PASADENA, Calif. — Artists across the country have been struggling to find consistent work since the pandemic began, but there are innovative efforts to keep art of all kinds alive. A nonprofit is helping artists across the country make a living and pass their talents on to the next generation.
Hip hop artist Jason Chu is glad to be part of this effort.
“Hip hop has always been about communities on the margins, re-centering the narrative on themselves,” said rapper Jason Chu.
Throughout his life and career, Chu found himself on the margins often.
“Growing up Chinese-American kid in Delaware, I never thought I'd get to do music professionally because, I mean, A, I was from Delaware. Not a lot of people do that from Delaware, and B, definitely racially.”
However, his music paved his path to standing out and standing up for his community. His work focuses on identity and equity and understanding.
“If you told me, like, ‘Yo, man, you're going to have a career as an Asian-American rapper who speaks on history, who speaks on society, who speaks on systemic inequity,’ I would have been like, ‘Man, that's crazy!’ It's always been really difficult to make a sustainable living off of art,” said Chu.
He’s made a career traveling the country performing and visiting colleges to speak about the messaging in his music.
“My parents taught me: you're here for a reason, you're here to leave the world better. And I felt like the music was actually a place where I could touch the world.”
When the pandemic silenced stages across the country, Chu and artists across the country quickly found themselves out of work.
Chu said the pandemic was tough at first but then became a huge opportunity.
“We were able to do a lot of virtual concerts, do a lot of virtual workshops,” he said.
His message of acceptance became more important than ever with the rise in anti-Asian violence across the country.
“Being able to pivot quickly to that medium led to me actually connecting further with my audience.”
But Chu said these temporary solutions of online concerts and other events, once the only safe option, are permanently changing the arts industry as we know it.
“It's a generational shift. We have not seen anything like this in our lifetimes. If you're on Broadway, if you're, you know, on film sets, there's so many logistical challenges right now. We can't be reliant on legacy frameworks in order to connect us with our audience. We got to go find our audience where they're at,” said Chu.
Artists at Work is helping find those audiences. From poets to painters to musicians, the nonprofit is paying artists’ salaries to support creatives through the pandemic, and in return, the artists give back and invest in art education.
“In so many ways, it supports people and voices who are speaking into their communities in ways that inspire and uplift. Really, the goal is helping to build a vision for what life and community can look like.”
For Chu, that means mentoring up and coming artists and creating educational projects with nonprofits like the Japanese-American Museum and Advancing Justice.
“I'm super excited to create art in collaboration with them. My mission with my music was always to speak hope and healing in a broken world,” he said.
Chu said it will take art to keep hope alive in this country and specifically art created by voices from the margins.
“Any major cultural shift was always accompanied by artistic creation,” said Chu. "You look at the Civil Rights movement, Black Power movement, the Asian-American movement, it's always been accompanied by new art.
He sees the change brought on by the pandemic as the next moment for creativity to be reborn.
“Art has a deep possibility to show people a different world. Whether we build it or not, that's another question. But I think art can help people see that something beyond what they see right now is possible.”