of making music out of a need to prove myself, conviction and expression began to ground every stage of my creative process. Instead of beginning with interesting rhyme schemes or metaphors, I started to seek out emotionally charged memories and experiences as the starting points for my songs.
After a summer of writing demos and roughing out ideas, I'd amassed dozens of demos; from almost fully-fleshed-out songs to lists of concepts and titles. But I needed help in taking these fragments of vision and fusing them into a coherent whole.
I needed a producer.
For the past couple of years, Chris had been my go-to producer and engineer. But his life got busy, and so in the fall of 2015, I turned to an old college friend: Joe Kye.
Joe and I had knew each other through our Asian American church while in college. We recorded some collaborations during our years together at Yale University, but wound up heading in separate directions after graduation: I as a campus minister, and he as an educator, teaching at an extremely elite boarding school.
So it was a surprise, years after we'd left New Haven, Connecticut, to run into each other at a mutual friend's wedding, and hear that we were both pursuing music full time: he as an indie pop/folk artist in Sacramento, California, and I in LA. Just as I was beginning to look for a lead producer last summer, Joe announced some LA performances, and only then did I realize that his pop-influenced melodies could be a perfect match for my conversational, spoken-word vocals.
After a few calls, Joe was on board with the project, and I flew him down to LA for a four-day session of brainstorming. From Tuesday evening until Friday morning, we were at it nearly nonstop, pausing only for food, mental breaks, or creative exhaustion. By the end of the week, we made solid headway on the first batch of songs, with only one unanswered question picking away at our weary contentment: "So, what's this going to be called?"
The demos we chose to develop into full songs all shared an attitude of "wiser for the wear". They spoke frankly about mistakes and growth, lessons learned not from classrooms and books but relationships and failures. They were stories about where the three-year passage in LA had guided me.
Weaving my dirty Subaru Impreza through traffic toward LAX Terminal 1, I looked up at the road sign.
It's September 28, 2016. Earlier this year, on March 23, I turned 30.
Four years ago, in my mid-20s, I moved to LA to speak hope and healing in a broken world. Last year, I added another word: justice. As a friend pointed out, "People don't just need someone to hug them when they've been hurt. They need someone to stand up and fight so that they don't keep getting hurt."
I used to pick all the wrong fights, but these days, I'm starting the long process of learning what's worth fighting for, and what's worth fighting against.
I'm a seminary dropout who's finding God more real than ever before. I've met God in the cavernous afternoons of depression and the loud ecstasy of a show. I've seen His face in a rental car office in Denver, Colorado, and His Spirit on a concrete pier in Hong Kong at 3 a.m.
I am a million stories: I am love and heartbreak, family and freedom, midnight stargazing, and 6 a.m. prayers. I am gender and privilege, racism and culture, death, lust, love, and hope. If this magazine had a million pages, there still wouldn't be enough space to contain my tiny tragedies and triumphs.
The name of the album is "Arrivals". Not Arrival, singular, but Arrivals, plural. Because if there's one thing I've learned over these last four years of victory and struggle, it's that the journey never ends. An individual chapter may come to a conclusion, but as a philosopher once said, "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."