A few songs into her set at the Head In The Clouds Festival in early August, Niki Zefanya, who goes by her stage name NIKI, takes a moment to address the 10,000-plus people gathered in Los Angeles’ Historic State Park. “I just want to say, as an Asian female, I do not take this day and this stage for granted. My hope is that above everything else today, that you feel heard, you feel understood, but most of all that you feel represented.”
In its second year, the festival showcases artists from 88rising, a label and marketing company that represents hip-hop and R&B acts from both the U.S. and Asia. It’s the most successful Asian artist-focused collective of its kind, and if the huge, diverse turnout of Head In The Clouds is any indication, their influence is only growing. And NIKI, a 20-year-old Indonesian R&B artist, is the only female headliner, and wears her identity with pride.
She opens her set with the Indonesian national anthem, inviting children and teens on stage to pay their respects and wave flags, which inspire some in the crowd to join in. Beautiful visuals of tropical flowers and confident women serve as the backdrop for each song throughout her set — most of which she writes and self-produces. There’s the smooth “lowkey,” off of her most recent EP wanna take this downtown?, and seductive “Indigo,” whose music video sees the singer playing a femme fatale who lures unsuspecting men into her cult, and then selections like “Warpaint,” a swelling empowerment anthem. Men and women all throughout the crowd seem completely captivated by NIKI, today dressed in all white with a stark bright blue hue decorating her tear ducts. They sing along to her songs, raise their hands (and middle fingers) into the air when she asks — some even begin to cry.
Refinery29 caught the singer shortly after her set to talk about female and Asian representation in the music industry, and the importance of embracing your own identity.
Refinery29: What did this headlining performance at Head In The Clouds Festival mean to you?
NIKI: “This is pretty much the culmination of my personal artistry and my career. Everything in my career has led up to this. [Performing] felt absolutely ridiculous. Honestly, when I'm up there, I don't really feel like myself. I just sort of feel like a vessel and an extension of [the audience] and their stories and I just feel like I owe it to them to kind of just like represent them, in a way.”
There’s a lot of pressure, though, that comes with feeling like that kind of “vessel.”
NIKI: “It's a pressure that I consciously take on. I feel a social responsibility being a part of 88rising. It's literally the first bridge between the East and the West that has been done successfully and so ... pervasively. I know a lot of friends from back home that have tried so hard to make it internationally. But for some reason [starting] in the U.S. as an Asian collective and kind of permeated the global scheme. I really feel like I'm a part of something historic.”
Why do you feel like things are starting to change now?
NIKI: “It's falling in an absolutely amazing, positive direction. For instance, the fact that on Riverdale, the jock is Asian [Korean-American actor Charles Melton plays Reggie on the show] . That's a step, because in the past we've been the four-eyed biology nerd that doesn't go out on Friday night, has no swag, and takes their shoes off. I feel like with 88rising we’re moving in a very good direction, and just being able to be a small part of that gigantic cultural catalyst is truly an honor.”
"I just want Asians to be proud that they're Asian because Asians have just been so underrepresented and it's been a very unspoken, untouched territory."
What spurred your decision to open your set with an ode to Indonesia?
NIKI: “Today is actually Indonesian Independence Day. I want to show kids to own where you're from, because I think a lot of kids that are Asian that grew up in the States or are Asian like me and grew up in an international community in southeast Asia have a tendency to go through this weird like identity crisis. Like, ‘Do I Westernize myself or do I not? Where's the good sweet spot?’ As I've grown older I've just realized you can be both. You can be a cultural mutt and that's fine. That's why I felt like it was really important to me to do that, because I wanted everybody to watch and see that, ‘if she can own where she's from then I'm going to do that too.’"
What do you think has given you the confidence to be able to own where you're from?
“Ironically, it was moving to the States and being away from home. I thought that once I moved here, I'd have to adjust and adapt accordingly, which comes with a lot of sacrifices and compromise culturally. Of course there was cultural shock, but when I moved here I garnered such an appreciation for my home — the beach, the food, the people. You don't know what you have until you’re apart from it.”
Why did you decide to open with your female anthem "Newsflash"?
“I'm still kind of navigating this, so I hesitate to say this, but I think in a lot of Eastern countries there's still a patriarchy going on. It's very cultural, though, so in many ways it's kind of hard to dispute, which Westerners don’t quite understand. But back home it's very traditionalist and hierarchical. But I want to show Indonesian girls that you can be Indonesian, and you can be feminist at the same time. I'm doing it. You can too. I want to present that choice to them.”
Were you presented with that choice growing up?
“No. It's very implicit. It's very ingrained into the culture. Whenever I started to talk a lot, my mom would of take me aside and reprimand me for talking too much because it's unladylike. Obviously, it's cultural to pay respect, and I understand that, and I would never dispute that, but it's the 21st century. I just want girls to see me and be like, ‘Well, if she can do that, then why not me?’”
Did you have anybody in the industry that you could look up to growing up?
“Honestly, no, not really. Not anybody Asian. I never really felt like there was anybody who looked like me, who correctly represented me, and so I just feel like I want to be that for little kids that look like me, talk like me, or are from my hometown.”
What would you like to see going forward? What do you hope grows from this movement here?
“I just want Asians to be proud that they're Asian because Asians have just been so underrepresented and it's been a very unspoken, untouched territory. I just want kids to be proud. Honestly, that's it. And I want to see more Asians on-screen, and Asians in entertainment. I want to see an Asian win a Grammy. Hopefully [it's] one of us.”