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Illenium on Asian American Fanbase, Festival Sets, Community

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At Forest Hills Stadium, on a chilly Saturday afternoon in Queens, throngs of Asian Americans crowd the grounds of 88Rising’s Head in the Clouds festival. Among the sea of concertgoers, one uniform crops up again and again: black jerseys with white piping, one name splashed across the back — ILLENIUM.

“We’ve definitely seen him over 10 times,” one member of a group of jersey-wearing friends who give their names as Kevin, Kenny, and Nicky tells Rolling Stone. “And we’re flying to EDC next weekend [to see him again].”

The DJ isn’t set to take the stage in New York for a few hours, but fans are already getting excited for his set. Energy is high as more people fill in throughout the day, wearing different versions of that signature jersey. On one level, this could be any festival with a connection to electronic music, where Illenium’s star has risen steadily since he released his debut album, Ashes, in 2016. Earlier this year, he sold out consecutive nights at Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, making him the first electronic artist ever to sell out the 70,000-capacity venue. At Head in the Clouds, where he’s surrounded by R&B artists, pop singers, and girl group (G)-IDLE, Illenium’s back-to-back set with melodic bass artist Dabin is the only EDM performance of the weekend. He stands out for another reason, too: He’s also the only non-Asian artist on the bill.

To the uninitiated, Illenium might seem out of place headlining a festival that’s marketed as a “celebration of Asian and Asian-American music, food, and culture.” But to fans of his breathy, aqueous instrumentals and meditative lyrics about every stage of love, it makes perfect sense.

“When I go to Illenium shows, it’s mostly Asian people,” Kevin says. “I think sadboi music generally attracts a large population of Asians. It resonates for us.”

Online, Illenium has become something of a symbol for a distinctive modern Asian American subculture that is regularly identified through references to boba, K-pop and Korean streetwear, gaming, and of course, raves. One viral TikTok series called “yelling common Asian names at a rave” has tracked more than 1.8 million views as creator Brian Pham screams names like Michael and Caitlin into the crowd at an Illenium show. “This is the land of Asians,” another creator captioned their video. “This is not the land, this is Illenium.”

Illenium isn’t Asian, nor does he address specific Asian diasporic themes in his music. There isn’t anything in his music directly catering to or targeting the Asian American diaspora. Yet somehow, he has become a celebrated figure for many fans who have found a community and kinship within his music. The first time I heard of Illenium, it was at a rave-themed rush party for an Asian sorority.

Illenium and Dabin at Head in the Clouds

Rukes

Illenium himself is well aware of this phenomenon. He’s seen the memes — “I see all of it,” he says. Speaking from his darkened Los Angeles studio, he tries to unpack an explanation, though all of it is guesswork. 

“I mean, it’s awesome,” he continues with a laugh. “I can’t really explain it, to be honest.”

Born Nicholas Miller, Illenium was raised in San Francisco, where he says he was surrounded by many Asian cultures. Several of his close friends, as well as his manager Hawes, are Asian. It’s also something he first noticed when he first started attending EDM shows as a fan. “On the West Coast, I feel like the rave culture was always very Asian-majority,” he says.

He wonders if the appeal of his music is in the softness of it, if that sound happened to strike a chord with Asian Americans. It’s true that many popular Asian artists like keshi, Joji, wave to earth, and RINI — all of whom have been major draws at Head in the Clouds — play in the same sonic sphere of airy rumination and heartbreak, which Illenium fans reference again and again as the sadboi sound. “I think it’s a mixture of the softer vocals. It’s very pretty and symphonic,” he says. “There’s times to rave and then you have a bit more of an ebb and flow. I think there weren’t many people doing that at the time. The albums I was putting out were very much about storytelling and world-building.”

It wasn’t intentional on Illenium’s end, but people have found a community space within his music — people like New York-based musician Owen Chen, 30, who says he first learned about Illenium while living in California. “A lot of my Asian friends were like, ‘We’re going to hang out on a Friday night, and this is where we’re all going to go,’” he recalls.

Illenium is not the first or only artist to have this effect: Genres have long been racialized and associated with specific identities. “Early musical taste is produced from the womb and in the family, but we know by the time children are moving into tween age, moving towards their peers and away from family, music getting passed around turns into a peer thing,” says Patricia Campbell, professor of music and ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. “It’s a kinship, a sociological draw to people who seem to have a similar affinity in dress and discourse and dialect. The music is a part of it. The way one styles oneself and cuts one’s hair is similar to the way one puts a playlist together.”

Kevin Fellezs, an associate music professor at Columbia University, says community plays a huge part in the appeal of electronic music particularly. “The ethos of EDM and rave culture, in particular, is one of inclusion, racial harmony, gender equality, and the like, which makes the EDM and rave space one in which any anxieties around race on the dance floor are muted, if not completely absent,” he says.

Fellezs, who is Japanese-Hawaiian, first heard about Illenium through his nieces and nephews, who listen to EDM. Fellezs says there can be a particular appeal for young Asian Americans who feel the diaspora is largely splintered. The label of Asian American is vast and nuanced, with immigration influxes from different communities happening at distinct points in history. A 2021 Pew Research Center report shows the widely varied makeup of the Asian American diaspora: For instance, immigrants account for 27 percent of Japanese Americans, who began arriving in the 19th century as plantation workers, while 85 percent of Bhutanese Americans are foreign-born, having arrived recently as refugees. 

“Asian American friend groups are often made up of individuals from various Asian immigrant groups, not just a single one,” Fellezs says. “So the idea of inclusion is one that they practice in their everyday social lives — Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, and South Asian — young people all hanging out together, sharing overlapping cultural ways and affinities as well as remaining distinct from each other.”

These factors can make it hard to find a distinct footing in an identity. As a result, the history of Asian American music is very much splintered, usually with artists joining existing genres, versus coalescing to form their own. U.S.-born Asians are also young — 58 percent are a part of Gen Z, according to Pew Research, which means there isn’t necessarily a rich shared history in the country to inform a universal sound. That leaves much of this modern identity to be cobbled together from general, superficial pan-Asian touchpoints: boba, Valorant, heritage-inspired tattoos.

Illenium and Dabin at Head in the Clouds

Rukes

“In popular music, having an Asian American background is not highlighted, which may have a lot to do with the ways in which Asian Americans have historically assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture by downplaying their difference except in socially acceptable ways,” Fellezs says. “Even with megastars such as Bruno Mars or Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, there hasn’t been much attention paid to their Asian heritages.”

He points out K-pop as one modern genre that is almost entirely associated with Asian people, but the genre itself doesn’t speak directly to the Asian American experience. It’s part of what 88Rising and Head in the Clouds attempt to address with a festival lineup of artists that hail from different points of the diaspora.

At an EDM rave, trading beads and uplifting a message of PLUR — peace, love, unity, and respect — can offer a sense of community that other spaces might not allow in the same way. Chen says Illenium’s sets remind him of contemporary Christian music, in their own way. “It feels like a very familiar kind of sound,” he says. “The elements, from a harmony standpoint, make a lot of sense with EDM. The chord progressions and lyrics are in the same style. The meanings are the same.”

Illenium also tries to evoke a strong sense of community in his music, and he says he’s seen the comparisons of his music to Christian music on social media. He’s agnostic, and it wasn’t really his intention, but he says he did try and focus on building something of a shared, emotional journey. “All of it combined, the artwork, the music, the shows, too, are very much like a different type of experience,” he says. “I’m trying to actually make sure none of my stuff sounds like [church] now.”

He adds that he tends to tailor his sound to the audience he has. “When I go to Asia, I definitely play songs like ‘Don’t Let Me Down – Remix’ and ‘Takeaway,’ like a lot of the bigger sing-along stuff. A little less dubstep when I’m in Asia. In America, in New York, I definitely play more head bangers.”

For many, his sets offer a different kind of gathering than just a typical music venue, but rather one where they can find time to spend with people within their community. “That’s how the homies come together,” Kenny says. “It’s a bonding experience and a moment where you feel at peace. You’re really connected with the music. And you get in tune with yourself a little bit more.”

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As the sun begins to set on Forest Hills, Illenium and Dabin take to the stage, greeting a stadium full of people with their arms high in the air. The sea of limbs rocks with the beat as people sing the lyrics back to him in one layer of uniformity.

“I felt so special, to be honest,” the producer tells me, remembering that moment. “Thank you for my acceptance.”

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