My story is simple: I’m an immigrant.
Throughout my life, I’ve always wondered where I belong, and like a lot of people, I found stability and consistency through music.
With that, when people ask me where I’m from, the answer can be complicated. It usually starts with me moving to California back in 2011 for college and being raised in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Fiji. That might sound mind-bendingly adventurous to a lot of people, but when you actually want to be a working musician in the United States, you need to have the one thing that most immigrants don’t: a talent visa.
Unfortunately, obtaining a talent visa is a lot like entering a popularity contest—a contest I had no chance at winning—and so I applied for a more common work visa. This essentially boils down to playing the visa lottery, where the government more or less treats immigrants like ping pong balls. Despite the fact that the vast majority of these people have spent years making a life in America, the lottery is used to determine who gets the right to get to stay in the country.
Long story short: I lost.
As a temporary fix, I randomly moved to the north of France for a year to escape having to move back to India. It was the loneliest and most isolated I’ve ever felt. During my lowest point, both mentally and financially, I began to etch out the melodies and rhythms that would eventually help me sign a record deal in early 2017 with Tommy Boy Entertainment. With an album release imminent, my recording career looked more promising than ever. But at the same time, my personal life was a struggle: a long-distance relationship and a lack of relatable peers loomed over my head.
The only way I could return to the U.S. was by obtaining a student visa—this time for graduate school—and despite what may have been financially responsible, I couldn’t stand not being in the U.S. any longer. So, finances be damned, I re-entered the country to study in Austin, Texas. But what I didn’t know about my re-entry was that a student visa stipulates that the only place a visa holder can legally make money is on campus at their college or university. This meant that I wasn’t allowed to release music or perform at shows—even for free if someone else on the bill was making money.
Fast forward to February 8, 2018, the release of my 12-track debut album, Marbled. What should have been the highlight of my artistic career, however, quickly turned into an impending sense of doom as the now-household feeling of instability came rushing back—despite making it on NPR and several local radio stations, as well as being covered by the state newspaper and playing a few showcases at SXSW, the inevitable becomes reality: my semester is ending and my career is at a standstill without a talent visa.
As friends become distant and money begins to trickle away, I have to leap, but with precision and strategy. I have to apply for a talent visa and pray for the best outcome. I prepared a portfolio of press clippings, letters of reference—thank you, Z—and evidence that I am what is known as an “alien of extraordinary talent.” After submitting my application, an online form that will decide whether I’m a free man in America or if I’m told to leave the United States with a five-year suspension from re-entry, I go into what is known as "stasis." I'm barely eating, barely sleeping. I am simply awaiting a random and life-changing decision made by someone who doesn't know me and has never met me.
A week passes. Nothing. Several more days pass, still zilch.
On Wednesday, May 2, exactly three days before I was supposed to leave for a tour—a tour that I legally couldn’t be on—I received an e-mail notification on my phone. The words “electronic approval” flash before my eyes and I stop breathing. At the same time, my manager calls me and I storm out of class holding up my index finger to my phone while grinning at my teacher.
I call my girlfriend and she starts bawling profusely. We’ve been working towards this day for four years.
Hip-hop gave me everything I didn’t have—a sense of belonging, an illusion of safety, and a place to call home. But nothing has made me feel more alive than being able to pursue my passion without the fear of having to move again.
Am I living the immigrant dream? If the music’s good enough, I might just be on my way.