The first time Jason Chu heard a song that resonated with his Asian American experience was during his junior year of high school, when he heard ‘Got Rice?’ by AZN Pride. The song struck a chord in Chu, who grew up being homeschooled and then being surrounded by primarily White and African American peers in Delaware. Chu eventually ended up performing the song for his high school talent show. It was his first performance in front of an audience.
“There was something about being in front of everybody and saying something that resonated with me,” Chu recalled, saying that in retrospect, he realized that this experience was a launching pad to his current career.
That element of telling relatable stories is particularly prominent in his upcoming album. Chu is set to release his fifth album, ‘Arrivals,’ on Friday night with a live performance at the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles, the first of the many ‘Arrivals Story Nights’ he plans to host across the country. At the Story Nights, Chu and other musicians -- including Joe Kye, with whom Chu collaborated to create ‘Arrivals’ -- will not only perform some of the songs in the ‘Arrivals’ album, but also listen to stories from the audience and perform them on stage through spontaneous poems and lyrics.
The idea behind the ‘Story Nights’ aligns with the way Chu perceives his career, as something more than just music. By sharing stories, he hopes listeners who resonate with them would find healing, and also be empowered to share their own journeys.
“I hate concept of celebrity -- it says that I’m better,” Chu said. “But I want to let people know that we are you – we’re telling you. It’s about your story. Anytime you see me, you should be seeing you.”
This philosophy of storytelling stems from Chu’s Christian faith and his background in ministry, he says. Chu had been involved in a college ministry at Yale University (which is also his alma mater) and served as a full-time staff at an international church in Beijing. Chu also studied at Fuller Theological Seminary.
“Without faith, I wouldn’t have cared about people the way I do, and ministry is all about serving people,” Chu said. “And the music that I love, the music that I had been writing – it was therapeutic and a release for me, but it couldn’t just be for me. It had to be for others too.”
Chu’s songs explore some heavy topics. For instance, a song called ‘Peter’ from his first album ‘Much Love’ tells the story of a devoted church-goer who also has questions about his attraction towards other males, and unravels some of the internal and external pressures that he experiences. In ‘Red Lines’ from the album ‘Millennials,’ Chu opens up about his own struggle with self-harm and depression. Chu also talks of the first time he felt sexual attraction after looking at what is presumed to be a Victoria’s Secret poster of women in lingerie, and his internal battles with lust and porn in the song ‘no angels,’ also from the album ‘Millennials.’
“It’s a complete lie that silence, or covering up, makes you stronger,” Chu said. “The work of sanctification and salvation that gets carried out in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit is precisely this stuff – no longer fearing the darkness. The light in us has overcome the darkness; hiding the darkness just gives it more strength. And it’s just like saying that the light is not enough to overcome it.”
This is also the reason that Chu said he hopes these topics would be more widely discussed in the church. While Chu was involved in ministry, he said he felt that the church often thinks of outreach as events or sprints; but he says simply having these types of conversations make the faith more relevant to the everyday lives of congregants and seekers.
“You don’t have to be a musician to be creative and to talk about abuse or depression,” Chu said. “You can get creative with your liturgy, with your Thursday night youth group. But in order to be creative, you have to be honest and fearless.”
“There’s art in discernment and discipleship, too. Are we creative in how we approach these issues, or are we safe? The opposite of creativity is safety, because if we just stay safe, nothing gets created,” he added.
Though Chu himself no longer serves in ministry in a staff capacity, he says his aim to serve others is the same, whether within the church or outside of it, and doing even more than music. Chu has partnered with several groups, including with government agencies such as Alameda County and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) to speak out about issues such as mental health and bullying, and with mainstream media outlets like NBC Asian America to produce a series on Asian American musicians and how their religion affects their music, and vice versa.
Chu said these various roles give him different titles, such as “hip hop and spoken word artist, as well as a host and cultural commentator.”
“Internally though, I think of myself as a speaker. It’s all about giving voice to the things that need to be heard, always.”