Cover Tyson Yoshi wears Diesel (Photo: John Gregory for Tatler Hong Kong)

Looks can be deceptive: singer-songwriter Tyson Yoshi speaks to Tatler about fame and fighting to be understood

"Can you hear me?” echoes a British-accented voice over Zoom. With a tap, Tyson Yoshi appears onscreen. Dressed in a white Stüssy T-shirt, he calls Tatler from the steps of Blue Bottle Coffee in Central, unfazed by the bustling midweek scene around him.

“Fame is quite annoying, if I’m being honest,” he says, incognito thanks to a baseball cap hiding his distinctive mane, which, in mid-July, is bleach- blond—a more subdued shade than his usual silver, pink or purple crop. “I try to maintain my normal life: I still take the MTR and bus. I’ll never let fame get to my head because I know it might be gone one day,” he says.

Yoshi’s fame would appear to be more than just a flash in the pan. His songs have amassed more than 46 million views on YouTube; he has 247,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, with streams from more than 100 countries; and he has toured internationally, a feat for any Hong Kong musician, let alone an independent hip-hop artist from the city. Yoshi, whose real name is Ben Cheng Tsun-yin (and whose stage name is derived from the Japanese fast food chain, Yoshinoya, and Tyson from the initials of his Chinese name), is refreshingly down-to-earth despite being one of the city’s best-known artists. That said, between wall-to-wall rehearsals, commercial commitments and an army of handlers, Yoshi is a tricky man to pin down.

When we speak, the 28-year-old is gearing up for a four-day run of concerts, My New World Order, his first solo show and his biggest in Hong Kong, in early August at Kitec’s Star Hall, where he performed slick two-hour concerts to a total of 14,400 fans. His style melds hip-hop with trap, pop and R&B in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. He released his debut album 1st in 2019: a collection of 12 simultaneously bold and vulnerable songs, featuring lead single To My Queen.

Read more: Hong Kong Rapper and Singer-Songwriter Tyson Yoshi on His Creative Journey Off the Beaten Track

Since his emergence into the public eye, he has been frustrated by misconceptions of his character, and this has become a common theme in his music. One exasperated line from I Don’t Smoke & I Don’t Drink, a melodic tune about stereotypes he is trying to defy as an artist, goes: “They be looking at me like they haven’t seen this type of guy.” Part of that assumption is based on his appearance. In Hong Kong, where unnatural hair colours and lots of body art are still somewhat frowned upon, Yoshi stands out: he has more than ten tattoos across his upper body; on one arm, a butterfly and a pistol sit side-by-side. “People [have this impression that] I’m rude. Every time I’m on set for a video or a TV commercial and I say ‘thank you’ or ‘please’, the crew is shocked. They think I smoke, drink and do drugs, which is the standard rapper thing ... and they think I’ve got loads of girlfriends,” he says, laughing.

But seeking to be understood is a key inspiration for his music. “I just want [people] to feel my music and get to know me. People can judge me, but they should get to know me first,” he says. Each song on 1st is a window into his personal life, and he has been praised for his honesty and vulnerability on topics such as love, jealousy, work stress and death. “There’s no such thing as a disconnect [between my public and private persona]. I’m just human and I have different layers. I’m sure even when the toughest and baddest rock stars are alone, they listen to Justin Bieber,” he says, with a laugh.

“Sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m stressed, and you can tell in my music. It’s my diary.”

A self-professed mischievous child, Yoshi was sent to Sedbergh School, a co-educational boarding school in northwest England, by his parents, who wanted him to be educated in a regimented environment while learning English. Not having Chinese-speaking friends around him for the first time forced him to pick up the language quickly. Immersed in his new environment, with English-language music, TV shows and films downloaded onto a hard drive, Yoshi became fluent within two months.

“I prefer to have the power in my own hands because when I’m forced to do something I don’t want to do, I can’t breathe”
Tyson Yoshi

Though the singer credits the six years he spent at the school for instilling discipline in him, he had a hard time relating to the machismo of other boys at his school, which is famed for its rugby alumni, including England captains Wavell Wakefield, John Spencer and Will Carling. “At Sedbergh, rugby was the coolest thing [you could do],” he says. “If you loved to swim or expressed your love for music, you’d get bullied. I [felt like I] spent six years wearing a mask.”

It was only when he went to study interior architecture at the University of Brighton in 2013 that he felt truly comfortable being himself, thanks to meeting like-minded people in his year. “It was the best time I ever had. I got to hang out with people who thought animé was cool, who thought making music was cool. I was able to express myself and just stop caring what people thought. I was just being me,” he says. Those three years in Brighton proved transformational, with Yoshi tattooing a symbol of the university on his arm as a reminder.

Yoshi almost gave up on the course to pursue music, but it was his mother’s words that kept him going. “I wanted to quit so many times, but my mum said that as long as I finished [my degree], I could do whatever I wanted afterwards,” he says. Despite not connecting to the subject matter, the degree built his work ethic and provided structure for his burgeoning music career. “My [university degree] was all about concept. My teachers would always ask: ‘What’s the story behind the drawings?’, ‘How are you going to give back to society and impress people?’ It’s helped me a lot in the creative process with my music, from project planning [for music videos] to time management,” he says.

Yoshi began dabbling in songwriting at university, taking inspiration from megastar soloists like Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake, and early-aughts pop-punk bands like Simple Plan and Sum 41. Any fans scouring the internet for traces of this early foray will be disappointed: he never released his work to the public, as it was, in his words, “trash”. After moving back to Hong Kong in 2016, a monotonous stint as a shop designer for cosmetics brand Make Up For Ever gave him the impetus he needed to develop his production skillset and hone his sound. “I was working a nine- to-five job and it was pretty boring. I’d get my work done for the stores early, then I would listen to beats online,” he says. Encouragement from his friends gave him the push he needed to upload his own songs to Spotify. 

The singer’s self-confidence is his superpower—and, he says, he has always had it. “Other people might think a million times before they [release their music], or they doubt themselves and think they aren’t good enough. I’m not that person. I always believed I was good,” he says.

“Tyson is one of the most ambitious and self-driven artists I’ve met,” says Nicholas Cheung, Yoshi’s friend and co-founder of Gluestick Entertainment, a promotions company based in Hong Kong. “He’s not delusional at all and is very aware of his strengths and flaws. Early on in his career, he already told me his plans; it is admirable [to see someone with that vision].”

After the release of To My Queen, Yoshi’s career took off. In 2019, he released Christy, his first song to surpass one million views on YouTube, with 1st dropping later that year. Due to his fanbase growing faster in Taiwan than Hong Kong, Yoshi quit his full-time job and relocated to Taipei, but rising Covid-19 cases derailed his plans and he returned to his hometown.

While signing to a record label would seem a natural path for any rising artist, Yoshi has chosen to remain independent, another facet of his refusal to conform to the ideals and expectations of others. The risk paid off. In 2019, he formed Just Kidding HK, an independent creative production and entertainment company to release his own work, out of a desire for full creative autonomy over and ownership of his music. “I don’t need to suck up to anyone. I prefer to have the power in my own hands because when I’m forced to do something I don’t want to do, I can’t breathe,” he says.

Yoshi has been forging his own path ever since, with multiple shows in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the UK. His UK tour Hi, I’m Back spanned London, Manchester and Birmingham earlier this year and brought his music to a wider fanbase, and his collaborations with Valentino Beauty, Prada, Gucci and Nars have cemented his star status with luxury brands all over the world.

Frequent musical collaborator and friend Gareth Tong is excited for the rest of the world to see what he’s known all along: “People know Tyson for his good looks and catchy songs, but the thing I admire most is his ambition and ability to think outside the box, which allow all his crazy ideas to come to fruition.”

Gut instinct and clarity of vision when it comes to his image set Yoshi apart from his peers, and his involvement in every step of the creative process—from his album art to lyrics to music video treatments—ensures he maintains control. “I know what I want, and I’m clear about what I like and don’t like. Everything that has my name on it must be aligned. I want to do something in Hong Kong that no one has ever done before, and master it according to my own voice and style,” he says.

Now that he has found stardom within his home city, Yoshi next plans to collaborate with more artists, tap back into the Taiwanese market and create a legacy that is uniquely his own. “When I was younger, [entertainer and entrepreneur] Edison Chen was God. I want to be like that [for my generation]. I want all the kids today to say they grew up listening to Tyson Yoshi—that’s more than enough for me.”

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