How music strengthens Spence Lee’s connection to his Asian roots



For up-and-coming rapper and creative Spence Lee, one of the biggest blessings that come with being a performer is traveling and experiencing different cultures.

And his recent signing with 88rising—the media company known for championing Asian music and creativity on the world stage—has only allowed Spence to forge a deeper connection to his roots.

“They’re passionate about supporting Asian music and Asians in music of whatever genre … I really respect that about them. They do a lot to push me and give me opportunities to showcase my skills, tell my stories. They gave me a platform. It’s inspiring,” he told the Inquirer in a recent interview arranged by Blackstar Asia.

Spence, who’s of Vietnamese and Chinese descent, was born and raised in New Jersey, United States. While he has been to Japan and Vietnam in the past, it wasn’t until his participation in 88rising’s touring music festival, “Head in the Clouds,” that he started to see and know more about Asia.

“I hadn’t really been around Asia. But since joining 88rising, I have been to many places in Asia, where I’ve been able to connect with different cultures and people. I’ve been to the Philippines and Indonesia. We also went back to Vietnam. So, it truly is a blessing to travel the world,” he said.

Especially touching and fascinating for Spence was his recent stop in his paternal grandparents’ hometown in Guangzhou, China.

“I didn’t realize ‘Head in the Clouds’ was headed there. And I didn’t know that was where my grandparents were from. I thought it was a beautiful thing. I had visited the Chinese side of my family in New York, and I let them know I was going there. They were so happy and excited for me,” he said.

“I was just thankful. I made sure I was aware and enjoyed the moment while I was there,” added the 27-year-old rapper, who’s also under American producer Mike Will Made It’s own label, Ear Drummers.

Known for his soulful and melodic take on hip-hop, Spence, who used to go by the stage name “Shotta Spence,” is behind the hits “Write My Name,” “Word of Mouth” and “Arriba,” the track that helped him establish his sound.

He’s a multihyphenate creative: He directs music videos, he’s into visual arts and drawing, he designs clothes, styles people and has walked for big labels like Yeezy.

Now, he’s back with a new single, titled “Spend My Days,” a sultry and captivating R&B track that sets the tone for his upcoming new album. And by marrying all his creative pursuits and talents, he hopes to come up with an album and visuals that are uniquely his.

Our Q&A with Spence:

Tell me about “Spend My Days.”

It’s a love song, but not necessarily about a person. It could be about your mother, father, daughter, son, siblings or pet. It could be about whatever you love, or whatever you spend your whole day with, or whatever you need to see and have every day of your life. It’s real soulful and groovy with real, warm and positive vibes.

It is sultry and soulful. How did you come up with your sound?

I grew up on soul, R&B, funk, reggae—music my dad used to listen to. I grew up on Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind and Fire, Isley Brothers and Funkadelic. And even artists like Andre 3000 from OutKast, Kid Cudi and Kanye West. They’re hip-hop to the core, but their music is still melodic and has rhythm, harmony and movement. That’s the heart of everything.

I love R&B. I love soul samples. I love classic hip-hop. And I integrate those into my own style. Artists like Future and Drake are rappers, for sure, but they can make R&B and all types of songs.

I have never limited myself to being just a “rapper” or somebody who has to stick to one style. I have always looked at myself as an all-around musician.

Can we expect the same for your upcoming album?

There are going to be songs with the same soulful vibes. There’s going to be hard-hitting rap songs and even introspective rap songs. This album I’m coming out with is really unique. It’s not something that will make you go, “Oh, this sounds like this or that person.” The music will be my own style—something that feels good and is meaningful, something that can make you move and will make you want to play it at different times of the day.

The music video features two people who somehow end up finding each other as they travel through different eras.

You know how there’s a common theme in films right now about multiverses, alternate dimensions, alternate realities and all that stuff? I wanted to play on that concept and just represent true love as something that transcends time, space and eras … as something that’s constant.

I wanted to show a couple still finding each other in every time period, and they’re still the freshest, the “fly-est.”

The video has a nostalgic vibe. How involved were you in the creative process?

I came up with the concept of showing movement as the time period changes. And I’m blessed to have a director like Medet, who can take that idea and actually bring it to life. He knows how the characters should dress like, how the sceneries should look like, how the transitions should be done. It was a perfect combination.

Did you also do the styling? How does it feel being able to incorporate your other artistic pursuits into your music?

Actually, it’s a dream come true. I have always been somebody who was into visual art, drawing, fashion, music, videos. Even before I became an artist, I’ve shot and edited music videos for my friends. I have also been designing clothing.

In the music video scene where I was riding a horse, I wore a poncho that I sewed together. I made the denim pieces. There was a bandana that was done in collab with Microsoft using their AI technology … I was able to bring together all my creative facets.

It feels dope. That’s my goal—to do all these things creatively and build a world that can hopefully inspire others to do the same and continue building their art.

Did you always know that you were going to be a music artist?

I always dreamed of it since I was a little kid. I always knew I wanted to be a performer. I always was in love with music. I always envisioned myself having hit records and having the ability to make a crowd excited and energized with music.

But I didn’t start pursuing music until I graduated high school. And even then I was just doing it for fun. In middle school, I thought I was going to be a dancer; in high school, a track athlete; and later on, a fashion designer.

But through those different phases in my life, music remained. I was always writing music and getting my thoughts and my emotions out on tracks. And once I graduated high school, that was when I realized that it’s in music where I can make the most positive change in the world.

Did you have any training?

I wasn’t musically trained. Everything I have learned is by ear and by having good mentors who helped me hone my skills as an artist, writer, producer and musician. There were things that I just developed through experience and trial and error … and asking questions.I played trumpet for a little bit in middle school, but I didn’t like it. I finally just found my swag around 2014, 2015. I was like, well, now I know how to write songs and hooks. I understand scales and all that stuff.

Is it challenging trying to excel in all these different fields?

You’ve got to focus on one thing at a time. But I use the other things as breaks and therapy. Like sometimes, when you’re working so long on something, you want to take a break, then do something else to reset your mind.

Right now, and for the past 10 years, my focus has been music. But design and visual art and drawing have always been there to be used as a release. And they go hand in hand: My music helps my visual art, and my visual art helps my music. It also helps me stay creative.

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It’s all about maintaining a balance and picking one thing to focus on at a time, so I don’t spread myself too thin. INQ

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