Kina Grannis has streamed her way to musical stardom, now has a health crusade

Singer-songwriter Kina Grannis will be the Grand Marshal of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival parade

Singer-songwriter Kina Grannis will be the Grand Marshal of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival parade

Kina Grannis is a successful singer-songwriter who’s redefined the parameters of “fame.” Her songs are acoustic, gentle and dreamy. She’s not a rock and roller. She doesn’t play arenas with stacks of amplifiers. But she has toured the world playing her music.

Grannis has released albums that are downloaded and streamed by millions of fans. But she’s been amassing her fan base along a unique career path: she began recording her music while in college at the University of Southern California, and then began posting videos on YouTube in 2007.

Her first video on YouTube, “Message from Your Heart,” was entered into the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl contest, and won. An edited version of the song was aired during the 2008 Super Bowl (the Giants beat the Patriots, by the way) and she was awarded a record label deal.

That’s where her musical career veered off the usual label-and-promotion track.

She quit her label deal for artistic freedom on YouTube, because she was already building a substantial audience with her mix of original songs and covers of classic hits, pop standards and music by other singer-songwriters, including fellow Asian American Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian peers. It’s been a sound decision: Grannis is one of the biggest music stars on YouTube with 453 videos posted and 1.68 million subscribers for her channel. Her videos have been viewed more than 322 million times. That’s some serious social currency, and she’s leveraged that community of fans to fund her own independent label through Patreon, an online fundraising platform.

But wait, there’s more!

In 2018, Grannis was asked to perform one of her popular cover songs, the Elvis Presley classic “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” in a now-iconic wedding scene from the rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians,” a surprise Hollywood hit starring a cast mostly of Asian descent. Fans who had no idea she’d been cast, suddenly heard her delicate fingerpicking, breathy, distinctive vocals and then saw her on camera and knew she was the perfect choice for filmmaker Jon Chu.

Since then, Grannis has been on another non-traditional career direction, focusing her songwriting not just on matters of the heart but also topics like in infertility and invitro fertilization (IVF – she had a daughter in 2021), as well as a theme that’s haunted her art throughout her career, her mother’s blood cancer, myelofibrosis, which had been diagnosed when Grannis was in high school.

She has songs and philanthropic efforts dedicated to supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and to helping her mother, Trish Grannis.

Her condition is now serious enough that a month ago, Grannis posted a short video with images of her mom to ask for help finding a stem cell donor — there are no matches for her mother on the national registry. (https://youtu.be/uvqM-h8lJcg)

To promote this dire need for a match not just for her mother but for other Asians, Grannis is partnering with Be the Match and serving as the Grand Marshal for the upcoming Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Grand Parade in Japantown, April 16, from 1 to 3 p.m.

Grannis admits her family avoided discussing her mom’s illness for many years, saying, “but it was a thing that I carried with me every second and was just like, this dark, fear and deep sadness in me because I didn’t really know much about her sickness. And I didn’t know how bad it was. And I was afraid to talk to her about it. And I was afraid to talk to my dad about it.”

Then 11 years ago, she said, “I wrote this song ‘Make It Go’ for my mom and it was about when she was first diagnosed with blood cancer. And it was such an emotionally intense process. But it was this amazing turning point, I think for both of us, and my family, getting to a point where, OK, we’re gonna start talking about these things more and feeling what are these feelings. And I think since then, in every aspect of my life, I’ve learned, if I don’t deal with the scariest stuff, and the most real stuff, then I am just going to be trapped inside of my brain forever.”

More recently, the cancer became front and center. “I guess it was maybe like six months ago, my mom’s doctors told us, that she needs to have a blood stem cell transplant as soon as possible,” she said. “That was kind of this huge wake up call for my family. And we were like, ‘OK, well, if that’s her best chance, then we, we need to make sure that she has a chance.’”

When the family found there was no match for her mom, Grannis said, her level of stardom became a huge asset. “I feel so grateful that I have any online presence at all, because I had this opportunity to spread the message and get the word out. Asians are underrepresented in the registry. And it’s so … frustrating when you know, if you could just get every Asian person, every Japanese person to just swab their cheek, that my mom and hundreds and eventually thousands more people would be saved because of a simple act like that.”

Grannis’ friend and fellow songwriter Marié Digby, who like Grannis is a biracial Japanese American, had been the parade’s grand marshal in 2019, suggested she’d be a natural to lead it this year, and promote Be the Match. Word got to the festival’s board and Grannis was asked, and she readily agreed to serve as grand marshal.

“The Japanese community could come together, we can celebrate, we can get more of our community to get in the registry,” she said. “And that will help my mom, and it will help other Japanese people.

“It just felt like a really perfect fit.”

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