An Honest Conversation With Jackson Wang, The Magic Man

88rising’s Head in the Clouds Forever showcase at Coachella remains one of the biggest nights for Asian representation this year. For two consecutive weekends in mid-April, 88rising took over Coachella with a lineup spanning across past, present, and future that had unexpected surprises from 2NE1 reuniting to debut performances that made history. Jackson Wang, a Hong Kong born multi-hyphenate based in South Korea, enthralled fans with his 10-minute performance that previewed his upcoming album MAGIC MAN with “Blow” and an unreleased song, featured tight choreography, and brought honor to the Chinese entertainment industry by shining on an international stage.

To fans outside of America, Wang is known for being a member of the South Korean boy band Got7, his charming appearances on Chinese variety shows, and a fashion entrepreneur through TEAM WANG design. But Wang has been quickly making his mark in the States as an artist with massive crossover appeal through his English language pop songs (“100 Ways,” “LMLY”) and hip-hop features (“Different Game,” “Bad Back”), focused on introducing a new persona known as the MAGIC MAN. The concept of MAGIC MAN came from a particular low point in his life, where the now 28-year-old artist sees that as part of his journey of finding the new him.

K-pop idols tend to be bulletproof brands who are easily commercialized and marketable with a clean aesthetic. Wang is taking a risk with MAGIC MAN by using his solo music to portray a more raw and honest version of himself, one that feels true to his current moment. He hints MAGIC MAN will have a mix of grunge, rock, and pop, which are rougher edges to the songs his fans are accustomed to. More importantly, it sounds like the music he wants to make, hoping TEAM WANG supporters have faith in his capabilities to brighten his star power and to enjoy the effort he’s putting into the MAGIC MAN experience every time he performs.

Calling from South Korea, Wang spoke to Uproxx about his Coachella performance and what that meant to him, why MAGIC MAN is an essential listen for the summer, and how more people should understand themselves first before chasing their dreams. This is Jackson Wang pulling the curtain, and it is as real as it gets.

Your Coachella performance this year was an important moment for you. You specifically told the crowd, “This is a moment in history. This is Magic Man. This is Jackson Wang from China.” So as the first Chinese solo artist to make their debut at Coachella, what did that performance personally mean to you?

That meant everything, you know, like me coming from my hometown. And I just want to rep my people out there. Coachella is big for my career and as an artist, you know, that’s just crazy. And honestly, before that performance, I literally thought in my mind that after this performance, I can die. Like, you know what? I’m going to kill it like it is my last performance.

I wanted to give everything that I had, for my hometown, for Chinese [people] at the same time, and for Asians. I just wanted to kill it to the limit that I could. When I look back and after 50 years, 40 years, I don’t even know if I’m going to live that long. But when I look back and tell my grandkids, like, “Yo, your grandpa did everything. He did everything he could.”

Coachella is always a big moment for artists, and I’m glad that 88rising was able to do that type of showcase. And during that set, you performed a song that fans caught on that was new and it hasn’t been released yet. What can you tell me about that song?

My new album is MAGIC MAN and honestly, it’s probably going to be [out] in September. I just think that because I’ll be having a lot more performances throughout the year, in every performance, I’m just going to perform maybe most of the songs on the album. Because as an artist right now, I’m still building. I’m not a well-known artist that everybody knows around the world. I’m at a stage where I need to build. I’m just taking every opportunity I could to perform my music around the world. To deliver it, to showcase it to everybody that watches the show.

You’re looking to drop a new single in July. What are some ideas you’ve been thinking about as you begin to roll this single out?

Oh my God. This music video, this visual, and everything. Usually, when I film a music video, I have my really core team set up the production and stuff. Maybe I’ll just hop in for like three days before the shoot and I’ll prep everything cause everything is communicated beforehand. But this time, everything is from scratch. I gotta be there to create the treatment, I have to direct it, I have to set up every single bit of detail. You know how production works. All this artwork, set, lighting, choreo, movement, camera angles, like all this specific sh*t that I have to go through. But that’s okay. Two-three weeks before the shoot, I’m there to create everything from scratch. It was crazy but me and my team that came with me, we crushed everything in two weeks from scratch. From nothing. It was a hard moment, but in some ways, I think it turned out dope. I think it turned out not bad and I’m really satisfied with what we came up with.We are in the process of post-production right now. Cutting the scenes and adjusting the frame. Coloring. Visual effects and all that stuff right now.

In each of these songs, are you going to try and make them into mini universes or a multiverse type of thing? Is that still true that you want to do that?

Yeah, that’s still true. You know like in an album, everything is in one universe. But at the same time, every song is from different regions in this universe. I wanted to showcase that. That’s why I’ve been shooting a lot of visualizers so you can connect each song. But there are some songs that without visuals, just by the song that you hear, it feels in the same universe but different territories already. That’s why I wanted to emphasize videos to come along with it.

This album, MAGIC MAN, it’s more about the tone of it and the attitude of it. Like me really breaking through my negative moments. I understand that a lot of people think, “Oh, he came from this life. He did this and he did that. He did a lot of variety shows.” I understand that, I really respect that, and I love it. But at the same time, there’s sides like the super raw me, the 100 percent honest that people don’t see. The attitude and the approach, I don’t think people see that. I really want to make that approach [clear], I really don’t give a sh*t.

When you like me and support my music as an artist through my image, people like me for different reasons. And they support me for different reasons and I understand that. I think that’s something that I really appreciate and something that motivates me in every moment. At the same time, I just want to be true to the people that supported me. I’m not a perfect person. I have that vision to grow. I will do whatever it takes. No matter what it is, I want to be better and better. Because a lot of times, I feel sorry for my fans. They supported me since day one even though my music and all the stuff I was putting out in the past was wack. I feel that and I know that every time because I’m strict to myself and my team. I know it was wack but it’s okay. What’s more important is that I’m growing, I’m evolving, and I have that attitude that I’m never satisfied with myself because I feel like I should be better in everything that I do.

Whether it’s music or a talk show, whether it’s a movie or whatever, I just need to be better. That’s the only reason that pisses me off. Why can’t I be better? That’s all I care about every day when I wake up. Before I go to sleep. That’s all I care about. How do I work harder to be a better artist that can convince myself to think, “Oh, this is it.” But I am doing it to my limit currently, but you never know. Every time I try to exceed it, some other gates, some other windows open. I just go through that.

You gotta shatter the glass ceiling and break through. This journey of finding the new you, it sounds incredible.

It’s not. I’m just in the process. I don’t know. In two-three years, four-five years, I’ll make it. And people be like, “Damn, he’s good.” What they have not seen is how I came up. But all my supporters know how he came from wack to okay to not bad to like “Damn, he can do this, he can do that.” I think it’s about the journey.

That’s what I mean. Incredible as in it is inspiring. You have this drive that not a lot of artists have. I get the sense you are a lot happier with your music right now.

Honestly, I’m never happy. It’s not there yet. I just know this is the limit that I can go right now. How can I sharpen my weapons to go to the next level? That’s some sh*t that I need to take on my own. My team is great. They’re very professional, they know what they want, and they are very organized. I love them. At the same time, I just think that product-wise, me as an artist, I just have to take it and I have to be better. That’s it. They can’t perform for me. I need to do it. I need to kill it. Not even that I’m sorry to my fans and my supporters, sometimes, I’m even sorry to my team. Like f*ck, if I can be a better artist. If I can be better, then I can make them proud. I’m not good enough, that’s why I’m trying to be better every single day, even on the little stuff that I’m caring about every day.

Is there someone you look up to? Are you trying to be among certain idols or is it just all on your own?

To me, my ultimate goal in life is to leave something behind before I die. Because life, you never know what happens. You can die tomorrow, right? But I just want to live to the fullest every day. I can produce some stuff. I can do some stuff that makes my supporters or even my team, my family proud. Whatever it is culturally or even just as an artist, I want to leave something behind. Growing up, I’ve always been really into respecting people like Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Yao Ming, Jeremy Lin. They did something for the culture and the world like “Damn, they can do that?” That’s been my dream and that’s all I’m going for because you only live once.

Can you tell me what led to MAGIC MAN? Your last album was Mirrors in 2019. What inspired the title?

Because I was in my lows a year and a half ago. For the entire year back home by myself, I was in negative moments. I’ve been in this industry for eight, nine years and everything felt like a loop. Schedules after schedules. I have to do this, do that. But I was thinking, “You know what? I can’t have everything in the world but what is something that I really want? What is my goal in my life? Like I said, what is something that I want to leave behind? Is there something I should approach instead of doing something else that has nothing related to that?” So, I’m like, “You know what? Screw it. Let’s do it.” I know it’s a risk. I know I might not be making a living off it, but it’s okay. I’m just going to do it. If I do it and if I fail, I fail on my own hands. If not, if I don’t do it right, it’s something that I am going to regret for life. So I’m like, “You know what? Screw this sh*t.” I just want to do something that I believe in. Let’s see if it goes well. And if it goes well, I’ll admit it. I’ll do everything that supports the next generation. I’ll believe it, but let me do it first before I’m too old for it.

A lot of people say, “Yeah, you can still dance when you’re 30, 40, 50.” But it’s a different vibe. If I’m at my prime in my stamina and my youth with two-three years left, I’m just going to do everything to that extent. Let me try first. And I really, really want to try and do anything that I can do.

So I was in my lows back home for a year and I got drunk every day by myself. Just thinking: “What am I doing right now?” I see no future. I’m stuck. I’m not inspired. What is it that I’m doing every day? I’m not a person, I’m a workaholic. I’m not a person that wants to communicate with people when I go through stuff. The only thing that I want is to solve the problem. If I’m stressed, there must be a problem so I must solve it. That’s all in my head for many, many years.

But there’s one time where I was in a session and I was cutting a song for the MAGIC MAN album. At that time, I didn’t even have the title for the album, I was just creating songs for the tone and color I was going for. Like grunge, rock, pop melodies and stuff. I was going for that. I wasn’t delivering. I was having a hard time. I was literally crying in the session but then my producer was like, “What’s wrong with you?” He actually shut down the session. He’s like, “Screw this session. It’s not about work anymore. Let’s talk it out.” I was like, “Yo, we are not being efficient. We need to cut this song right now. I’m wasting my time. I need that time right now.” And then he’s like, “Yo, we gotta talk.” For the first time in my life, I actually feel like words mean something. Words are so powerful.

Later that week, I started to talk with my stylist in America, the director in America. They told me the same stuff. We were drinking. They were saying some sh*t that really hit my heart. Like damn, it is real. I never thought that conversation would have such a powerful effect on me.

It hit you differently.

Yeah, it hit me different. I’m like, “Damn it is real.” And from that point on, I just want to do whatever I want, be honest to my fans. Be honest to my supporters, my family, my crew. This is what I want to do. If you believe in me, I believe in it. Let’s just go. If we fail, we fail together. If we succeed, we succeed together. We’re going to conquer. That’s all in my head right now.

You’ve been talking about in your interviews how you want to be a bridge. I think it’s interesting that you want to be a bridge between the East and the West. A bunch of artists have done something similar where they use their platform to connect the East to West, but this is something you truly believe in, and it extends beyond the music industry. Why do you want to be a bridge?

It’s important to connect. When I say bridge, it’s not the only bridge. I’m talking about one of the bridges. More opportunities and more windows to connect. And for me, it’s important to me because I think the East and the West have their own community. What happens in the East stays in the East. What happens in the West, the majority stays in the West. But lifestyle is so interesting that people don’t know. People don’t know or they are not interested. The problem is they are not interested. I think the first step is because they are not interested. What can make them interested? If we have good content, then people would be like, “Oh, what’s happening over there?” This is the real stuff that I want to deliver. How we grew up. How we eat. How we got our education. How we live, what’s the lifestyle like? How is it right now? People don’t know. People can judge it through the media. They don’t know, know. I feel like I want to connect to that.

I want to end on the TEAM WANG design philosophy of “Know Yourself, Make Your Own History.” I think it relates to more than just fashion, but also for your current career trajectory. You’ve had to overcome obstacles to release your solo music, whether on your own label or through 88rising. With everything you’ve said, do you have a better understanding of yourself now?

I’ve been knowing about myself. Everyone realizes when it’s the outcome, when it’s the result. But what I’m looking for is who is here in the process of building together. That’s the memorable part. Everybody is gonna see you make it, but when you don’t people don’t care. I think 88Rising, TEAM WANG Records, TEAM WANG design, everyone in our community right now, even the audience. They believe in that vision.

And everybody is in different industries. Some can be a doctor, some can be working at companies, some could be this, some could be that. All I want my audience to do is think about themselves. What is your dream? Do you know yourself enough or do you like thinking too much about people looking at you that’s why you lose your focus on what you really want in life? You know, you could be paid a lot of salary every month to do something that you don’t really enjoy. But what is something that has always been in your dream that you really want? When you are working and you are doing something that you really love and you have so much inspiration and motivation for it and you’re so dedicated to it, you wouldn’t even think it is a job. It’s that vision that I really want to tell people. Know yourself first.

It felt like you were just talking directly to me. I needed that. I’ve had my own dreams and aspirations but I’m always sitting on my hands.

Nobody knows you. Nobody knows what you want and that exact picture more than yourself. If you don’t know yourself, you can never make it happen. Everyone is different. Everyone has a different personality, different vision, and a different standard of happiness. How can you expect people to know exactly what you want when they have a family too? They have friends too. They have their own lives too. You just gotta make that and explain it very in detail. And just get it. Just get it and it’s done. The product is out the way you want it, then it’s done. If you have that, everyone around you can do what they do. They can do it to support it. They can’t help you draw. If you’re an artist or painter, they can’t help you to draw. You gotta do it. You gotta brief them well. And tell them so they are excited too. And then it is going to work. It’s not going to work when it is like, “Hey, do everything for me. Get a director. Help me to direct this.” This sh*t is never going to work. You might get lucky. There’s luck, too. You might make it, but I’m telling you, all these artists that are successful right now, I look up to them, too. I feel like they have something different in them. It’s not the team, it’s them.

Jackson Wang is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.