Fil-Am AJ Rafael ‘hates and loves’ YouTube star label
MANILA, Philippines – Musicians no longer need a record deal for their music to reach millions of people. YouTube has given birth to a new generation of performers. Among many of today’s most popular YouTube stars are our very own Filipino Americans.
Nowadays, in the United States especially, there is little difference between mainstream and the so-called 'YouTube stars'. Fans would scream just as loud at their concerts, they would often get stopped and asked for autographs and photos if they're spotted at the mall.
Other big name Filipino Americans on YouTube, aside from AJ Rafael, include Gabe Bondoc, Jeremy Passion, Melissa Polinar and Joseph Vincent.
In the case of AJ Rafael, just how did he get from recording homemade music videos to marking over 110 million hits across his YouTube channel? Rafael shared his story in a talk with Filipino American organization Next Day Better, “a culture platform that builds and activates diaspora communities to create a better future.”
Most Filipino parents would not have a music career in mind for their children. It’s a common complaint among many Fil-Ams that their parents push them into health professions.
But it's not the case with Rafael.
He started playing his first instrument at 5 as he was forced by his parents to take up piano lessons. “My mom and dad were in choir together. My dad was the musician in the family, which was a blessing now for me. Little did he know that I wanted to take his legacy and fulfill it,” he said. He was 10 years old when his dad passed away in 1999.
Rafael's music style crosses R&B, rock and acoustic. And he has come a long way since his first song How's San Diego Pauli.
Now Rafael has over 150,000 followers on Twitter, 500,000 subscribers on YouTube, and 100 million hits on the video-sharing channel. Music has allowed him to tour the world. He’s performed in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines.
"The only Asian-Americans they see in mainstream are like the karate dude, the math guy, or the psychic," he says. "It doesn't represent our people," Rafael laments.
Hollywood still has a long way to go in representing more stories about ethnic minorities and casting more diverse talent, but YouTube is helping Asian American performing artists get more exposure. Despite this, Rafael observes, "there's not enough of us in mainstream media... we all know that."
While Filipina singer Charice Pempengco would not fit the bill of a YouTube star, it was on YouTube where she was first discovered and invited by American talk show hosts Ellen Degeneres and Oprah Winfrey to guest on their shows.
"I've met so many talented Filipino-Americans just sharing their talent on stage," says Rafael. He believes the Asian-American community could play a lot more than just stereotypical roles.
While he says he's grateful for YouTube because it gives him a platform where he can connect to his listeners, make music, and even inspire other Asian-American musicians like him to create and share their music with the rest of the world – he concedes it has its downside. “I could fall off the stage and have no talent and be a YouTube star, so I always like being a musician first before a YouTube star,” Rafael says.
And so he looks beyond YouTube.
Rafael worked on his first independent film called Red Roses the Movie with fellow Filipino American actor Dante Basco and Kinetic Films in a project where he will be starring in a main role. Red Roses The Movie is a musical based on Rafael's album. The two began crowdfunding the project last year, but ceased production when Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the central Philippines in November 2013 so he could focus on “getting relief to the Philippines and the victims of Typhoon Haiyan."
Rafael also started a charity called Music Speaks that aims to raise awareness on autism. "When I found out that my nephew had autism, I didn't know what that was at all. I knew that a lot of people out there are on the same page as [I am], so I wanted to bring that component to my concerts," he explains.
Message in the music
For Rafael, it’s not the number of YouTube hits that measures the success of an individual – it has always been about inspiring people. “It was about connecting with the audience that you haven’t even met."
Rafael adds that it is his fans that make his music career meaningful. One of them was a 16-year-old cancer patient from Union City, California, named Zoe. She was battling Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
Upon her wish, Rafael surprised Zoe on her 16th birthday party and performed her favorite songs. Zoe died several months later.
“It’s amazing that somebody’s music especially mine can touch somebody’s heart like that,” Rafael says. “If you can touch somebody’s heart through your art and through something that you create, you’re just making their life a whole lot better through the hard times.” – Elland Gaba/Rappler.com
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