A Savage Journey Through Art and Asian American Depression
By Jason Chu
PHOTOGRAPHY By Jack Yu
December 1, 2015
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FEAR. SADNESS. UNCERTAINTY.
These emotions used to scare me, but I’ve been discovering that they’re actually the feeling of breaking new ground. These same feelings accompanied every voyager who’s ever struck out into uncharted land.
I’m a Chinese American rapper and spoken word artist.
Chinese kid from Delaware; no combinationOf who I am is supposed to behere on top of these snares— “Holding On (Intro)”
On June 13, 2012, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue music full time.
That’s 3 1/2 years of struggle, loneliness, and confusion. Forty months filled with the consistent fear of failure, underachieving, and the thought that I’ve steered my life into a dead end. Twelve hundred days battling with a nagging, on-and-off depression.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m thankful for the warm memories, beautiful scenery, and open-hearted friends that Southern California has given me. But I’d be misrepresenting the journey if I didn’t confess up front how self doubt and the temptation to walk away from this path have had a firm foothold since my move to LA.
My move was fueled by conviction: to make music speaking hope and healing into a broken world. To listen to and share the pain and joy of the Asian American community. To give young kids messages and insight that my own youth sorely lacked.
I don’t tell THE Asian American story,I tell OUR Asian American stories,in the hopes that one day our people will see glory— “SPEAK”
I came to LA as a man on a mission; and what I lacked in professional experience and concrete plans was buoyed up by my belief, fueled by years of retreats, conferences, and college ministry messages that “God doesn’t call the equipped; He equips those He calls.”
I still agree with that — the caveat being that it blithely glosses over the difficulty and pain that come along with “being equipped”. In my case, it has been a process of seeing, owning, and working through my pretensions, self-satisfaction, and neediness. These are valuable lessons, and anything valuable comes with a high cost.
In my case, it has been a process of seeing, owning, and working through my pretensions, self-satisfaction, and neediness.
As I near the end of my 20s, my life — from certain perspectives — is less secure than ever before. I’m a graduate school dropout with a resume that would be laughed off the desk of any corporate recruiter. Nearly all the money I make is reinvested in studio time, video budgets, and other expenses, with no expectation that my career will suddenly turn profitable in the near future. I’m unmarried and renting a shared apartment in a low-income neighborhood with little hope that I’ll be able to support a family or a child anytime soon. A promising relationship ended abruptly this past summer, her words still ringing in my ears: “I don’t understand your career” — “it’s too unstable” — “I look at where you’re going, and just don’t know where I fit into that.”
You left, said you couldn’t commitI tried to push it, said I’d move, wherever you went— “A Love Song”
She wasn’t wrong either, and her comments only echoed my own questioning. For every adrenaline-charged, all-night writing or recording session, there are fruitless days spent waiting for creative inspiration to strike, or for performance opportunities that never materialize. For every weekend on the road, flying to college campuses and conferences, sharing my heart on stage, there are weeks spent calling and emailing back and forth with event organizers, talking over the details of shows that ultimately fall through, citing a lack of funds or interest.
At regular intervals throughout these years, I find myself lying on my bed, crying out for hours in a mixture of faith and depression: “Lord, how much will this path cost? More than ever, I feel how comforting it would be to find myself with a nine-to-five schedule, a steady paycheck, a committed relationship, and an established career path.”
More than ever, I feel how comforting it would be to find myself with a nine-to-five schedule, a steady paycheck, a committed relationship, and an established career path.
And yet, every time I consider these alternatives, I know that turning aside to chase them would be profoundly unfaithful to my calling, a conviction that has only grown as I pursue this mission of music, hope, and storytelling. The value of this calling has not been dampened by its difficulty; in fact, that costliness is precisely what makes it more and more precious to me.
And I have no answers, just questionsto open up topics of discussionYou’ll have to shoot me to shut me up, I ain’t budging— “SPEAK”
A week ago, I sat at the Pie Hole, a favorite LA eatery, with another Asian American rapper. When I asked him about his own career, starting with moving to LA in 2007, he thought briefly, then spoke up: “Wrestling with depression.” We laughed together, a hard-earned laugh of commiseration and shared struggles. As I’ve come to know more and more artists over these years, this same doubt inevitably rears its head in our conversations; no matter how successful or talented, every artist I know regularly faces depression, fear, and inadequacy.
And yet we press on. How?
Over the past year, I’ve been studying men and women who changed their culture — Kurt Cobain, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Julian of Norwich, St. Augustine, and even Christ Himself. The lives of these spiritual, social, and creative giants are all marked by a familiar depression. I’ve concluded that this spiritual heaviness is perhaps not a curse, but rather a gift — a weight pushing me to confront my closest-held needs and wants. These deep-seated doubts are answered only by a rigorously honest soul-searching that, given the chance, I would quickly shy away from.
Spiritual heaviness is perhaps not a curse, but rather a gift — a weight pushing me to confront my closest-held needs and wants.
Yet, as all of these men and women faced the darkness of their own minds, they turned neither to the left nor right, but continued to plunge headlong into their own battles, as do so many of the musicians, poets, writers, actors, entrepreneurs, and painters that I know. Inspired by their courage, I have discovered how otherwise unimagined healing is possible when I own up to my inadequacies and seek out therapy, conversation, and am real with my peers, instead of trying to “stay positive” and “keep it together”.
I began this journey of music and hope thinking that it would be my way of serving our people, giving to our community, and changing our world. What I never expected was how much it would change me.
That’s the reason I see for this season in lifeI’m writing words, to give you something to believe in— “Shine With Me”
Brothers and sisters, do not follow your mission if you want to be happy. Do not be honest with yourselves if you want to be secure. Security is not the hallmark of groundbreaking work; happiness is far from guaranteed when you confront your demons.
Brothers and sisters, do not follow your mission if you want to be happy.
Fear is not necessarily the opposite of faith, but rather the foundation on which faith is built. A part of faith is knowing everything that could go wrong and still pressing forward.
A part of faith is knowing everything that could go wrong and still pressing forward.
Sadness is not the opposite of joy; peace does not exist in the absence of uncertainty. Instead, peace and joy are most precious in the midst of sadness and uncertainty.
To the bright-eyed, to the open-hearted, to the hopeful pilgrims whose hearts quake as they stand in the valley of the shadow of death: turn neither to the left nor right, but press on in the face of failure. Take heart, knowing that the path to your promised land lies through the wilderness, past the lions’ mouths, toward the flames and the darkness.
These challenges are not your enemies; they are allies, exercises that will shape you into men and women of tried and true faith.
By Jason Chu
PHOTOGRAPHY By Jack Yu
JASON CHU is a rapper on a mission to speak hope and healing in a broken world. He tells stories of a generation wrestling with fear and joy, greed and hope, hurt and healing. For more information, visit jasonchumusic.comand youtube.com/jasonchumusic.
JACK YU is a business major at the University of California, Irvine. His creative spirit drives his passion for photography and blogging. You can check out his work at jackyuphotography.com.