There has never been a shortage of lyrical warriors to champion their neighborhoods across the 415; from RBL Posse’s A Lesson to Be Learned in 1992 to Stunnaman02’s Healthy Gas in 2022, San Francisco rappers have always showcased an array of the region’s most underrepresented voices, while inviting outsiders to see the world from their unique positionality.
Add to that list of Frisco storytellers a rising advocate: Kyle Shin, better known as Son of Paper, whose journey into cultural expression began as a youth while attending after-school programs at Cameron House in Chinatown—one of San Francisco’s oldest cultural centers. There, the artist learned how to hone his skills as an adolescent chess player, poet and hooper—subjects that are artfully laced into his previous singles like “Chess Rap,” “LINSANITY,” and “Soju Over Ice.”
The 24-year-old Shin’s emergence highlights an area that traditionally hasn’t been viewed as a factor when it comes to the rap game: Chinatown. But the neighborhood’s importance is something the rapper and vocalist is pridefully leaning into with his latest 7-track project, From a Rooftop in Chinatown, to be released January 20 on all streaming platforms. (He’ll be featuring songs from the album at Lions Den, SF, Fri/16 and at Cameron House in February. Follow Son of Paper’s Instagram for more information on the release and the performances.)
For Shin, music is as much about sharing his individual experiences as a Chinese Korean San Franciscan as it is about reflecting the larger diasporic struggles he has witnessed, using rap as a tool to deconstruct the stereotypical myths of the model minority. Rather than outlining material riches and external wealth that are often associated in rap, his songs interrogate inner-selfhood and what it means to navigate a unique set of social barriers and historical xenophobia as a descendant of Asian immigrants.
Most representative of Shin’s community-centered approach is the actual space he creates for visibility; prior to the album’s release, he hosted a listening party on an actual rooftop in Chinatown.
“I’m glad I could share my little neighborhood with you,” he told an intimate audience, which included his mother, musical collaborators, and mentors from the Cameron House who have been a part of his creative growth since childhood. As the sun dipped behind the TransAmerica Pyramid and melted into the metallic Bay waters, Shin sat back while his album oozed from speakers on the elevated, outdoor basketball court for all to experience.
On the album’s opening song, “OVERCAME,” the rapper philosophizes about building community and resisting racism in his city with bars like, “anti-Asian race discrimination/ thrown into the pit but my heart is filled with patience/ double-edge blade that I swing when I wrote this/ when I turn the page, are we friends or opponents?”
Much of the album grapples with and pushes back against the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes that surged throughout the Bay Area in recent years. “OVERCAME” gives listeners a window into that trauma, going as far as illustrating a specific memory in which Shin’s own family was assaulted by an intruder in his home, during which he was violently choked. The song is an expression of coping with how racism directly impacts him and those in his life. The theme re-emerges in a later song, “IN THE ARMOR,” when Shin dramatically recreates the vitriol he, as an Asian American, faces in San Francisco: “You ch*nk ass b*tch, go back to China… 10 years of wishing as a fish that I could drown.”
Yet, despite the urgency and pain of those moments, the project also moves beyond the wounds. Shin artistically chooses to take an optimistic stance on the ways in which he—personally—and his kin—communally—have had to overcome displacement, brutality, and erasure. Shin’s affection towards his roots are often metaphorical, but they are also literal, shown in tracks like “MR.CHINATOWN,” which features Korean producer, Big Banana, and San Francisco emcee, DRAGON OF THE WEST. In these instances, Shin speaks to the unity and solidarity among the current generation of Asian American artists who represent the love and joy of their hometown.
“Don’t try to play me/ I’m too good at Chess” he jokingly spits, then finishes with a boastfully anthemic chorus: “Reppin’ Chinatown 415 we drive in different lanes.” His sound is a refreshing blend of West Coast hip-hop, wind and string instrumentals, and K-pop vocals—highlighting a collective pride that is tanginbly felt and seen in Chinatown and other Asian American neighborhoods around The City.
Throughout his album, a sense of personal vulnerability and humor is mixed in with braggadocious elements of rap, evoking a deep gratitude as the project unfolds: “Where we at though?/ From a rooftop in Chinatown/ Gong Gong taking buses just to get around,” he raps on “FROM A ROOFTOP IN CHINATOWN,” which ends with a fading coda of “I hope I made you proud…. Chinatown” on repeat.
Musically notable with Shin’s newest project—which is his follow up to 2019’s Paper Mache and 2021’s Always Autumn—is his ever-expansive flow. From the harmonized singing on “MR.CHINATOWN” to his syllabically versatile boom bap delivery on jazzy joints like “IN THE ARMOR,” Shin flexes his trademark artistry with a chameleonic, genre-bending ability to switch up frequencies and speeds from track to track.
At the event, Shin introduced each song and provided context for the in-person crowd. In true altruistic fashion, he encouraged guests to donate to Cameron House, which still operates as a center for today’s youth in Chinatown. For him and his community, his music doesn’t exist separately from the people who’ve helped to foster it.
The final track, “MEI LIN YUEN,” is symbolic of this grassroots approach, as he enters a slowed, contemplative mode with a spoken word poem that describes an ordinary day in Chinatown—where residents and neighbors hang up laundry as a starry, analog piano crescendos in and out of the background until coming to a definitive close.
When asked about what Mei Lin Yuen represents to him, Shin responded, “It’s public housing that houses a lot of senior citizens, right down the hill from Cameron House. It translates to ‘garden of beautiful neighbors’ and my mom wrote her UC Santa Cruz paper on how Chinatown fought for public housing. They fought for over 10 years against the Department of Housing and Urban Development to make it a reality. One of the activists is Reverend Harry Chuck, featured on the intro for ‘TOOTHLESS.’”
Ultimately, whenever a rap album invites you into someone’s world with an authentic view like this, you shouldn’t look away. And the views provided on From a Rooftop in Chinatown? They’re as inspiring and healing as actually standing on that rooftop overlooking the city during golden hour—leaving a long-lasting impression of hope that will remain with you.
Songs from “From a Rooftop on Chinatown” will be performed by Son of Paper at Lions Den, SF, Fri/16, from 6pm-8pm
Son of Paper will also perform at Cameron House in February, Follow Son of Paper for more information.