For thirty-eight years, Mike Yung has supported his family, belting retro lullabies against the metallic noises of NYC’s racing train cars. Once label mates with Etta James and Luther Vandross at the now bankrupt and defunct T-Electric/MCA Records, the Brownsville baritone has continued to turn grimy subway platforms into personal arenas.
“I won’t ever stop. I have a lot of people supporting me. I try to stay positive. If people help me reach my Kickstarter goals, we promise to over deliver — this all depends on April 11th,” Yung explains of his “I Will Never Give Up” campaign on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. With hopes of releasing a full-length debut LP, the self-proclaimed “prisoner of dreams” has been steadfast in the pursuit to serenade the world. Yung’s bluesy tone has dazzled stages, including The Late Show with James Corden and America’s Got Talent.
“I always think when we meet people like Mike, ‘Why would people put an age limit on talent?’ questioned the chronically unimpressed Simon Cowell on AGT. “What you have, you can’t fake it. It’s there!” co-signed the talent judge on Yung’s gift.
Those same sentiments are shared throughout Yung’s multi-million online viewership. Although he’s signed to Paradigm [Talent Agency], unfortunately, breaks on the small screen and viral moments on social media don’t always pay the bills. While the performer’s Kickstarter effort reached its minimum goal, his supporters would only be left with a handful of tracks on a “mini album.”
“I would love for the world to really hear what I am capable of. We only need help getting there,” the 58-year-old explained to VIBE. His first-ever single, “Alright” is a sweet, soulful showcase of the optimism missing on the radio today, and his forthcoming debut release Never Give Up is set to prove dreams don’t have an expiration date.
VIBE spoke to the veteran singer about his lifelong stick-to-itiveness since winning the hearts of television viewers, the power of the internet and what he hopes to deliver with his debut album.
Admirers are familiar with your initial T-Electric Records background. Can you walk us through how this first began for you?
I was working at [NYC’s] Department of Parks and Recreations, and a friend of mine asked how much I was making. He told me, “Can you come with me and quit your job?” It was almost 40 years ago, then I went down to the subways. We are talking about the mid-’80s. There was nobody in the subway. And that was how this [subway] journey began. Back then, you might see two or three people busking in the subway.
You’ve become a viral star. How do you feel now that there is reciprocity in regards to your art?
Everyone has a purpose in life, and mine is being a singer. To be a singer, you have to have an audience. [Laughs] It was [tough] to learn that going viral doesn’t mean making money. Viral success gave me the platform to get the Kickstarter out. My managers and I were able to tell people what we were working on. So, on one side, you are not getting money, but you are getting the fans to build a platform. The best thing is I have people working with me.
Agreed. Your team is in tune with the industry. Now that you have management and are preparing for your first album, what would you say is the significant shift in your career?
I am a spiritual person and believe [my management] was God-sent. There is nothing easy about what I do. You have to take the good with the bad.
There have been acts of violence in the midst of your musical pursuit. What made you rise above those incidents, and continue to perform on subway platforms?
The key is you have to wake up in the morning with force. I’ve had some rough times, you know? I have been stabbed, and I have been jumped, too. I’ve had to stay strong and focused. What I want is for everyone to feel what I am feeling. Still, what I want is for everyone to feel what I am feeling through music. Singing and actually sounding good, [are different] things. You have to be able to survive. You have to be able to pay your bills.
You have supported your family by singing in the city for nearly 40 years. What have you learned from your personal highs and lows?
Everybody has a dream! The key for me is never to give up. And, [to] never go back to the subway. You know? [Laughs] People do not carry cash anymore. That is the other thing, too. I am getting more hugs and kisses, than cash. People are using debit cards, and plastic more than currency. Back in the day, I was making bank, but the climate has completely changed.
The Late Show with James Corden and America’s Got Talent have celebrated you on television. With all that is evolving for you, what do you deem your most significant accomplishment?
Success is what you make it. Being on TV changed a lot. Everywhere I go now; people know who I am. Someone being [inspired] or enjoying seeing you on television, it doesn’t pay your bills. [Laughs]
I understand that and imagine it is frustrating. Many viewers may not realize one does not always equate the other. What can people anticipate with this forthcoming album?
They can really get to hear, exactly who and what Mike Yung is capable of. And, that is half the battle. So, I’d like to thank everyone for their support so far. If you believe in Mike Yung, it’s going to happen! The video [on Kickstarter] is kind of a taste for what is coming on the Never Give Up album.
That is the good thing about having people working with you. If I were able to do it, I would have done it like thirty years ago. We tried everything in our power, to solidify a record deal. All the labels agreed politely that [I’m] too old. You just cannot put an age on talent. That is just not how it works. That is what is motivating us to raise this money, and put out a debut album. We just want to prove them wrong.
[My managers and I have] been financially putting up all this money ourselves. We have put ourselves in a terrible position financially. There is no failing for us. [My managers] will be the ones holding the tip basket in the subway. [Laughs] There is a lot of pressure that is riding on this. Our people are like, “Put your money where your mouth is.” We really believe in the album. We think a lot of people do and hope people will continue to send out their support. There have also been some people in the industry that have offered to come on to support us.
[But] That first song [“Alright”] gives people a taste of what’s to come. Those are the types of songs [I want] to put into the world. It is what the world needs right now. There is too much going on. We need lyrical medicine because the world is in a terrible place. There is a lot of messed up things going on globally, and I believe Mike Yung still singing in the subway is one of them.
Did you have a tentative date of when you hoped to release the LP or is this contingent upon Kickstarter’s success?
Everything is literally contingent upon how well this [campaign] does overall. If we do not raise the money to do this through Kickstarter, we do not have the funds to do a full album. The days leading up to April 11th are the most important. I do not want people to get it messed up. I’m seeing articles of people saying this is on its way, but this is the internet, where people lose attention quickly.
There is [focus on the] overall goal with days to spare, we have less than a month to make thousands of dollars. What people do not realize is when you don’t hit the mark on Kickstarter, you do not get any of the money. This is why we were desperate. This is honestly the last chance. If we do not raise money on Kickstarter, the world will never see another video.
A full-length album’s money would have to get raised. The dream is to be able to use the producers that have approached us. They said, “We are willing to do this at a huge discount. You just need to have your money.” These are writers and producers that are well-known. It can only get better. We are going to make some of the best music [fans] have ever heard. VIBE is honestly helping. You’re so important to all of this, and I cannot express that enough.
Fans can appreciate your vigor despite your journey. A musician facing industry politics or an artist getting dropped from a label for the first time, are the stories that circulate a bit more frequently.
Yes! Years ago, when [I was at my first label] being signed meant if you were 14 years old, you had 30 to 40 more years to record. When you are 20-something, you still have 20 years to sing. When you are my age, you really pay attention to your craft. Even though I am going to be singing another 30 years, I concentrate on getting as good as I can. [Laughs] Right now, they have singers, right? After they go in the studio and [labels] give you all the help, that is how the artist sounds good. But raw talent is something that has to come from within yourself! My advice to aspiring acts is to keep singing. The more you sing, the better you become. Then the world will know.