POPTOPIA: Asbjørn in conversation with Jason Kwan – “I fight for more representation, I fight love, for freedom, I fight for people to be heard.”
Yesterday, Asbjørn interviewed the London-based musician Jason Kwan as part of his collaboration with KALTBLUT called POPTOPIA. The two talked about gender representation, the definition of pop music and culture and the grassroots drag scene. Read the full q&a below or watch the stream here.
Asbjørn: I’ve been looking very much forward to this! You’re my second guest on POPTOPIA and I’m gonna start by making you slightly uncomfortable by presenting you. Are you ready?
Jason: (laughs) Let’s do it.
Asbjørn: Jason Kwan, you are an uncountable threat, a lover and a fighter in one. Not only do you slay as a performer, a singer, a songwriter, a model, a drag queen, you also slay when you educate us on racism, Asian hate and violence. You were born and raised in Hong Kong and have been a London resident since the age of 14. I think you are most likely an icon in the making. Jason Kwan, welcome!
Jason: (laughs) That is awkward but thank you so much! I guess that’s it, I don’t have to be here anymore, you’ve already told everyone everything.
Asbjørn: I’d love to just start with the question: What are you doing these days? You played a [drag] show yesterday for the first time in ages?
Jason: Yes, I’ve had two shows recently and it’s been so long since I’ve been on stage. I was so nervous yesterday. I don’t know how you feel but when I perform my songs, it’s always scarier. Not only do I have to impress you with the music itself, but also I’m letting you into my life, my struggles and my experiences. And when I have to sing it, it’s like an extra layer of vulnerability.
Asbjørn: Are you comparing that to doing drag performances?
Jason: Yeah, I think so! I wouldn’t say I’m a drag queen, I’m more of a drag performer, my drag is more non-binary. Doing cabaret is a little different because I can kind of remove my personal stories from the lyrics or the song sometimes. But within the work I do, I like to mix the two and mix them all in one. But I think just singing songs that I released over lockdown has been fun, I’ve missed doing it.
Asbjørn: You are not afraid to go big like in your songs, or on stage. Do you think that that helps you be there and stand by yourself singing those lyrics? Because it’s theatrical, big and emotional? Is that why, or a part of why, you have that bigness to you?
Jason: I think the outfits and the makeup add to the way the music is written. I am also really inspired by late 70s, early 80s glam rock. And you know glam rock is like punk music, it’s a rebellion, it’s about being loud and shouting about what you care about. But glam rock brings in theatre, which is a little different from punk, and what I live and breathe is theatre. So for me, because the music is so big, I have to match it with the right outfit, the makeup and the energy. And the way I perform; I trained in Opera, which is very theatrical. I want to combine all those things, throw them out there and see how much the audience can take.
I don’t think pop belongs to the mainstream, I think it belongs in that exact room who I’m performing for. It belongs to the listeners who are listening to my music because this is where the discourse is happening. Pop has nothing to do with how successful you are, or how famous you are.
Asbjørn: Amazing. I think before we get into the real juicy stuff, I want to read out loud the statement about POPTOPIA, just so we’re all on the same page. Are you ready for it?
Pop culture is a complex space. It has the power to make you feel seen, accepted and to encourage individuality and freedom. It also has the possibility and the ability to do the opposite, to uphold norms and stereotypes. In my career and life, I’ve juggled between the two and in this series I want to explore how people from in and outside of the music business experienced this space. Is pop culture a free or a restrictive space when finding and shaping your identity.
Are you up for it?
Jason: You see, what I do I feel is pop music, because I’m telling stories and creating sounds that tell the stories of my contemporaries, of people that I relate with. I don’t think pop belongs to the mainstream, I think it belongs in that exact room who I’m performing for. It belongs to the listeners who are listening to my music because this is where the discourse is happening. Pop has nothing to do with how successful you are, or how famous you are. I think it can be restrictive, in the sense of people categorising genre very specifically. So, when we talk about genre; I’m not [doing] pop music, I’m a dark rock in a sense, but it is pop music at the same time. So I think when it comes to genre it’s restricting to label what is pop music. When I think about pop music, it’s top 40, topped with a house beat, maybe reggaeton inspired nowadays. But also pop culture at the moment is hip hop, rap and r&b. So, yeah I think it can be quite restricting, but I also think pop is what helps me have conversations with people about what’s happening around the world. Does that answer your question? (laughs)
Asbjørn: I think that’s an overwhelmingly good statement in itself. I like your description of pop as something that can be whatever you want it to be, as something that just depends on the way you look at it. I think that’s beautiful. Brilliant opening statement! I’m sure we’re gonna get back to this topic later, but for start, I wanna quickly run three questions past you.
One: Are you an activistic artist, or an artistic activist?
Jason: I’m an artistic, maybe, activist.
Asbjørn: (laughs) Okay. I want you to elaborate on that.
Jason: I don’t think I’m an artist first and foremost, and I think activism requires a lot more time – it is a job. I’d like to say I advocate for things because I platform things and I do activism within specific fields, for example within LGBT youth homelessness and within Asian awareness. But I think it takes away from activists who spend all of their time being an activist. And I think as an artist, I have more skill in actually helping the discourse that activists are working on to put on a bigger platform, or to help infiltrate more communities. So, I’d say I’m an artist who supports activists.
Asbjørn: And you take advantage of the pop industry and its possibilities to get parts of that activism out into the world.
Jason: (laughs) Yeah, I’m only interested in injecting politics into pop music, that’s all.
Asbjørn: Beautiful. Second question: Do you consider yourself fighting for or against things in your life?
Jason: Hm, definitely fighting for. Fighting for is more glass-half-full for me. I think fighting against feels like something’s already set, whereas fighting for is more uplifting. And even though my music is quite dark, I think it’s very empowering. I have a nice group of listeners who often tell me that my music helps them with something because I have helped champion a narrative or a story, or their feelings. I fight for more representation, I fight love, for freedom, I fight for people to be heard. The against stuff is too traumatic for me to think about. I’d like to think about how to move forward.
Asbjørn: Third question in the pop quiz round: When or where do you lay down your guards?
Jason: I think on stage I lay down my guards. But between songs… (laughs) After I perform a song to you, I’ll be like hey everyone I’m Jason, this is why I wrote this song. And I think that for me is the most vulnerable spot, because you just heard me sing this and I’m telling you what inspired it, and I’m about to sing you something else. That’s very scary for me sometimes, because I could be booed off stage, I can have people scoff at me, I can have people roll their eyes – it is a dangerous position.
Asbjørn: And that has happened to you?
Jason: No, but people have been disengaged and I can sense that. So yeah, that’s what I think I’m the most vulnerable when I’m talking to the audience breaking the fourth wall.
Asbjørn: Indeed. There’s an element though, relating to the last question, when you’re in that situation on stage and you feel the distance from your audience, there is, at least in me, an element of fighting against my insecurities. Because when you have the support from the audience you fight for the unity of everything, but then when confronted with that insecurity, there’s something you need to fight against in yourself to be fully there.
Jason: Yeah, some say you have to prove yourself. It’s hard to stay focused in those moments in between. Sometimes I have to tell myself that I just gotta keep going. I cannot doubt my existence on stage because the second I do, I’ll lose it and everyone will know. (laughs)
Crying also helps me come face-to-face with my fears, my struggles and my experiences, and I think about why I’ve been made to feel this way, or why I feel this way.
Asbjørn: Totally. So, I wanna move into the next segment where we can speak about things a bit longer if we want and I’m calling it Jason meets pop culture.
I saw this clip of you where you said “I grew up in a culture where crying was seen as a weakness”. How do you feel about crying now?
Jason: It’s interesting. I said that about my song “Sometimes I Cry”, and I think when people hear the song title, they automatically attach a lot of negative connotations to crying. But the song title for me means admitting that I cry. Crying for me now is one of the most natural things, one of the most natural ways of processing emotion. I find strength from crying, I find it one of the most powerful tools to physically let go of stress and calm myself down. Crying also helps me come face-to-face with my fears, my struggles and my experiences, and I think about why I’ve been made to feel this way, or why I feel this way.
Asbjørn: When and how did that change?
Jason: I think it changed because I found confidence in the people I met. Growing up pretty alone and independent, coming to London and finding my chosen family helped me realise I didn’t have to be so strong all the time and that crying was a great way for me to deal with the situation. For me, the greatest strength and power comes from being vulnerable. You can’t have one without the other. And so in the song “Sometimes I Cry”, I celebrate being vulnerable. The more vulnerable you get, the stronger you come out of it. It’s not about rejecting things that made you cry, it’s about embracing them and allowing them to be part of your life.
Asbjørn: And there’s such a beautiful juxtaposition in you singing those words because the words are considered vulnerable, but the force of your voice is saying everything else.
Jason: Yeah, lyrically every line has me admitting to some sort of vulnerability, but the guitar, the drums, the synths and the way I sing it is so demonic. It’s almost screaming at you. And this is powerful, how vulnerable I’m being with you right now. That’s the energy I’ve been inspired with by punk music but bringing in my vulnerability.
Asbjørn: Beautiful. When you say you grew up in a space where you weren’t allowed to cry. Is that because of norms and culture, or was that in your family? Can you tell us about the ideals you grew up with?
Jason: I grew up in Hong Kong and Shanghai and it was a culture of if you have emotions, suppress it, don’t admit to it, get on with life. I’m not gonna say that culturally that’s wrong or right, but I’m someone that likes to very rationally work through my feelings and admit when something’s happening, deal with it, and move on. One part of my personality that I wasn’t able to express was dealing with sadness, which turned into me being unable to deal with anger. I had a lot of anger issues because I just felt so suppressed and unable to express who I was. When I came to the UK, I had more time to myself and I was introduced to music. Me listening to people like Joni Mitchell, Grace Jones, Chaka Khan sing about their music and pride. For me, that was powerful and that’s true strength.
Women in the music industry had to fight for themselves to be heard and the women that I resonate with are the ones who never tried to be something else – they stuck with who they were and forced people to listen.
Asbjørn: Just like me, you only mention women.
Jason: (laughs) I do also like non-women singers, but I like women, a lot.
Asbjørn: Which men were your idols?
Jason: My ultimate idol is the iconic Hong Kong pop star, Leslie Cheung. I am a big fan of Freddie Mercury. I’m a huge fan of ABBA, which includes men. Nat King Cole is one of my absolute favourite singers, Frank Sinatra as well. But if they’re not a queer male singer, female singers resonate with me because of what they’ve been through.
Asbjørn: Relating to the fight, does that strike a chord with you?
Jason: Women in the music industry had to fight for themselves to be heard and the women that I resonate with are the ones who never tried to be something else – they stuck with who they were and forced people to listen. That’s how I look at my work as well. What do I wanna say and what am I unwilling to compromise on?
Asbjørn: That makes so much sense. When did you become aware of gender identity?
Jason: I always knew that I was queer, in a sense. But I only started thinking about gender identity a few years ago, maybe two or three years ago. It’s something to me that’s quite new, that I’ve never thought about, but it’s something that’s always troubled me. I identify as non-binary and I didn’t have the language to say what I was and how I felt. It was after meeting people who also identified as non-binary, that I understood who I was. If you listen to my music, you can hear that I’m trying to figure out my identity. If I think back to my first song, a lot of it is me telling myself to just let go of these labels, me not knowing what to do and me comforting myself. That’s the thread throughout my music, where I try to figure out who I am in terms of all things.
Asbjørn: When did your interest in drag come into the picture? Was that at the same time as creating music, moving to London? When did that urge develop to play with identity in that way?
Jason: My gender expression was something I played with all my life. I loved dressing up, I loved costumes, I loved the performance. But I started to get into it when I moved to London because I met people who helped me express myself more genuinely and gave me the tools. Literal tools! “Here’s a make-up brush! And this is how you can do it!” And also showing me the different things that were possible. For me, going on stage now is not necessarily about how I look in terms of gender, I’m thinking about it in terms of what do I wanna wear today? Everything is allowed.
Asbjørn: What a beautiful way to live. Is that uncomplicated for you? Do you never doubt that you can just do that?
Jason: (laughs) Stylistically, I never doubt myself. But in terms of my safety, I have to be very careful. For example, if I’m going to a gig and I’m already in full face, I will experience violence walking around the street showing and expressing myself. Even yesterday after my gig, I forgot to bring make-up wipes, but I got one off someone else and I managed to get my eye make-up off and that made me feel safe even though I only had a short walk home after my friends had walked me halfway. It’s something you have to think about. If it’s 11 PM, I know I’ll be harassed if I walk around with my eye-make-up on.
Asbjørn: That makes me so incredibly sad to hear, because all of us who play with identity have had experiences like that, and still have it every once in a while. Although, I always hope that others don’t experience it as I do. Do you think that the commercial rise of drag in the mainstream has affected, or will affect identity freedom in general, not only for drags but also everyone to just express whatever they feel like? What’s your view on that?
Jason: I have a few ways of answering that question. Firstly, 100% with the expression and more spotlight on drag is an amazing thing. It’s a great representation and it’s great that queer artists are being put on big stages and have bigger platforms that they can use for good. However, I think the current climate of drag is very limiting. It’s very centred around white drag queens. This is a cis gay white person as a drag queen and that’s not representational of the drag scene. I, for example, don’t wear a wig, I don’t present as female, I have no interest in wearing a breastplate. And then I hear but you’re not drag, you’re a femboy. Even though both artists are exploring gender and gender expression, one is favoured and the other is being told no. In a sense that’s narrowed who you can be as a drag performer.
In grassroot underground drag, it’s not about money. It’s not about being pretty, it’s not about being feminine or polished, it’s about being yourself and being expressive and talking about what’s happening.
Asbjørn: Do you experience that only in mainstream culture, TV and artists, or do you also see this at drag events in London.
Jason: It’s all over. There are a lot of people who come to drag gigs and they’re like oh this is not what I saw on TV, I don’t like this. People will have different expectations when it comes to live shows and live shows and TV are two completely different things. One is a reality scripted show, and usually, the people that get on the show are the ones that have the means and the money to create amazing outfits. In grassroot underground drag, it’s not about money. It’s not about being pretty, it’s not about being feminine or polished, it’s about being yourself and being expressive and talking about what’s happening. I think there’s a big difference in that, but then you look on TV and you see someone like Olly Alexander who’s able to be super queer, get on stage and perform the way they want to. That’s been amazing, and it’s been a huge breakthrough for queer artists. And Olly follows people like Freddy Mercury and Elton John. The culture has shifted. It’s almost like you can be gay… but not too gay enough for a straight audience.
Asbjørn: Like any pop star, you have to see yourself from the outside and accentuate the things in you that are special, but still relatable. I guess that’s the name of the mainstream. I’m very curious about your experience in the underground drag scene. If the underground drag clubs aren’t inclusive of everybody, that seems like a very lonely place for people all of a sudden.
Jason: Yeah, it’s difficult. That’s why producers and artists need to make space for those people. The more drag becomes commercialised as white drag queens, clubs will follow and tell themself that’s how they’re gonna make money if that’s what the audience wants to see. Let’s only invest in that. […]
Asbjørn: Would you say that if you ever get tired of being the one who has to educate people, but I’m gonna jump to a conclusion and say that that makes you feel less powerless, it makes you feel like you can maybe do something. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
Jason: I think it’s both. I am tired, very tired. Especially after last week where I talked a lot about cultural appropriation. But at the same time, something I realised recently is that I have a platform to say these things. And me sharing one story of mine inspires hundreds of other stories, Currently, in my DMs, which I’m trying not to read because it can be a dark place, 95% are people spending a lot of time typing out their stories and telling me. How this has helped them, or how their story is similar. But even one person telling me that I am wrong, or that racism doesn’t exist will derail me. So, I have to balance that and realise that my story is not gonna be accepted by everyone, but it can do good in this world, so it’s worth it for me to put it out there. […] But it is very tiring to put free education out there all the time.
Asbjørn: We are gonna jump to the last segment now, Jason. I’m gonna call it FutureSexLoveSound, I’ve just got one question for you. If you could change something, anything, in pop culture in 2021, what would it be?
Jason: Validation. It’s something I want to challenge. There are so many incredibly independent, underground, grassroots artists making such incredible music, saying amazing things, who are not validated until they have enough followers, press, or whatever. I don’t think an artist’s work should be based on their success, it should be based on the success of their art, how well they told their stories, how gorgeous they are, how talented they are. Music is moving more towards that and pop culture is opening up a little towards it, but I’d like the gatekeepers to stop gatekeeping. Like Spotify, or radio stations, who are dictating who should be featured. It’d be amazing if people made the effort to look for music and not listen to what a record label wants them to listen to. We, as listeners, have the responsibility to validate artists, even if they don’t have a billion followers.