Son of Paper Raps for SF’s Immigrant Past and Future

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Three Asian American hip-hop artists hang out on a roof top.
Son of Paper (bottom right) with collaborators Chinoe (top right) and Seba (left). (Leonard Caoili)

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hen Kyle Shin’s maternal great-grandmother came to the United States, she was considered a “paper daughter”—a term used to label Chinese immigrants without citizenship after the Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 19th century.

For her and countless others, that meant acquiring forged documents by whatever means necessary to make their way from Angel Island onto California’s mainland. Somehow—like many ancestors—Shin’s great-grandmother made it. 

After settling down in Los Angeles, she took the name Bessie from an American-born Chinese girl—a common tactic for paper sons and daughters—and lived out her years with the looming burden of being undocumented. Despite systemic attempts to erase her and those who shared her “paperless” background, she planted roots on the West Coast and became part of a larger Asian diaspora, eventually anchoring down in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s a struggle Shin knows is still happening in 2021.

“We should try to understand this history and have more empathy and understanding since we are now going through the same thing we went through 50 to 100 years ago,” says Shin, whose new EP as Son of Paper, Always Autumn, came out on Dec. 11. “Today it’s still a similar problem for Latinos, Muslims and other groups. Given this context and that the anti-immigrant sentiment hasn’t gone away, I’ve been able to be reminded of the importance of the name I chose.”

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Shin is a 24-year-old rapper, singer and instrumentalist molded by this mixture of historical forces and present-day struggles. He doesn’t only speak for his great grandmother, though; he speaks for others, like his Korean family on his father’s side, who have also undergone struggles to assimilate into American culture after arriving in the 1980s.

Like many global transplants, Shin’s predecessors bought a home as soon as the opportunity emerged—for them, that was in the ’90s in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond district, a neighborhood where Asian residents have long thrived.

Shin considers himself “a City kid, through and through.” 

It didn’t take long for Shin to explore his creative interests, performing at open mics in high school, touring around East Coast campuses during his time as a college student, and eventually giving himself the name Son of Paper (SOP)—an homage to his Chinese lineage.

“Son of Paper is an important part of me as an artist because it’s not just about my own heritage,” Shin says. “It’s Chinese American history, of course, but it’s also symbolic and representative of the entire immigrant experience in America. A lot of us have had to bend and break many rules at times that aren't fair, that aren't designed to serve people of color in this country. For Chinese people, it was the paper situation.”

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lthough Shin’s music doesn’t delve into the full density of Asian immigration history, it does allude to the modern experience of being a Chinese Korean American who was born and raised in Frisco, a city with no shortage of immigrant struggles and eclectic influences. In this sense, SOP is mirroring his and his peers’ experience in a rapidly shifting region that his folks have made home.

After releasing a slew of catchy singles and his debut album, Paper Mache, in 2019, Shin has built a niche following with his soulful, singable tracks that draw from K-hip-hop, 2000s American R&B and golden-era hip-hop. K-hip-hop emerged from dance clubs during the 1980s, and Korea’s hip-hop dancers became more famous than the rappers. And unlike its American counterpart, it was a music focused on playful rhythms and pop-forward appeal rather than messages about street life.

“That’s where my verses come from. It’s trying to genre bend, and I don’t think it fits into any one of those boxes completely,” says Shin. “That’s what happens when you grow up in the Bay—it all just gets mixed up into one.”

Shin’s early records boast this sort of interest and pride in his Asian background. “LINSANITY” pays tribute to Jeremy Lin, the only Taiwanese player in NBA history who also happens to be from the Bay Area. On “Soju Over Ice,” Shin jokes that Korean liquor is overpriced in the United States despite only costing a few bucks in Korea.

Shin’s new EP, Always Autumn, is perhaps the most polished example of a music that isn’t singular, but happily vacillates somewhere between these various modes. Songs like “On My Way” showcase a smooth, neo-soul vibe, while “Phonograph” is reminiscent of a Korean love song in English. The lead single, “Always,” is a lush, bilingual duet ready for airplay, whereas the opening joint, “Autumn,” features piano-laced jazz with the clever wordplay of a boom-bap lyricist. From track to track, the emerging artist demonstrates a range of vocal harmonies and well-selected features that pronounce his album’s overall soundscape of love, heartbreak and rebirth.

Kyle Shin, a.k.a., Son of Paper, chose a rap name that pays homage to his ancestors who immigrated to the U.S. during the Chinese Exclusion Act. (Leonard Caoili)

The album is a conceptual reflection of the fall season, a time of growth, change, browning leaves and an extended darkness that follows the joy of spring and summer. Though it only features five tracks—and a bevy of appearances, including co-conspirators Rymeezee, Debset, Chinoe and Seba—it feels matured, full-bodied and cohesive, demonstrating Son of Paper’s ability to poeticize harmoniously over a spectrum of upbeat and smooth instrumentals.

Regardless of categorization, his music slaps with a new-school Bay Area energy, while infusing a sense of playful lightness and meditative contemplation that feels in line with Korea’s pop aesthetic.

“There’s just so much nostalgia and sadness in the project, but also the determination to succeed,” he says. “The best part about music is that it’s not just about what I or my featured artists are saying. I’m most excited to see how people draw different meanings from it for themselves.”

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rior to Shin, I hadn't really listened to anything that could be considered K-hip-hop or K-R&B. Shin is careful not to claim the genre as his own, though, since he says he “hasn’t been grinding in the actual Korean scene” to be considered a true K-hip-hop artist. Instead, he respects the hustle of influential talents like Jay Park, Dean and DPR Live—who he credits as some of the major Korean rappers who have helped to shape the scope of his music.

And Shin is just as studious about Eminem, J. Cole and P-Lo as he is about acts like 88rising—a multinational music company with an Asian-centric focus—and offonoff, a South Korean R&B electronica duo.

He is interested in this wideness of music, yet doesn’t shy away from his deeper commitments.

“I want to explore meaningful topics in my music about myself and my community,” Shin says. “Even the things that are dark and serious. I want to acknowledge what we’ve survived and that we’re getting past the negativity. I want to use my music for good. It’s like a little hint of sunshine. I try to keep a pulse on culture and history, and I know there is so much sadness and pain there. But I still have faith in the goodness of people and that’s part of the SOP brand and music.”

His efforts extend beyond the recording booth. During the height of the pandemic, Shin helped organize and promote multiple fundraisers and events throughout Chinatown, teaming up with local nonprofits like Color of Change, Cameron House, Chinatown Community Development Center and St. Anthony’s to raise what he says was a total of $4,000. He’s performed at events like the Autumn Moon Festival, which the San Francisco Chinatown Merchants Association hosts every year, and launched a podcast, Tea With My Uncle Irohs, in which he interviews his mentors, OGs and community members for their game and wisdom.

A graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut with a degree in East Asian Studies, Shin isn’t half-stepping when it comes to cultural engagement. Though he’s not the first Asian American rap or rap-adjacent artist to emerge out of the 415 (listen to Kero One, Lyrics Born, Rocky Rivera, DJ Qbert and Equipto for an introductory course on this extensive subject), he is among the youngest and livest currently doing it, and seems primed to carry the torch forward.

“My fight is bigger than myself, and even my own community. I can’t give up,” Shin declares. “If I give up and don’t pursue my creativity, then in a sense it kind of continues the dominant narrative of Asian Americans not harnessing a voice. That narrative is just not true. We definitely out here.”

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Catch Son of Paper headlining at Gaeul Tour: An Evening of K-R&B and K-Hip-Hop on Saturday, Dec. 18, at Lion's Den Lounge and Bar (57 Wentworth Place, San Francisco, CA). Free, donation-based event.