The talented Davao native on his musical inspirations, switching from nursing and performing for President Barack Obama
FILIPINO parents usually expect a few things from their kids: academic proficiency, good health and a financially fortuitous career in medicine.
And it’s not just a stereotype. It’s many of our realities.
But as economically promising a career as a nurse or a doctor is, not everyone is built for the medical field, much less have the inherent enthusiasm for it that others do.
And for some Filipinos — especially millennials — there comes that time when you decide to chase what fulfills you in ways that a career in nursing could never do. Filipino singer and viral sensation Jej Vinson, is one such individual.
If you’ve watched the 16th season of NBC’s “The Voice” recently, you may be familiar with the young Filipino baritone who wowed audiences and the celebrity judges alike with his rendition of Drake’s “Passionfruit” during the blind auditions.
Vinson earned the coveted four-chair turn (wherein all the judges decide to recruit a contestant for their respective teams) and ultimately chose to join Kelly Clarkson’s team.
“She’s just so genuine, like the Kelly Clarkson you meet in person is the same Kelly Clarkson you see on T.V. I mean, all the judges are so amazing, but I felt like Kelly would be the best fit for me personally,” Vinson tells the Asian Journal in a recent interview.
As of press time, 22-year-old Vinson is still in the competition, which airs Monday and Tuesday nights, and has since experienced an influx of new fans of all ages and backgrounds. (On his Instagram page @jejvinson, he shares short singing videos and behind-the-scenes moments.)
Born in Davao, Philippines in the late 1990s, Vinson grew up loving music. Between attending his parents’ church choir rehearsals and participating in the Filipino tradition of frequent karaoke, Vinson was introduced to his love of singing early on.
“I kind of grew up chorally trained, and then a little bit after that, I started listening to more jazz and R&B, and then when I moved to LA, I started to appreciate more radio-friendly and pop artists, so it’s kind of a mixed bag of influences,” Vinson recalls.
R&B icons like Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce and Brian McKnight have been vocal inspirations for the young singer, but growing up in Davao, Vinson also looked up to Pinoy soloists like Daryl Ong, Morissette Amon and Regine Velasquez, whom Vinson regards as “an icon and probably the best singer in the Philippines ever.”
At 15 years old, Vinson moved to South Dakota with his family, and when he turned 18, he packed his bags for Los Angeles in search of a career, exploring music more seriously while enrolling into USC, initially studying to become a nurse.
But when it came time for Vinson to decide whether or not nursing was for him, he came at an impasse. When all you know in your family is a career trajectory into nursing, it could be uncomfortable, even nerve-racking, to consider something outside of that realm.
“It’s kind of weird because a lot of cousins in my family are nurses or people who work in the medical field, but it kinda feels weird for me to study something that wasn’t in medicine because I definitely had that mindset growing up that I would be a doctor or a nurse,” Vinson shares, adding that his parents fully supported his dreams in music.
“That year when I decided to go to school for music, there was a lot of doubt within myself but I’m glad that my parents actually supported me. It actually helped lift me up and encouraged me to keep going,” Vinson fondly shares.
“I’m really thankful for my parents for supporting me, and they moved to LA with me when they didn’t really need to, so it was really sweet of them to do that, and they’re just always there for me in every way. They really are the best,” Vinson beams.
When Vinson made the switch from nursing to music at USC, he joined the university’s award-winning acapella group, SoCal VoCals for which he has served as musical director.
As a part of SoCal VoCals, Vinson and his troupe were flown to the White House where they performed for former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, a memory that remains a high point for Vinson.
“That was definitely one of the highlights of my life so far, to perform for Obama, like he shook my hand! And I didn’t want to wash my hands for a long time,” he remembers with a laugh. “I was just so starstruck and totally fangirling over him. It was totally unreal and it’s not something a lot of people can say that they’ve done, so I’m very grateful for that blessing and my acapella group for bringing in these kinds of opportunities.”
After leaning into a musical career trajectory, performing for a U.S. president and becoming a fan favorite on “The Voice,” Vinson says he plans to utilize his inherent musical talent to forge a career in musical production and performance. In terms of people he’d like to collaborate with in the future, he has his sights set on multi-talented acts like Tori Kelly and fellow Filipino American singer, Bruno Mars.
His ultimate goal, however, is a career as an established recording artist with the hope of inspiring other young Filipino Americans. And like many Filipinos and Filipino Americans with aspirations in any kind of creative field, especially entertainment, he had initial doubts that stemmed from a collective cultural mindset that values financially solvent career choices over chasing your passion.
“It was really difficult to make that switch [from nursing to music] because as Filipinos, we’re culturally brought up to think about our future a lot, and for a long time I didn’t think that pursuing music was gonna be a stable career,” Vinson reveals. “For the longest time I thought it was going to be a gamble, but I definitely had to change my mindset and I had to go into this industry making sure I can be comfortable with it and I had to start believing in myself. That was the No. 1 thing that was hardest to adjust to.”
Vinson notes the stigma that exists within creative members of minority groups, many of whom have either not or yet to realize their dreams in the entertainment industry. But the emergence of Asians and Asian Americans in mainstream entertainment of the last year has Vinson feeling hopeful that the Asian creative community is finally getting its due.
“I saw a lot of hopefuls who had their dreams crushed, and I just didn’t want that to happen to me or to any up and coming Asians and Asian American artists that are really working hard to make their dreams come true,” he says. “I just feel like we need more representation, and I am really happy about how times are changing and how Asian Americans are being recognized even more, like the movie ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and even half-Filipino artists who are emerging like H.E.R. and Bruno Mars. I’m very optimistic about our future.”