My overcrowded subway train screeched to a stop at Dundas station, and as I was weaving my way past the massive sea of people, I was grumpy for two reasons. The first being the pain that is riding the TTC during rush hour, and the second being the fact that my Spotify playlist had abruptly stopped because I had forgotten to download the songs.
I made it out of the train alive, buried myself into my massive blanket scarf and speed-walked out of the station, eager to reconnect to my personal soundtrack. To my delight, my music resumed as I made my way up the steps and onto the street. I was listening to my Discover Weekly playlist – a specially curated mixtape of 30 new songs that Spotify’s magical algorithms meticulously and specially curate for you – when a song came on that had my head bopping and my eyes widen in awe and approval.
Spotify had done it again. The sound, the lyrics – everything was right up my alley. The music, with its smooth beat paired with a melodic piano riff was modern and jazzy, the lyrics, speaking about the finite reality of life, were simple yet poetically eloquent. I quickly whipped out my phone to see who the artist was, and simultaneously began to scroll through the rest of his repertoire while frantically texting my friends to check him out.
The artist was rapper Uzuhan, formerly known as J. Han.
A Maryland native now living in Atlanta, Uzuhan is of Korean descent, his parents having immigrated to the States before he was born. Growing up listening to 1970s disco and jazz and having discovered hip-hop while in middle school – at a time when he was simply searching for a community of his own – Uzuhan has always grown up with music playing in the background. However, it was not until his freshman year of college that his musical career really took off. With the help of singer-songwriter Sam Ock – who is currently pursuing music under the same label as him – Uzu was able to really discover the true potential of the gifts and abilities he had.
As a person of colour and a musician who draws much of his inspiration from his Christian roots, Uzuhan is part of the minority in more than one way. But he does not let that put him in the corner. In fact, he uses these very things to set him apart from the crowd.
No one puts Uzu in the corner
He has been doing so by being unapologetically real, honest, and raw with his music – he doesn’t shy away from topics of faith and racial discrimination. He stays true to his character and core values.
Having experienced first-hand the injustices and misunderstandings that come from being marginalized – take a listen to Cleaner’s Kid, where he raps about life as an immigrant in rigorous blue-collar work – Uzuhan strives to be a voice for the lesser heard. He’s doing so by creating music in a genre that some might say is oxymoronic – Christian Hip-Hop.
Navigating the contemporary hip-hop scene (with mung beans and tofu always on hand)
Christianity and hip-hop don't seem like they'd be compatible in today's market. But in the past, many famous rappers were believers – most notably, the late Tupac Shakur – with religious nuances present in their verses and rhymes. Even in present day pop culture, rappers such as Kanye West, and Jay-Z are making music with messages about God. But in one way or another, the language of “Christian Rap” remains rather coded.
Despite this, Uzuhan, along with many other artists – such as Lecrae, Trip Lee, MC Jin, Gowe, BewhY – are slowly pushing out this niche genre, that places Christianity above the nuance, and into the mainstream. It is in fact through this relatively small, niche audience, that Uzuhan has been able to realize which listeners to target. Having performed and recorded music with AMP – a trio of Christian rappers that aside from Uzu, include Sam Ock and CL – in the early stages of his musical career, Uzu often questioned why their music was not reaching outside the Asian, Christian demographic.
“In 2013, we met up with one of the founders of Rapzilla – [the most visited destination for all things Christian rap & Christian hip hop] – and we asked him the million-dollar question: ‘How are we going to keep growing? How can we broaden our sphere of influence?’
And he asked us: ‘You guys do a lot of things at Korean churches, conferences, campus ministries, right? Do you think they would really consider bringing someone out like Lecrae or some of these other mainstream Christian hip-hop artists?’
The answer was, probably not. And so, our path became very clear: to continue to build our database of Asian-American fans and get that fan-base so big that we make other markets notice us.”
From the beginning, Uzuhan has continuously received overwhelming support from Asian-Americans – as much of his music tells a narrative that they can make their own. As of late, his efforts to broaden his scope of influence – as advised by the Rapzilla founder – has reached a new listenership: Black and Latino females.
“What I’ve noticed in the recent years is [that] a lot of Black and Latina girls have listened to my music. Specifically, people who are fans of K-pop music. Not that I’m saying it’s only Black and Latino people who are listening to K-pop, but those two people groups have really supported me a lot. And of course, Asian-Americans – I’m not forgetting about them.”
The unexpected bridge of K-pop to Hip-Hop
Even so, being a person of colour, and especially an Asian-American in the hip-hop scene is definitely not easy. But as I spoke with Uzuhan, he recounted to me how fortunate he felt being in this industry at a time where the ins and outs of hyper-masculinity are being challenged rather than enforced. And interestingly enough, he feels as though he owes a large amount of this shift– as well as his diversified audiences –to the rise of K-pop (Korean pop).
“Hyper-masculinity still is prevalent especially in the hip hop industry, but that is why I’m actually thankful for genres like K-pop. People who listen to K-pop can understand that someone can be sensitive and delicate, while not compromising being handsome, dashing, and strong.”
In the culture of K-pop, male artists are known and loved for their ability to portray both sensitive and cutesy sides while simultaneously ripping it on the dance floor.
“I get overwhelming support and love from [my listeners], and I think that it’s because [they] understand the nuances of different types of men, and also Asian men in general. And because of that, I’ve made it a point to own in on that audience, and really get to know and understand them more. I don’t think hyper-masculinity is a problem in these crowds, and I’m really thankful for the people who can really view me as a serious artist who has legitimate art to present to the world.”
But just as Uzuhan has been strategically using his Korean roots to position himself in crowds that can truly resonate with his art, he also faces his fair share of challenges because of these very roots.
“Being Korean-American, people don’t really take me seriously when doing music. I find myself facing little micro-aggressions: I’m often mistaken for stage crew, even though I’m the one performing. Before, my style was relatively normal and plain, but as my style and tastes evolved, I made sure to dress in a way that was a little more out there – I was tired of being mistaken for crew.”
Shining light through Christ in rap, rhymes, and relationships
In the highly competitive music industry, and more specifically the hip-hop industry, it can be hard to stay grounded amidst all the blitz and glam. I asked Uzuhan how he has come to reconcile his identity as a Christian and his identity as a rapper – two seemingly polar opposite traits – while staying true to himself and his values and beliefs.
“Always staying true to yourself as a Christian is hard in any sphere of influence or vocation. I think in hip-hop rap, though, it’s actually a little easier. Hip-hop listeners value an artist that is genuine, real – and so these virtues are already expected, they are presuppositions to this genre of music.
I used to think that if I even mentioned the word ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’, people were going to hate it – I was often fearful of that. But it’s so crazy, all of my friends who are unbelievers – who couldn’t care less about Christianity – they’ll listen to my music and really enjoy it. And I’ve learned that I have no reason to be afraid. I create music as an expression of who I am, and if people in general don’t like that, or are venomously against Christianity, they won’t like anything I put out.
So, I’m not concerned about them anymore. I don’t focus on making my music 100% Christian – although that is important – I make sure that my life and character is wholly reflective of my faith and my beliefs as a Christian. That’s where I put most of my stock, and the values and lifestyle that I practice as a Christian naturally flow into my music.”
He puts the emphasis on the behind-the-scenes moments, investing his time and efforts into his character above all else. And for Uzu, climbing the social ladder is one of the last things on his mind – although he does promise that Uzuhan will be one of the most influential Asian-American artists in the near future.
This has naturally led those who encounter Uzu and his team to question just how he is able to always find joy, no matter the circumstance.
“I travel with a team, and we are all believers, and our mission is to be ambassadors of light. We know that we’re not going to win people by just bashing them with the Gospel. So, for me, I found it to be an incredible mission field – we meet so many people and when they encounter us, they’re floored by how we are able to live such content, joyful lives.
And when people ask, it’s plain and simple: I’m a Christian, I love Jesus and I get a lot of joy knowing that I’m his son. And that’s something that you will never get across solely through the music.”
As Uzuhan continues to navigate the hip-hop scene with his edge of melodic, rhythmic beats paired with his powerful and important messages that celebrate his faith, his roots, and the love of hip-hop, I have no doubt that he will keep his promise – to be one of the top influential Asian-American artists of his time.
He will only continue to gain more prominence on the musical radar, and hopefully be picked up by more of Spotify’s Discover Weekly algorithms. And since discovering him, I’ve been extra careful to always ensure that my playlist is downloaded and ready to be listened to, even when I’m on the subway.