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Meet The Women Changing The Asian Music Scene For The Better

As a Taiwan transplant in NYC studying jazz and a Korean artist who completed the longest U.S. tour ever for a Korean act, it's safe to say 9M88 and Cifika, respectively, have their music career sights set on the entire world.

Hong Kong's biggest music festival, Clockenflap, started in 2008 and is proof of Asia's growing musical prowess. Attracting not only global stars like Khalid, Erkyah Badu, The Vaccines, and David Byrne, they've also got an impressive lineup of rising stars from all around Asia.

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That lineup included two extremely talented female artists hailing from Taiwan and South Korea, 9M88 and Cifika, respectively — both of which are active in the U.S. I got the chance to talk with them about their music, style, multicultural upbringings, and aspirations.

First up is 9M88 — she also goes by Baba — who is charming Asian and American audiences alike with her smooth R&B/jazz vocals.

What is it like being an Asian artist — and having grown up in Taiwan — in the States?

"It’s a little tough for sure because first of all, English is not my native language, so that makes me nervous all the time. I’m feeling a lack of confidence in terms of my race, to be honest, because we don’t get used to being in the front, even though there are more and more [Asian-American] artists who are trying to do that. I still think we don’t get full recognition and we’re still working on that, and so it’s really exciting to see people like Rich Brian and Eddie Huang, to see those guys rocking it. At this point, I have to trust myself and don’t care too much about how other people with other backgrounds would think.New York City is so inspiring and really challenging. I’ve achieved so many things that I never would’ve expected to in Taiwan. Here, you can bump into musicians on the streets or go to a venue and have a jam session with someone — it’s just a really unexpected place."
Phey Palma for Clockenflap

"It’s a little tough for sure because first of all, English is not my native language, so that makes me nervous all the time. I’m feeling a lack of confidence in terms of my race, to be honest, because we don’t get used to being in the front, even though there are more and more [Asian-American] artists who are trying to do that. I still think we don’t get full recognition and we’re still working on that, and so it’s really exciting to see people like Rich Brian and Eddie Huang, to see those guys rocking it. At this point, I have to trust myself and don’t care too much about how other people with other backgrounds would think.

New York City is so inspiring and really challenging. I’ve achieved so many things that I never would’ve expected to in Taiwan. Here, you can bump into musicians on the streets or go to a venue and have a jam session with someone — it’s just a really unexpected place."

How has your time in fashion influenced your music and personal style?

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"I went to fashion school in Taipei, Taiwan, and after I finished school I came to New York for an internship with Jason Wu. I worked with the production team and got to see behind-the-scenes stuff for fashion and I was like, 'Oh, it takes so much energy and passion to be a designer,' which I don’t really have.

[At the same time,] I got to explore NYC and its music scene — I saw so many artists I love and I decided maybe I should just go for music. So I applied to The New School and got in. The internship kinda inspired me to leave the industry, but I’m still a fan of fashion.

I think the main difference between the musician-musician and me is that I kinda relate directly to visuals. When I write something, I think about the styling for the music video and the visuals for everything — and I kinda compose sometimes in a collage way, which some of musicians don’t do, cause they do like step-by-step composing or they hear sound first, but I see visuals first and then I make it into a melody."

Who are some of your female role models, style and music wise?

"Style wise, Solange. It’s really minimal but she has her own, like, [way of] showing off her roots — like a celebration. Music wise, Erykah Badu — I saw her at Afropunk and I’ve seen her shows three times total. As a female artist, she’s really outspoken and really honest to herself, which I think is the most important thing as a musician and artist."
Brent Lewin / Getty Images for Chanel

"Style wise, Solange. It’s really minimal but she has her own, like, [way of] showing off her roots — like a celebration. Music wise, Erykah Badu — I saw her at Afropunk and I’ve seen her shows three times total. As a female artist, she’s really outspoken and really honest to herself, which I think is the most important thing as a musician and artist."

Then there's Cifika, who is a genre-bending electronic artist constantly switching it up with her looks, sound, and concepts. She spent a decade in the States, attending high school, college, and working as an art designer, before heading back to her hometown of Seoul, South Korea, where she's now based.

Provided by Cifika

How does your music influence your style?

"I have a stylist and art director, and each time we change my concept for fashion, makeup, and hair, we actually have a lot of meetings and share ideas and listen to music — based on that, they create an image that hasn’t been thought of before. If I like their suggestions I’ll be like, 'Oh let’s build up on that. I like that concept.' But they don’t make me dress feminine or even masculine — kinda [non] gender-binary. Most of my clothes are actually men’s. I like to make my fit really loose and have a lot of volume, like a sculpture."

What’s the biggest beauty or style related risk you’ve taken?

Instagram: @cifika_

"For a music video we shot with Crush [a Korean R&B singer], my stylist and art director wanted me to do a hairstyle that looks like an alien — like a big shell — and I painted my forehead blue. That was a challenge because I wasn’t sure if that was gonna be accepted in Korea, 'cause Korean culture has certain stereotypes and expectations of musicians, especially for female singers — they kinda want them to look pretty or perfect. I kinda worried about it but I got really good feedback. We had to put like five sponges in my hair to make it stay. It didn't even have anything to do with the music video concept — we just wanted to play around with the styles."

You've mentioned before that you grew up listening to K-pop. Your music is very different, so how do you differentiate your music with what the world might associate with Korean music as a whole?

"It wasn’t my intention to be different. I just wanted to do whatever the heck I wanted. I have a producer who sometimes rearranges my songs and he called me a rule-breaker — it was hard for him to understand and rearrange my songs because I take a different approach than other music. I think it’s because I didn’t have a proper education in music and I started off as a graphic designer. Everything first comes as a visual and then I make it into music.

So if you hear a normal song, there is a verse one, verse two, a hook, verse one, verse two, interlude, and then it ends — but I like to mix the order and sometimes make it backwards, or I don’t make an obvious hook because it’s boring. It may not be too commercial, but I just want to try new things and new forms of electronic music."

What do you want fans, especially younger ones, to take away from you and your music?

"It’s hard for younger generations to take time to think about themselves because they’re surrounded by social media where everything’s so instant and they never let their phone go — but when they listen to my music, I really want them to focus on and think about my messages, because it’s not just about love — it’s also about life and your inner peace, and I always talk about how to balance two things. I didn’t find inner peace until a few years ago when I started music. Before that I was so confused about my life and always felt so unsatisfied — being an art director in an advertising company didn’t really suit me, and I didn’t want to work for someone. So after I decided to become a musician and make my own music, I felt really free, like on the inside.
Facebook: cifikafika

"It’s hard for younger generations to take time to think about themselves because they’re surrounded by social media where everything’s so instant and they never let their phone go — but when they listen to my music, I really want them to focus on and think about my messages, because it’s not just about love — it’s also about life and your inner peace, and I always talk about how to balance two things.

I didn’t find inner peace until a few years ago when I started music. Before that I was so confused about my life and always felt so unsatisfied — being an art director in an advertising company didn’t really suit me, and I didn’t want to work for someone. So after I decided to become a musician and make my own music, I felt really free, like on the inside.

To get started on your newfound musical obsessions, check out 9M88's addictive upbeat, retro-inspired collab with Wu Qing Feng, "Everybody Woohoo."

View this video on YouTube

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And give Cifika's "My Ego" a good listen (or ten) to experience how she designs her music in a way that keeps you guessing.

View this video on YouTube

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