As part of his stage banter, singer-songwriter Jae Jin ’08 sometimes refers to himself as “every Asian parent’s nightmare.” It’s the Korean American’s playful way of acknowledging that his decision to forgo a medical career and hit the road with a suitcase and a guitar was a tad unorthodox. But then, Jin and his loved ones have been through some truly nightmarish moments. They are partly why he is an award-winning globe-trotting music maker who was seen on NBC’s The Voice and has three albums, most recently 2018’s Letters and Drinks.
At Hopkins, Jin threw himself into the college experience—from joining the lacrosse club, to singing in an a cappella group, to serving as class president. “I was open and eager, and I learned a lot,” he says. But during his junior year, a touch football game on the quad left him with a welt on his head needing medical attention. Folks at the emergency room told him his head was okay. “But, they needed to rush me to the hospital because of my blood counts,” Jin says
I had spent my 20s in a state of fear and making safe choices. I realized I had to get busy living life.”—Jae Jin
A rare blood-cell-destroying disorder that nearly killed the Baltimore native when he was 17, and nearly would have if not for experimental chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, had returned.
This time the prognosis was even worse, as doctors felt repeating the chemo was risky. “I was given two months to live,” Jin says. “It sounds morbid, but I had a ‘last supper’ with my friends.” But, with an experimental treatment, he beat the disease again and finished his studies as a public health major, pre-med track. He went to work at a medical research center.
Though he never had formal training, Jin had long dabbled in music. On a whim, in 2014 he posted a video of himself singing a soulful rendition of Sam Cooke’s “Nothing Can Change This Love” on YouTube. Jin’s voice is warm and emotive with natural vibrato and a pitch-perfect falsetto. The video got picked up by major music sites and went viral. “It got millions of views and shares and I started getting flown around the country to perform,” Jin says, as record labels and management companies came courting.
The soul song’s success sparked some post-illness soul searching: “I had spent my 20s in a state of fear and making safe choices,” Jin says. “I realized I had to get busy living life.” The video kickstarted things, but when the initial hoopla faded, he quit his job and bought a one-way bus ticket to New York to couch-surf and busk on the streets and subway. “I played anywhere people would listen,” he says. He crowdfunded his first album, Kairos, in 2015.
Jin covers classic soul, R&B, and country songs and describes his original music as “pop soul.” Love songs, yes, but also some heavier works with unflinching lyrics about his rough patches. (The song title “Chemo” speaks for itself.) Folks are listening: He won a John Lennon Songwriting Award, took first place in the International Songwriting Competition, and has over 12,000 followers on Instagram.
“Over the past five years, my musical travels have brought me to 108 cities,” he says. Major pop stardom hasn’t arrived yet for the musician who once contemplated medical school, but he says deep satisfaction with the “road not taken” is its own reward: “No amount of letters after my name in the form of degrees, and no amount of money in the bank, would fulfill me in the way I’m fulfilled creating music and impacting others through my art and my stories.”