Adding RGB to an All White World with Tin
If the music industry in America isn't hard enough to break into already, being a minority doesn’t help much. Historically, Asian-American artists have been pigeonholed, glazed over, not taken seriously. The rise of social media and self-made visibility has definitely helped with artists such as PSY, Awkwafina, Rich Brian, ZHU and Yaeji, who have recently garnered hundreds of thousands of fans. Slowly but surely Asian-American artists are beginning to get the recognition they deserve. Brandon Mai, known as Tin, is riding that wave while making some of his own. The Oregon native grew up with one foot in American culture and the other in Vietnamese, exploring his identity through both, all while trying not to stick out like a sore thumb. I met Brandon at a loft party in Bushwick where he vulnerably poured his heart out to an audience of artists and friends. You can see him recreate this performance at Baby’s All Right, June 10th with Keith LaFuente and Matilda Sakamoto. Get your tickets here.
POND: How would you describe your music?
Tin: I’m still defining it. It’s definitely R&B rooted, R&B is somewhere in the title. I guess why I'm confused about it, is because recently I’ve been listening to a lot of different music and that’s a new thing for me because I’m usually just an R&B dude. People like Frank Ocean, Daniel Caesar, SZA, Erykah Badu... There’s this wave of new stuff called ‘Anti-Pop’. It’s guys like Cuco and Steve Lacy, lo-fi, guitar rock that have these poppy choruses. That whole genre is kind of opposite of R&B but I’m really into the hooks from that music.
POND: It’s all really new for you, right? How long have you been making your music?
Tin: This project has been going on for a year. Even in that short amount of time it’s changed so much. I don’t know if that’s long enough to be able to define one’s artistry. But, I feel like if I spend too much time trying to label it now, it’s like "well what if I want to change it?" So, short answer, my genre is neo-R&B. Because the "neo" aspect of it let’s me experiment and stretch it a bit. And that’s what has resonated with me about Frank [Ocean]. He’s pushed the boundaries of a genre that otherwise hasn’t evolved much. Like, bringing in Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead to help produce his album... hell yeah, do that! Why not? Even the subject matter. He’s talking about his existential dread over experimental R&B instrumentation instead of exclusively talking about sex and drugs.
POND: Tell us about your first song "RGB".
Tin: I started writing just to put something down and get it out. It might turn out dumb but it’s always best to just get something out. I’m a designer/art director at my day job and one of the nerdy things I was trying to incorporate in this song was the idea of color spaces. I thought I could make some visual metaphors about being a colored person. RGB and CMYK are color spaces in design, so one lyric I wrote down was, “must be that I’m RGB cause I’m never in the press.” Since you can’t print RGB, and because Asians are extremely underrepresented in the media, then I must be RGB. As a colored person, I wonder, "what is my fight in this movement?" In ‘RGB’, I draw a parallel between the color space and myself, a colored person. I’m part of the colored population that really isn’t shown yet, but, working on it!
Another lyric in the song is, “someday CMYK but printed on a white page.” That’s a reference to how we might still get representation, but through a white lens. There’s a movie that Matt Damon was in called The Great Wall where he plays an Asian General and Willem Dafoe plays a Chinese person. In Ghost In A Shell, Scarlett Johansson plays an Asian robot woman. No one is completely outraged by it. There are no protests... Then there’s a whole conversation about how yellow people are pretty submissive. There’s no outward rage from people like us, so people tend not to care.
POND: How has being Vietnamese-American affected your journey to finding yourself and doing what you want to do?
Tin: That was a huge reason why I shunned music for a while. Growing up in a Vietnamese-American household, you are expected to be a lawyer, a doctor... you gotta get straight A’s. You have to do something that is "logical" and "practical". It’s interesting to note, though, that my entire family is extremely musical. My parents are always playing music and singing around the house. My brother played the guitar and piano as we were growing up but it was always like “Let’s be clear here, it’s just a hobby!”
My dad would buy me a cool camera or something because he’s so into me expressing myself artistically, but the catch was always “make sure you get straight A’s.” Moving out of that environment and making decisions on my own as an adult—the way I express and deal with my identity—has changed so much. There are boundless amounts of tiny microaggressions and ways you are perceived as a Vietnamese-American. I grew up in a very white state and sometimes I would even forget I was Vietnamese. All my friends were white, my entire school was white. I would only remember I was different when I looked in a mirror. I realized that I was acting white and wanting to be more white because it was powerful and important. It was what girls in high school were looking for. If I was too Asian, if I brought the smelly fish sauce food that I loved to school or practiced "strange traditions", I would have been too different.
Everything about me, in a pervasively white culture is inherently "uncool" or "unsexy." So how do I win? How do I make my identity awesome? And that’s where my affinity for music came in. All my life, my music had been a superpower. In middle school, I was so proud of my voice because I wasn’t the stereotypical math kid. I remember people would ask me to sing in the cafeteria. It gave me a stake in social circles because I have a talent that doesn’t follow the stereotype.
POND: What can we expect from Tin moving forward?
Tin: I’m gonna release a single on Spotify and iTunes this month, and start conceptualizing and choreographing the next music video with my friend who’s a Juilliard dance program graduate. Stay tuned!