“If people are going to label us with a big umbrella term, we’re going to show them that diversity and unity within it” – In conversation with Jason Kwan
London based artist Jason Kwan doesn’t box himself in when it comes to his artistry. Ranging from drag to cabaret to writing and releasing his own music, Jason is one of the most versatile artists London has to offer. His music is a fusion of classic pop sounds accompanied by his deep opera voice and thoughtful, personal lyrics.
At the end of the live version of “Sometimes I cry” Jason holds a speech about the song and diversity.
“Thank you so much for watching my performance of Sometimes I Cry, one of my original songs. I want to introduce you to my amazing dancers, Kaajel Patel right here, and we have “the” Bolly Illusion, Anthony Pius, with us as well.
Tonight we wanted to perform for you as one, strong Asian unit. A queer Asian solidarity moment, just for you. There’s been a lot of Asian hate going on around in the world and we really just wanted to come together, and show you that us Asians, can unite, and be glorious, and be powerful, and be strong. “Sometimes I Cry” is about being vulnerable and enjoying that vulnerability and making it empowering to you. And, I, on stage, will not compromise my queerness, or my Asianness, and I am celebrating them as one, together, as part of my identity. And so “Sometimes I Cry” for me, is bringing together that Asian joy, and spreading it everywhere. So I hope you can share this video, spread Asian joy, and look out for all of your Asian siblings out there. Thank you so much!”
KALTBLUT caught up with Jason to talk about diversity in the music industry, what it means to be an Asian immigrant and his connection to opera music. Read the interview and watch the live version exclusively below.
KALTBLUT: Can you tell me a little bit about the live video of “Sometimes I Cry”?
Jason: The video is a live performance of my song “Sometimes I Cry”, and the intention behind it was to show and celebrate Asian solidarity. My two dancers, who work with me all the time, Bolly Illusion and Kaajel Patel, we’re all part of the same cabaret collective. I think it’s very powerful when the three of us come together and perform on stage because when people think about Asian people, they like to think you’re East Asian or South Asian. If people are going to label us with a big umbrella term, we’re going to show them that diversity and unity within it. So at the end of this video, I talked about the importance of Asian people standing together. Because of the hate we’re receiving at the moment, the racism that’s running throughout the world. It’s just important for us to celebrate how Asian we are, without being apologetic about it, without compromising any parts of our identity and doing some really fun things like singing and dancing on stage.
KALTBLUT: Do you think the online attention Asian hate crimes have received has helped to combat racism?
Jason: It was helpful for people to talk about it more, which has been good. The more people talk about it, the more it validates Asian people’s experiences. Throughout history, our experiences are often ignored and silenced and just not taken seriously. And so for us to now say, hey, like this is happening to us, and for people to acknowledge it is a big step forward. Growing up as an East Asian person in the UK, a term that we use a lot is feeling like we are an invisible community. Because what we do a lot is we provide service within society, however, we don’t have platforms, we don’t have spokespeople, we don’t have mainstream voices to talk about East Asian or even South Asian issues.
It’s quite nice to see the #StopAsianHate to see what people are doing and how people are mobilising other voices to strengthen the Asian voice.
KALTBLUT: I don’t know if you’ve read our interview with Caro Juna. She said that she feels that Asian immigrants are the “good immigrants.”
Jason: 100%. We are called the model minority myth. As minorities, you’re ranked as who’s better and who’s worse. And for ages, and still, up to now, Asian immigrants believe that they’re the better minorities, they know how to please their colonisers better if they kept their head down if they provided good service and worked hard – they can also achieve either the “American” or the “British dream” and they will be able to do well into society. But by doing that, it’s indirectly racist towards the other minorities who are also struggling, because it creates a hierarchy. And for a long time, the surviving people would give in to that and actually believe this myth to hopefully rise in rank in society. Obviously, that’s a complete falsehood.
And it’s a way of us being controlled as minorities as minority groups. What we’re seeing now in this generation, especially, is a shift in that conversation, where we’re no longer quiet, we’re no longer subservient, we’re no longer weak, we’re no longer fragile, we’re not keeping our heads down anymore, we are speaking up about it. And I think social media has really helped solidify that movement. Because without me knowing what’s happening in the States and elsewhere around the world, it’s hard to feel like I’m not alone. It’s quite nice to see the #StopAsianHate and to see what people are doing and how people are mobilising other voices to strengthen the Asian voice.
KALTBLUT: Do you think that also reflects in the music industry?
Jason: I think the music industry lives in a bubble. I think there are so many incredible Asian artists who working at the moment and I would also say, with the rise of popularity in Korean pop music, and Japanese pop music has really helped push more representation in different parts of the music industry. However, I still think that Korean pop music at the moment is being seen through a white lens and a white gaze. And a lot of the time, I feel like Korean artists aren’t able to completely authentically just be themselves when they are promoting in the Western world. It’s a little different when we’re talking about artists who live and work in their own countries, versus people like me, who have moved countries to make music in English, as well, to an English speaking audience. So my experience is a little bit different, but there’s definitely a rise and Asian artists now having a voice and being listened to.
I’m still waiting for a queer Asian utopia, where I can be queer and Asian and not be discriminated against.
KALTBLUT: You’re proudly celebrating your Asian heritage in the UK and neither country, both the UK and Hong Kong/ China aren’t perfect when it comes to xenophobia, homophobia and racism. How does that affect you?
Jason: For sure. When I was 13, I made the decision to move to the UK, because of homophobia and transphobia. But then I got to the UK, and what I experienced was racism. So it’s almost like I can’t win on either side of the coin, because my identities seem to just annoy people. I’m still waiting for a queer Asian utopia, where I can be queer and Asian and not be discriminated against.
KALTBLUT: Where can you see that happening?
Jason: Honestly, I think Taiwan is a beautiful place. I’ve never been, I would love to go, but from what I’ve heard from my friends, Taiwan is a very progressive Asian country and they are very accepting of queerness, they’re open to listening. I guess there’ll be different because I won’t be there as a sort of racial majority in a sense, right? So I can’t really talk about whether it is racist or not. But for me, as someone from Hong Kong, I think I would be able to fit in a little better and not experience racism as I do in the UK to the same extent. Having said that, I do really like the position I’m in, having come from Hong Kong and gone to London, because yes, even though I do experience these things, I have found a community who are very like myself. For me to be able to have a platform and to speak up for so many people and share voices. I think that in itself is empowering and also pushes conversations forward, even if it’s underground.
KALTBLUT: In your POPTOPIA interview with Asbjørn, you mentioned that you trained in opera. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Jason: I had some very formative years in my teenage years when I moved to the UK. I went over on a music scholarship, and I started working with Arlen Roth, who is an incredible opera singer. She sings for the Scottish National Opera, but she also loves jazz music. That’s when I started playing jazz music, but I also liked pop music. And then I had the internet at my disposal. I know that sounds old! (laughs) I looked up pop artists, and I fell in love with Lady Gaga. I was like, this is incredible, I want to write my music, and I want it to be dance music, but I also want to sing it with an opera twang and use jazz chords. It’s like an amalgamation of all of my different training into one. It was very much when I sat down late at night on a weekend with no plans in a rehearsal room and played the piano and wrote music. That made me decide that I want to make pop music.
KALTBLUT: When did you start writing music?
Jason: I’ve always written music. When I started learning piano, I would write little piano melodies and when I started to write more poetry, I started to write poetry to instruments and music. And then I started writing my songs on piano and just lyrics. The reason I wrote was because I was upset or sad about something. For me, songwriting is about working through emotions, just like some people journal. For me, writing music felt the most natural. As I went through my teenage years, which was kind of tough on me, I’ve just found myself writing more music, and it got a little better. And one night, I played it for a friend. And she told me that this is good, you should perform this instead of doing a jazz cover for your next show.
KALTBLUT: Did you always write in English and would you consider singing in Cantonese or Mandarin?
Jason: I do sing in Cantonese and Mandarin at my shows, sometimes – not my music, I sing covers and sometimes I do a little bit of Chinese operatic stuff. I love singing Cantonese pop ballads and I have performed my songs with a mandarin verse in them as well. But I have not yet organically written a song completely in Chinese. English was the easier language for me to think and write in just because it’s an easier language to pick up as a child. I studied English literature at uni, so I do love English written poetry. It’s much easier to write in English because English is monotone, whereas Mandarin and Cantonese are all tones. That means that not only do you have to think about the words and their meaning, you also have to think about the tone.
KALTBLUT: What’s next for you music-wise?
Jason: That’s a good question, I ask myself that every day. (laughs) I try to gain the confidence to release the rest of my EP, but I’m always very nervous about releasing music. The pandemic also scared me. So I have two beautiful tracks sitting here, ready to be released, we’ll see if they come out at the end of the year…