In 2001, a 19-year-old Chinese-American rapper defeated opponent after opponent on BET’s televised freestyle rap battles, spitting rapid-fire rhymes insulting his opponent while building up his own skills and street cred. MC Jin Au-Yeung became the first Asian-American to be inducted into Freestyle Friday’s Hall of Fame after winning the contest seven weeks in a row, the first Asian-American to sign with rapper DMX’s Ruff Ryders, and the first Asian-American hip-hop star.
Jeff Chang of the San Francisco Bay Guardian wrote, “There’s a lot of history now resting on this kid’s slender shoulders. Hold that weight, Jin.”
Four years later, in 2005, former fans were asking, “Whatever happened to that Jin guy?” His first album, The Rest is History, was a flop. He parted ways with Ruff Ryders, and tried working on independent projects—but none of them succeeded. He started working on Chinese-language songs and eventually moved to Hong Kong to pursue a music career.
Recently I spoke to Au-Yeung over the phone, and his attitude toward life has lost its previous bravado. He says he’s thankful for the sudden rise and fall of his fame because it has brought him to where he is today—married with a 7-month-old son and working on music for a different purpose: “The beauty of coming into a relationship with Christ is that nothing else defines you but being a child of God and being loved by God. … It’s not based on performance, how many records I sell, how many battles I won.”
Looking back, Au-Yeung said he can now see how God has been working through his life and pursuing him. Born to immigrants from Hong Kong and raised in Miami, Au-Yeung grew up listening to different music genres before getting into hip-hop when he was 16. He liked that hip-hop was a lifestyle with its own fashion and vocabulary.
He started writing raps, sharing and performing them with friends and at school talent shows. He stumbled upon freestyle battling, where two rappers take turns improvising rhymes to one-up the other, and got hooked: “It was definitely a good way for me to solidify my art, to authenticate myself.” Freestyle battling gave him “a stamp of approval.”
When his family moved to New York, Au-Yeung started battling at different venues to hone his rhymes and flow. One day his agent got him on BET’s Freestyle Friday, where the 5-foot-6-inch Au-Yeung was automatically the underdog as the only Asian battling African-American contenders. He deflected racial insults and went on the offensive—often with vulgarities—to beat his opponents. For seven weeks Au-Yeung continued to win the battles, cultivating a large following wanting to hear his next clever lines.
“I felt like the king of the universe,” he remembers. “I just felt like all my hard work was starting to pay off.” Looking back, though, he sees the ways that fame went to his head: “It boosted my ego. … It drew me further from God.”
After his record deal, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly heralded Au-Yeung the MC as the next big thing. Asian-American fans cheered to see him succeed in an industry where Asians are underrepresented. Au-Yeung believed the hype, so when his album ended up selling only 19,000 copies in the first week—a flop by industry standards—he fell into despair.
He lost battles on the freestyle circuit, including one to rapper Serius Jones. Critics said his career was over. “I felt my identity stripped away. I didn’t feel like I had any self-worth, it was depressing,” Au-Yeung remembers. All the praise, the hype, the fame had gone.
In 2008, a friend introduced Au-Yeung to Chinese-American pastor Jaeson Ma who shared his testimony with him. Au-Yeung realized his need for a savior and was baptized the next day. He moved to Hong Kong and ended up staying four years rapping in Cantonese, acting in a few TV shows and movies, and deepening his faith.
He knew the freestyle culture, built on one-upping opponents and hurling obscenities, was eating at him, but he found it hard to let go: “I’m pretty sure it was pure ego, the fear that if I let this go, there is nothing left.” Gradually he realized how his songs were negatively influencing young teens who looked up to him.
His faith showed up in singles like “Welcome to the Light Club” and “Angels.” Even though some old fans were disappointed about his change in musical direction, he answered them in his music: “The word is ‘Jin’s puttin’ out Gospel music’ / See I prefer to call it ‘change your life music’ / All in hopes that one day you might use it.”
In 2011, Au-Yeung married his wife Carol, and they had a son the following year. They moved back to New York to be closer to family and he started making English albums again. In August 2012, he released Crazy Love Ridiculous Faith, his first English-language album in six years, which speaks of his new faith in Christ and praises God rather than himself.
Last June, 10 years after Au-Yeung’s induction into the Freestyle Friday Hall of Fame, he returned to the show for a reunion. The show allowed MC Jin to perform a 16-bar verse, and he used it to share his testimony: “By the grace of God I’m dropping this line / Watch my life transform like Optimus Prime / And guess what even if you don’t know me / All you need to know is that I ain’t the old me.”
At recent art auctions of Old Masters, “most works that cleared the million-dollar mark depicted secular themes,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Dealers speculated that the drop in demand for religiously oriented works was due to a growing number of Asian and Middle Eastern buyers, who “have little interest in decorating their homes with religious stories that don’t fit within their cultures.” —Susan Olasky