Wandering musician and songwriter Jae Jin has gotten comfortable telling his story. Most of his story.
“I became every Asian parent’s nightmare by dropping out of med school and business school,” he says at the Bitter End in New York City’s Greenwich Village, pausing for laughs. “I got rid of all my possessions, packed up everything in two suitcases, and I’ve been traveling the world. I’ve been couchsurfing, floor surfing, and have not paid rent in three years. I just went all in. You have to go all in.”
But that’s only half the story. Slowly, Jin has opened up to tell the more difficult part.
“My life story involves being a patient,” says Jin, who is a two-time cancer survivor. His first diagnosis—a terminal one—came at age 17. The second came five years later, when he was studying medicine at Johns Hopkins. After these two difficult journeys to remission, Jin then spent several months in a dark depression.
But as he approached 30, Jin found a way to express himself by playing music and writing songs. Now at 33, he doesn’t take a second for granted. And he doesn’t take his story for granted, either.
Just this last week, Jin stood in front of 4,000 people in his signature sharp blue suit to share his story at WeWork’s company-wide summit. The crowd was visibly moved by his message.
Earlier in his career, Jin hesitated to talk about his survivor status because he didn’t want it to overshadow who he is an artist.
“In the beginning, when I started this journey, I had a chip on my shoulder,” Jin tells Creator Magazine. “I turned down certain things because I didn’t want to be a sob story. My illness story is not the only thing, but it does give people a compelling reason to understand why I do this. There has to be an aesthetic through line and a reason behind it.”
During his first years as an “all-in” musician, Jin busked in New York City subways, went without food, and saw his bank account nearly hit zero, yet he hadn’t always grown up dreaming of being a singer-songwriter. He had sung in choirs and only began playing guitar a few years ago.
His first big break came in 2013, with a viral cover of “Nothing Can Change This Love” by Sam Cooke, a song that reaches both into Jin’s soulful timber as well as his soaring falsetto. In 2015, he released a full album, Kairos, followed by the EP Baltimore Boulevard last year. He finished out 2017 by winning $18,000 at the New York City Creator Awards.
“I’ve gotten to the place where I’m just bold,” Jin says. “People will say, ‘Pull out that guitar and sing a song,’ and I’ll do it.”
Jin’s plans for 2018 are simple: “I want to work on my craft and become a better writer,” he says. “There’s a lot of medical science that states that my life expectancy is shorter. But all those things don’t necessarily scare me. I want to do as much as I can with the time I’ve been given.”
Photos by Katelyn Perry