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  • Writer's pictureHarleen Kaur

Sticking to his Origins : AJ Rafael

When YouTube was first gaining traction as a new site, Filipino singer and YouTuber AJ Rafael, was one of the first popular Asian creators on the site. Many of his old videos have received a good amount of attention as multiple videos have gained over 1 million views. After 14 years on YouTube, Rafael has finally surpassed 1 million subscribers, which is an amazing achievement, given that many YouTubers who were making content when Rafael started have since quit YouTube and moved on to different career paths.

Rafael began his music career when he competed on American Idol season four, but he was eventually eliminated. After Idol, Rafael started his YouTube channel by uploading song covers before releasing his original music, which received just as much, if not more, attention than his song covers. In 2008, Rafael became a YouTube Partner, which meant he was getting paid based on advertisement revenue. Usually most YouTubers have to work twice as hard before becoming a partner. However, Rafael continued to post covers recorded from his MacBook as he stayed connected and grounded with his fanbase. Rafael maintained his popularity as he posted consistently on his channel and began to feature in videos made by other famous Asian YouTubers, such as Wong Fu Productions and Ryan Higa.

In 2010, Rafael released his first EP, Juicebox. He landed a contract with 37 Entertainment and began to perform shows in the Philippines and the United States. In 2011, he released his first full-length album, Red Roses, which reached the 13th spot on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart.

Rafael promoted his EP by again playing several shows in the US and Philippines and even got tracking from the music app Spotify. This EP included the song that introduced me to Rafael, “We Could Happen,” which has now garnered over 23 million streams on Spotify.

However, this success did not come easy. As he began to struggle maintaining in-person audiences, Rafael worried about whether he could continue doing this and still make a living. Although Rafael was doing well through online platforms, he was struggling to get people for in-person gigs.

Thus, Rafael took a hiatus from performing. He began other endeavors such as creating a clothing brand and performing in musicals. In 2018, Rafael was inspired by the movie Crazy Rich Asians to create and host his own virtual variety show called “Crazy Talented Asians,” which highlights Asians in the performing-art community.

Despite taking on new career activities, and the drastic change of YouTube content over time, Rafael stayed true to his origins through his YouTube channel.

He may have a more expensive camera and a better mic so his beautiful voice can be heard with better quality, but his style and the format of his videos have not changed. He still sits directly in front of the camera, singing his heart out, whether the songs are covers of today’s music, medleys, or originals. He has been in the game for so long and it's comforting to see him continue doing what he loves to do.

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Harleen Kaur

Chopsticks Alley Editorial Intern

Harleen is a freshman at Foothill College pursuing her B.A. in philosophy. She ran her high school’s newspaper PHHS The Legend as a managing editor, and was later inducted into the Quill and Scroll Honor Society as a lifetime member. Growing up in San Jose, Harleen hopes to write about and amplify the voices of the Vietnamese and Pinoy community that she is surrounded by. She hopes to become a lawyer who will give back to her community.

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