“Representation” was the word of the weekend as more than a dozen Asian artists took the stage Saturday for the second annual Head in the Clouds festival in Los Angeles.
Dubbed by fans as the “Asian Coachella,” the single-day festival brought out more than 20,000 people, according to organizers 88rising, the Los Angeles-based music label and creative agency known for their roster of Asian acts like Rich Brian, Joji, and Higher Brothers, all of whom performed at the event.
The show, which took over Los Angeles State Historic Park in downtown L.A., also marked the West Coast festival debut for K-Pop act, iKON, who first set foot on U.S. soil earlier this year, with a rousing showcase at SXSW. The boyband was also making one of their first appearances since founding member, Kim Han Bin, better known by his onstage moniker B.I, left the group in June, reportedly forced out by management over allegations that he attempted to buy marijuana (cannabis use is still illegal in South Korea and can carry a prison sentence of up to five years).
Though the group didn’t address any of the allegations on stage, their set was briefly interrupted when a fan appeared to faint near the front of the crowd. Videos on social media show the group stopping the music to ask for help, resuming their set only after urging fans to stay hydrated and to give everyone some space.
Other performers throughout the day included first timers Deb Never and DPR Live, and the Indonesian R&B singer, Niki, whose appearance coincided with the country’s Independence Day. Niki opened her set with the Indonesian national anthem, backed by a group of girls dressed in the country’s traditional colors of red and white.
The festival’s biggest draw was arguably Jackson Wang, a member of the K-Pop group Got7, who’s rumored to be releasing a solo English-language album this fall. But Wang was mysteriously absent from the lineup Saturday, with 88rising releasing a statement on Instagram stating the singer and rapper would no longer be performing, “due to unforeseen circumstances beyond our control.” It was later reported that Wang, who was born in Hong Kong, had pulled out after recently expressing support for China, leading to backlash from pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong. Several Reddit users speculated that Wang was perhaps being pushed to “lay low” until the controversy blew over.
With Wang no longer on the bill, all eyes were on Rich Brian, the Indonesian rapper whose viral hit, “Dat $tick,” reached Number Four on the Billboard Bubbling Under R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart when it was released in 2016. Brian included the song in his set, along with a couple tracks from his new album, The Sailor, which came out last month and includes collaborations with RZA and Kendrick Lamar producer-turned-singer, Bekon. The night closed with Niki, Joji, Higher Brothers, August 08, and others joining Brian on stage to perform tracks from 88rising’s first Head in the Clouds compilation album, which came out last year (a second “crew album” is due out later this year)
For Brian, who recently relocated to L.A., the festival is not only a chance to connect with his fans, but also an opportunity to move forward conversations about diversity in the music industry.
“It’s been my goal since day one to represent and to inspire more people,” he says. “And representation can be something as simple as seeing somebody that reminds you of yourself succeeding at doing something you love.”
“When kids see me performing on stage,” he continues, “I want them to be like, ‘This is our festival; this is our time to shine.’”
The inaugural Head in the Clouds festival last September made headlines for being the first-ever Asian-centric music festival in North America, bringing out artists like Anderson .Paak and the biracial singer-songwriter, Toro y Moi. This year’s edition, which organizers say was double the size, saw a larger corporate presence, with an official merch collection with Guess, VIP bars sponsored by Johnnie Walker, and a livestream available to Tidal subscribers. It’s proof, artists claim, that there is an increasingly vocal demand for Asian-driven projects and events.
“When I first started rapping ten years ago, there were never opportunities for Asian artists to perform at things like this,” says Jonathan Park, a.k.a. the rapper Dumbfoundead, who was one of the first artists signed to 88rising and a performer at this year’s event. “There were Asians in hip-hop, sure, but nothing of this magnitude, to the point where we could have our own festival. It just shows how far we’ve come.”
The goal now, Park says, is to not only raise the consciousness about Asian artists, but to also raise the offerings that are being put forth into the musical arena. “For people in general to see Asian culture as cool, we have to step up our taste level,” he explains. “We’re able to get in through the door, but now it’s about diversity within diversity; we’ve got to show different types of Asians, from EDM DJs to rappers to indie rock singers. It’s important,” he offers, “that we have all different types of Asians in there.”
One of the last-minute additions to the festival was the 19-year-old Indonesian singer, Stephanie Poetri. A relative unknown just a few months ago, the teenager went viral after uploading an Avengers-inspired original song called, “I Love You 3000.” to YouTube. The subsequent music video, which Poetri recorded on her iPhone, has now surpassed 30 million views, and it was revealed this week that Poetri had signed to 88rising.
Performing for the first time outside of Indonesia, Poetri was equal parts giddy and grateful, excited to meet her fellow Indonesian artist, Brian (“I’ve looked up to him ever since he popped off,” she exclaimed) and ready to introduce herself to the world.
“There is so much talent in Asia, but pop culture is still so focused on the Western acts sometimes,” she says. “I’m not trying to lessen that, but I think there should be an addition too, because Asian artists are doing some really big things and deserve to be heard.”
“The way I personally look at it, it shouldn’t matter where you’re from if you’re talented,” she adds. “If someone hears my music and likes my song, I don’t want them to be like, ‘Oh but she’s Asian.’ I want them to say, ‘Oh she’s a great singer — and she’s Asian.’”
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