Interview with AJ Rafael: on YouTube, new collaborations, and audience chemistry

AJ Rafael is a popular singer-songwriter, with over 550,000 subscribers on YouTube. He was one of the guest judges at Kollaboration Star 2014. He has released two EPs, “Juicebox” in 2010 and “Beautiful Escape” in 2013, as well as an album, “Red Roses,” in 2011. In June, he announced in a letter published on New Media Rock Stars that he would take a hiatus from live performance in order to reassess his path in music.

Kollaboration recently caught up with him about his hiatus, current projects, and strategy for judging the contestants of Kollaboration Star.


It’s been about six months since you announced on New Media Rock Stars that you were going to take a hiatus from live performance. How has that been for you so far?

I took my very first “vacation.” It was the first time that I got to travel not for a show or any kind of other business, like no meet and greets or anything. That was in New York.

Since taking a step back from live performance, have you learned anything new about yourself that you didn’t know before?

I think right now, I’m still at the beginning of it, but it’s given me a lot of time to reflect and appreciate what I’ve done so far, but also explore other things that I haven’t been able to do in music – like theater, specifically musical theater, and collaborating with other artists that I didn’t really have time for because they lived out of state. I’m planning a lot more trips and collaboration with other YouTubers.

Also, hopefully I’ll audition for shows in New York or LA. I’m going with the flow instead of having a schedule for my next show. I’m always worrying about the next show and I’m tired of doing all that stuff for now. I’m not sure if I’ll get back to that anytime soon, but I gave myself a year from when I started the hiatus. I announced it six months ago, but I officially started it September 6th. I gave myself a year from that to figure it out and hopefully come back with maybe a new sound or maybe not come back until after that and try something really different. There are so many possibilities that I can discover during my hiatus.

When performing live, it’s important to have that chemistry with the audience.

In your letter, you talked about how maintaining your status as an independent artist has gotten increasingly difficult over the past few years; with YouTube becoming more mainstream, cover artists becoming more of a trend, and the pressure to meet expectations like getting a certain number of views or filling up venues. Do you have any thoughts on how this will change over the course of the next few years?

I talked a lot to people at YouTube and I have expressed my concerns on where it’s going – specifically the YouTube Music Awards; how last year it was very mainstream. I think that YouTube audiences knew that they were trying to enter into a mainstream audience, when YouTube’s audience is not a mainstream audience. I think that YouTube now is doing a better job at showcasing and highlighting creators who use YouTube as a platform for their art and for their skills, and not just people who happen to have covers of mainstream artists.

YouTube is doing a lot for creators. I know that intention is in the right place, but I do also realize that they need to adhere to or basically listen to the money that’s being spent on them. I know that they’re probably caught up in a vine. My hope is that we will see a lot more independent creators being featured. I’m not sure if that’s going to be anytime soon, but hopefully, in the next few years, it does.


Have you been working on any projects recently? You and Dante Basco were collaborating to make a musical based off of your “Red Roses” album prior to Typhoon Haiyan hitting the Philippines last year. Are you two planning to take up that project again?

It’s kind of tough to say with “Red Roses” because a movie requires so much money – it’s a lot of money to me. I guess in the movie world, what we were asking for was $75,000 – it’s not even a lot. It was tough to know that we didn’t get enough funding for that so unfortunately, that won’t be happening anytime soon. But I’m still working on other stuff. We’ve been working on this thing called We Own The 8th (#The8th or #WeOwnThe8th) which is a collective movement for Asians to release their content and collaborate with each other. We meet every 8th of the month in downtown LA. There are other movements that I’m working on currently. There are other projects – really collaborations with some people that I’ve never got to collaborate with. I’m collaborating with my friends the Gardiner Sisters and just making some music.

Kollaboration’s goal is to not only highlight up-and-coming performers from the AAPI community, but encourage people to pursue their goals and dreams. What was your perspective on being a guest judge at Kollaboration Star?

I haven’t judged before. I have been part of Kollaboration as a guest performer and contestant. One of the biggest things that I was afraid of was getting the judges to like me and trying to impress those judges. For me, what I watched out for was how they connected with the audience. It’s not about the judges at all; it’s about the artists and their connection and their ability to show their art to an audience. I just want them to be themselves. Everyone can sing nowadays and everyone can put a cool YouTube video up. But when performing live, it’s important to have that chemistry with the audience.

Photos courtesy of Chasz Everet, Melly Lee, and Felicia Tolentino.

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