BY IAN URRUTIA
A few songs into her co-headlining stint at the Head In The Clouds Festival in August 2019, NIKI paused for a moment and addressed the thousands of people who came to see 88rising’s growing roster of Asian artists. “I just want to say, as an Asian female, I do not take this day and this stage for granted,” the Indonesian R&B star said. “My hope is that above everything else today, that you feel heard, you feel understood, but most of all, that you feel represented.”
Candidly speaking, Asian female, or of mixed descent, acts have been struggling to attain visibility and representation in global music markets since forever. The world’s monotonous vision of pop supremacy has only catered to the young, white, and beautiful. Any attempt to disrupt the convention is most likely bound to fail. In the last ten years, only a handful of Asian artists garnered little to moderate success in Europe, Canada and US: Jake Zyrus’s first international studio album, Charice, peaked on top 10 of the US Billboard 200 and Canadian albums chart, and landed a pop hit in “Pyramid.” Korea’s BLACKPINK recently embarked on a sold-out North American tour with the success of its genre-bending blockbuster EP, Kill This Love. Malaysia’s Yuna also reaped accolades worldwide following the release of 2016’s Chapters, and collaborations with global superstars such as Usher and Pharrell Williams.
And then there’s the 21-year-old Nicole Zefanya, popularly known as 88rising’s NIKI. Unlike other music icons from the Asian region, NIKI appears to be the most interesting among the bunch. Her work neither fits the cutting-edge mold nor the pop extravaganza of the current mainstream toast. Zephyr, her 2018 debut full-length album, claws in the more low-key and brooding strands of R&B/hip-hop: More H.E.R. and Solange, but less of the trendy crossover bait that Spotify programmers tend to prioritize on mood playlists.
NIKI is also opinionated about certain issues that Asian women face from family and society, even bringing to attention the several instances of double standards that she encountered in the entertainment business. “Women are always under scrutiny over how they look and what they say,” the Dancing With The Devil singer shares. “Men get away with a lot more.”
This rebellious stance, which lends to a unique positioning in the realm of pop music, is what her latest single “Switchblade” is all about. Sonically different from anything that the 88rising chanteuse has released in the past, NIKI drops a song that gestures toward the ethereal end of music-making where artists like Grimes, FKA Twigs, and Lorde comfortably reside. Built around percussive beats, atmospheric soundscapes, and icy, electro-pop arrangements, she sings about having “an iron clad attitude and outlook—conquering whatever you want, whatever is in your vicinity or in your way.”
This time, she delivers a compelling vision that radiates in the best of her abilities: her voice, airy and delicate, powers through the cinematic production, pulling us into her magnetic presence. In a world that sees NIKI as a central figure, at least in that empowering visual narrative directed by Tom Teller, we see an underdog rise above the ground and lord over the impending paranoia. NIKI is far from that person in real life, but as an exciting newcomer capable of coloring the outside lines with her own stamp, she brings an effortless cool that’s been lacking in contemporary music these days.