88rising in coachella rich brian
Rich Brian. Photo: Ivan Meneses

88rising on That Coachella Set and the Community That Made It Happen

Anything seems to be possible for the team that keeps their feet on the ground and their head in the clouds.
Angel Martinez
Quezon City, PH

Hikaru Utada emerged from a cloud of smoke on a Coachella stage. They launched straight into their hit “Simple and Clean,” from the beloved Kingdom Hearts soundtrack. In between Rich Brian and Jackson Wang, the Japanese pop superstar performed their greatest hits, from “First Love” to “Automatic.” It was a surreal moment for anyone who grew up listening to Utada and wished to watch them live.

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Utada’s first performance in a music festival was certainly enough to make history but then, shortly after came CL and then the rest of K-pop girl group 2NE1 reunited, which sent fans into a collective frenzy and reduced the internet to tears. 

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Hikaru Utada. Photo: Kevin Mazur, Getty Images

Orchestrating this from behind the scenes was 88rising founder and CEO Sean Miyashiro, who likened the process of putting it all together to “summer camp.” “Head in the Clouds Forever,” the label’s ensemble performance slot, aimed to gather Asian artists from the past, present, and future to give a glimpse of what they had to offer. The set also included Indonesian rapper Warren Hue, Thai rapper Milli, Korean singer BIBI, Indonesian singer NIKI, and K-pop girl group aespa, across the two weekends.

“Reaching out to Utada was kind of trippy, to be honest,” Miyashiro recalled. “[Utada’s] not really out in the public eye and is very simple in terms of what makes [them] happy and how [they] want to live with [their] family. But when we explained what we were trying to do, [they] never asked any questions and was always just down to discuss how we could celebrate [them].”

In a call with VICE, Utada mentioned that jumping onboard was practically a no-brainer, citing Miyashiro’s “passion, vibe, and good intentions” as their main reason for joining. Utada’s Coachella appearance was their first public performance in over three years and was not without its own set of difficulties. 

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“It was a big learning experience because of the [physical] environment, and I didn’t really know what to expect or what would happen. But throughout the preparations, I got to hear people’s stories about my songs, how old they were when they first heard them, and what it meant to them. I felt it was a bit overwhelming and very humbling at the same time," Utada said.

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2NE1. Photo: Natt Lim

Also reeling from his biggest gig thus far is 88rising’s poster boy, Indonesian rapper Rich Brian

“It’s been a long, long time of getting myself mentally prepared for it, and having that much time actually makes things even more nerve-wracking because, you know, it’s being built up as this big thing I’m going to do,” he shared with VICE. “But surprisingly, it was a really enjoyable experience: People flew in from Indonesia and also watched the livestream, which was just a crazy moment.”

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Rich Brian. Photo: Ivan Meneses

Keen to please those who tuned in to see him represent the homeland, the 22-year-old rapper performed “New Tooth” with a picture of Jakarta’s National Monument flashed on the big screen.

Rich Brian said that once he got off stage and scrolled through social media, he was floored by the positive response he received. A government official even likened his work to what BTS and Blackpink have achieved for South Korea. 

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Though he says it’s a “crazy, crazy standard” to be held to, it’s a sentiment shared by many around the world. Because of this, it’s normal to find artists like him up on pedestals: Expected to carry themselves in a way that represents their people and culture, or center their entire body of work on where they came from and what they’ve been through. But 88rising has a different approach to their craft.

“We always talk about how our way of changing perception is about being undeniably good at what we do. That’s our role,” Miyashiro said. “We’re not politicians—we’re artists and creatives, and our job is to put out things that make you feel some kind of way.”

“We always talk about how our way of changing perception is about being undeniably good at what we do.”

Rich Brian agreed, explaining that his songwriting—while heavily influenced by his Indonesian upbringing and worldview—doesn’t prioritize including the country’s distinct styles and beats. 

“There are certain times when I’m tapping into the music from Indonesia that inspires me, but it would feel weird if I forced our unique elements into my work just for the sake of representation. I wouldn’t want to overthink my art.”

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Jackson Wang. Photo: Ivan Meneses

Instead of positioning themselves as idols speaking for or on behalf of their audience, 88rising seeks to show what can be accomplished when in a community of equally talented Asian artists. 

Most, if not all, members of the team know the feeling of being outsiders, to some degree: In between cultures, striving to carve out their own unique space, but lacking role models in the media they consume.

Utada, for instance, grew up in a very international environment, constantly shuttling between the United States and Japan. 

“My understanding of Japanese society and culture is a mixed bag of direct influence as well as input as an outsider viewing and studying Japan,” they said. “It equipped me with a universal language and gave me a wonderful perspective that allowed me to see myself from outside. But I never felt that I was 100 percent worthy of claiming to be Japanese enough to represent them and their people.”

Meanwhile, Rich Brian immersed himself in all things American from a young age and initially struggled to find both an avenue for his ever-growing love for hip-hop and a place in Western culture. 

“I remember being in Indonesia, watching La La Land for the first time, and crying because I was such a big believer in following your dreams. I was in a situation where I wasn’t reaching it yet and there was always this doubt in the back of my mind like, ‘What if I’m just dreaming and it’s not gonna happen?’” he recalled.

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But since joining 88rising, Rich Brian has felt significantly less alone, with fellow Indonesians NIKI and Warren Hue as some of his most frequent co-writers and closest friends. 

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NIKI. Photo: Natt Lim

“Working with Asians in this music industry, where it’s very rare to find other people like us, really inspires me,” he said. “Whenever I see someone from my same background, it’s always nice to have that conversation with them where we can share our experiences and just ask each other how we’re feeling, and knowing and understanding where we’re coming from, instantly.”

Utada, on the other hand, has always found it difficult to share their creative process as a soloist who treats their body of work as an “escape from the rest of the world.” But since opening up a bit more and working with 88rising, Utada has felt a deeper connection to Asia. 

“In my previous experiences, my Asianness was usually shoved in my face in an uncomfortable way. But being around the brilliant people who were part of that set have made me more in touch with who I am,” they said. 

“In my previous experiences, my Asianness was usually shoved in my face in an uncomfortable way. But being around the brilliant people who were part of that set have made me more in touch with who I am.”

“I remember this one dancer who was part of the Beyonce performance in Coachella, who said that she was told to subdue her Asianness because [all the back-up dancers] had to fit in… But this was the first time she could feel proud and natural of who she is. I’m guessing many others felt that as part of this project.”

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88rising in coachella aespa

Aespa. Photo: Ivan Meneses

Both artists credit Miyashiro and his “spirit” for this unique culture they’re proud to take part in, one that banks on collaboration as the foundation of their creativity, and resembles a family more than anything else. When asked whether he intended to steer clear of the typical bureaucratic style of Asian CEOs, Miyashiro said it’s something that came naturally, given how 88rising was established in the first place. 

“I was working on this concept everyday at this little Dunkin’ Donuts, not knowing what was going to happen in the next 30 minutes, what more the next day. The nucleus of this all [coming together] is magical, and I feel it’s my role to protect this magic: To make sure that all these other forces don’t get in the way of why we started and what mentality we had in the beginning,” Miyashiro said. 

In fact, he is so careful to not lose what he’s built to ego and pride that he said he avoids using “hierarchical” and “business” terms altogether. For starters, he hates saying that he signs artists to his label. 

“Instead of that, I just want to say that I work with people I like and am inspired by. If I feel like we can nurture their creative vision, that’s awesome.”

This goes for everyone, even their newest recruits. All members of the team have the opportunity to learn from and work with one another. Case in point: “T,” Utada’s latest single with 88rising’s freshest face, 19-year-old Warren Hue.

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Warren Hue. Photo: Ivan Meneses

It can be difficult to stay true to this ethos when tenured names can mean easy, instant fame. Miyashiro admitted that he’s been approached by stars that come with a lot of clout but lack the vision he shares with his crew. 

“I’d rather have real long-term connection, real friendship, together. That’s what I can proudly say about every single artist on the Coachella stage. Those are the homies. They all love each other and being around each other. That’s where it’s at,” he said. 

Today, they’re headlining one of the biggest festivals in the world; tomorrow, they could be soundtracking or even starring in our next favorite movie. Anything seems to be possible for the team that keeps their feet on the ground and their head in the clouds.

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