EDM acts often hide their identity. For Asian American Star Zhu, It Always Had Two Meanings | Characteristics
When the house lights dimmed at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater on May 3, producer and singer Steven Zhu, known in dance-music circles only by his last name, stepped out in a blizzard. . It was the first of a six-night headlining race, its first big live crowd in over a year. Compared to a pandemic that had put an end to concert activity since March 2020, inclement weather was not going to stop it.
“The cold was so piercing that my cheeks were almost frozen,” said Zhu of Denver, one morning off during his series of shows. The icy feel in the air matched the moods of the 32-year-old’s new album, “Dreamland 2021,” released on April 30.
“The feeling of being on stage was almost a distant memory. It took a while to settle into the reality of being in front of a crowd again. But I think everyone was stunned that it came back somehow.
But as with so many things in a world that is slowly coming back to life, it is all mingled with grief and bewilderment.
Zhu is one of the most prominent Asian American musicians working today, and even with new signs of hope after COVID-19, he is shaken by the racist violence that AAPI communities have endured during the pandemic, often fueled by hate political rhetoric.
“They were hard to see, because most of the attacks I saw in the press clips were on the elderly and the weak,” he said. “They could be my parents. In Chinese culture, respecting one’s elders is quite an important thing. So when you see someone attacking someone old, it’s so disturbing. These people are helpless. “
When Zhu first appeared with his single “Faded” in 2014, his identity was intentionally put in the background. Like ELLE and The Weeknd, Zhu kept a grip on personal information and images as his single, a liminal, falsetto-focused house track, hit clubs and festivals. He was just a fresh out of USC guy with nothing to hide, but he was aware of how being an Asian American producer and frontman could change expectations about his music or his public image.
“Music in America is pretty black and white,” he said. “Asians have always had their own stories to tell in America, but it is perhaps only so far that the general public has opened their ears. Maybe it hasn’t always been so relatable because the struggles are different.
He had quickly become a major star in the post-EDM-boom dance scene, earning a Grammy nomination in 2015 and collaborating with Skrillex, Migos and Tame Impala (and with former New York mayoral candidate, Andrew Yang, who came up with his video for “Came for the Low”). Now, three albums in his career and crawling out of the COVID wreckage for dance music, Zhu desperately wanted those after-hours feelings again.
Instead of his usual sold-out show route, Zhu has spent a lot of time last year traveling through some of the Rocky Mountain states. He longed for the expansion of this landscape after months in the cloister.
“Until this point in my life, I had never really traveled across large parts of America this way. I am used to flying from city to city and bypass all rural areas of the country, ”he said. “These trips to Montana and Utah really opened my eyes to a whole different side of our country. I am definitely connected with nature, across thousands of miles of insane terrain.
But “Dreamland” was her way of reconnecting with the feelings of the interiors – those foggy, racing, disembodied clubbing moments where everything hits just right for a second, and you wonder if that feeling can stick.
“How Does It Feel” is a funky, narcotic deep house with suave-voiced LA travel companion Channel Tres; “Sky Is Crying” rises and falls with sparkling atmospheres and harsh arpeggios. Zhu’s silvery vocal performance blends in perfectly with Tinashe on “Only”, straddling house and mercurial R&B.
It’s a record of deeply missing the club and the connection chance it offers. While those nights may still be a long way off, “Dreamland” pretty much recreates the feeling for the time being.
The LP was “definitely all about fantasy,” he said. “A lot of my great club memories were from Europe, and I envisioned a lot of concrete and steel. I really tried to get into this sweaty, dark, thrilling dance floor.
But if the last year has proven anything, it’s that the escape does not go any further.
The 2020s and 2021 have each seen waves of anti-Asian violence in the United States, ignited by former President Donald Trump’s crass invective on ‘kung flu’ and culminating in the murder of eight people in Asian spas. of the Atlanta area in March.
Zhu’s music isn’t often political – it’s best suited to the darkness and lure of warehouse raves and the 4am loneliness. But while he once felt the need to let the tunes speak for themselves, he was shaken by recent events, which have pushed questions of identity and racism to the fore in American life.
“American society has been inherently racist and likely will remain so,” he says. “Each person makes their own choices about how they want to treat others, and there is no system in the world that can override that.” But now, he adds, “people have no choice (but) to talk about it.”
Artists such as independent rocker and memoirist Michelle Zauner, aka Japanese Breakfast, spoke with fresh candor about how their particular angles on Asian American culture (or outsiderdom) shape their music and sense of self. Sometimes it doesn’t land, like a widely mocked Instagram post of a yellow square from largely Asian rap label 88 Rising, in apparent solidarity against violence.
Zhu works in a genre deeply rooted in uncompromising expressions of identity, but as one of the most influential Asian American musicians today, he sorts out what that means right now and what he should. make. Even as Zhu reluctantly admires Kanye West’s inflammatory qualities (“an infinite loop so shocking and controversial that we have no choice [but] to talk about it, ”as he described West), he’s more than happy if“ Dreamland ”is a reprieve from it all.
“I wanted people to be able to just get lost without having to make a gigantic artistic statement,” he said of those early shows at Red Rocks. “Once the nervousness wears off, it was just like, ‘Hey, it’s back.'”