By Kelly Nguyen
To experience 88rising’s recent Head in the Clouds festival was to feel pure joy. Bursting through the sunny, sublime skies on November 6 and 7, history was in the making: Every space in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Stadium was intertwined with Asians and Asian Americans in control of their power. In the middle of the gathering, an Asian square-inspired sign led the crowd to the heart and soul of the festival: Asian-owned restaurants and businesses. The scent of Bopomofo’s spicy Sichuan wafted through the air as festival-goers – dressed in everything from Joji’s Pink Guy figure-hugging bodysuit to an outfit designed after the national flag of the Philippines – excitedly lined up.
At the heart of this was the 88rising label, which first hosted the fest in 2018 as a celebration of what it means to be truly, undeniably proud of our identity. Asian storytellers are often forced to be the creators and heroes of our own stories at the same time. As a result, the music company encourages artists to write their own and push boundaries so that Asian stories come right to the forefront of the conversation.
This constant struggle to make sure Asian art and lives are visible – this struggle to be seen – can be stifling. Many of us look for the little windows where Asian stories aren’t just defined by learning to be resilient or strong. As such, each performer took care to flood the stage with their prismatic pleasure. During headliner and early label signer Rich Brian’s performance of the flamboyant song “Edamame,” backup dancers emerged and locked themselves in dressed as the titular soybean. Rising singer Bibi rained condoms on her audience and kissed a female fan halfway through the performance, all in the name of giving people the space to just get lost in the magic of the music.
Amid the thumping bass during headliner Saweetie’s set, she paused, glinting eyes taking in the 30,000 festival-goers in awe. She devoted her performance to watching “Asian kings and queens”. As the crowd aggressively shook their hands with foam sticks, she encouraged something radical: learning to “love yourself” proudly. The crowd erupted in boisterous, unadulterated joy. The nights at Head in the Clouds always end like this: laughter, light as air, wrapped in the collective feeling that the name of the festival evokes.
“This community was literally built from the ground up,” headliner Niki told MTV News, speaking of the magic in the atmosphere. “It’s just really cool to see a family bond between artists, artist fans, artist company… It just feels really close and like a real community.” Backstage for their big performances, she takes us along with Head in the Clouds’ other Indonesian star performers Rich Brian and Warren Hue on their journeys that stand up for themselves creatively, their authenticity as creatives of color and Asian pride and joy.
MTV News: What does Asian pride and joy look like to you?
Rich Brian: It’s a bit like what’s going on right now. I think it’s like seeing so many people, and there are so many Asian people who can just express themselves. Watching a lot of people express themselves is really cool, and just seeing that influence happen right in front of you. I don’t go out much. I am a very homey type. But I like doing Head in the Clouds because every year I see this happening right in front of me.
Nikki: I think we all celebrate who we are, through food, through music, through celebrating each other. As a diaspora, especially because we’re as a minority within a majority culture, I think it’s so important to lift each other up and just have that spirit of like, we’re all in this together. And I’ve seen that a lot with my own friends. I think a common misconception is that I’m Asian-American, but I’m literally an Indonesian person who moved to America. So my experience is different from, you know, my friends who are first and second generation Asian Americans. And yet there is still this kind of overlap in terms of the Asian experience in America. I just think it’s beautiful, just the way it is. I think we should just celebrate each other.
MTV News: How do you feel now, watching the crowd and seeing that everyone is excited to see you perform?
Brian: It felt great, man. That was crazy. That was the first time I performed since 2019, and it was crazy. Especially like, you know, after not seeing that happen for two years. I just envisioned that – this was my most surreal show yet. I think the most surreal [performance] was this show, and then my first show ever. When I perform, I am usually very present. I’m very there and I know I’m performing. I know that’s what I do. But when I did my set last night, I remember I was three or four songs deep, and I’ll still say, wait – I’m performing now. I would just go somewhere and then mentally come back. And it just took a lot to process. But it was insane.
Warren Hue: This is my first time performing, ever. So it’s crazy, like super surreal. I used to perform with 100 people watching me, and most of them would be my homies, or in a club and stuff. But this is like, damn it. I see that people really love the music I made when I was back home in Jakarta, in my bedroom. [This music], it is transferred to about 30,000 people. That’s so surreal to me. Oh my god, it sure feels like a dream. And the feeling still lasts until now.
MTV News: Do you remember the first time you stood up for yourself creatively since you joined 88rising?
Hue: I just started making songs on YouTube and stuff and putting them on SoundCloud. So I was like, oh, this sounds good. I like to listen to it. And I’ll just post it – weekly, monthly. And just without, you know, who cares if people don’t mess with it? You know what I mean? Because I like it.
Brian: Part of being an artist is also just working together. You have to rely a little on the creative decisions and perspectives of other people. One of the first times I had to creatively stand up for myself was… for a music video, when I [was] in the editing room with the director. Because sometimes, when you’re in that room, you’re just you and the director. And you stay up late at night, you’re both tired. You don’t like the photo of yourself or the way it looks, or you feel that this recording really fits the music. But then he has his own taste. For me, [music videos] are very important to me. So I’m really looking forward to it.
MTV News: What does authenticity and overcoming failure look like to you as a creative of color?
Nikki: I think it took a minute to navigate. I am Indonesian, but I speak English, but I live in America. I think the main conclusion of this learning journey that I’m still on is to just embrace that it all adds to my identity, rather than taking anything from it. I think as a 16-year-old I thought: who am I? Am I American? I am not American, but I speak English. And I remember I was just so confused. But I think the confusion is part of the process. In the end, it just adds more dimension and color to everyone. As a creative of color, I think it was just really cool to grow into what I believe is authentic to myself and to my artistry.
MTV News: How do you take care of yourself after your performance?
Nikki: I’m actually planning to go to Indonesia in December to see my family, and haven’t seen them since COVID. I think, like, seeing family and just being back in a home environment for a bit – and when I say House, like, home has kind of a loose meaning to me now. But Indonesia is always my first home. Whenever I go back it just resets. I am my father’s child. I am my brother’s sister. I’m just chilling and I have my cats. Going home is just always very healing for me. That’s really going to help me reset and also appreciate life.