You never know what could happen when you show up to a Yaeji party. Maybe you get blindfolded and hands run through your hair. Maybe someone by the door passes you a fragrant bowl of Japanese curry. Maybe there’s a bear on stage. Who knows, it’s happened before.
Recently, a particularly strange phenomenon has occurred whenever the Korean-American singer, DJ, and producer, born Kathy Lee, performs one of her songs: white people start singing along in fake Korean, literally screaming gibberish at the top of their lungs because they can’t quite pronounce the lyrics but know how it’s supposed to sound. Her fans tweet about this phenomenon; even her parents think it’s crazy.
But it makes sense: a Yaeji song seduces you subliminally. Catchy pop hooks and groovy, 4x4 house rhythms knock down your defenses, as half-whispered phrases float into your ear. Before you even realize what’s happening, they latch onto your brain, seeping into your subconscious until you, too, are making up words to sing along.
Yaeji, 25, pays close attention to how language sounds. She likes creating rhythms with the cadence of consonants and singing in a hushed voice to kindle an ASMR-like feeling of intimacy. She especially loves the way Korean words have angular textures when you hold them in your mouth, and her choruses are often simple phrases repeated over and over. “Geugeaniyaaa, aniya geugeaniyaaa,” she croons on “Drink I’m Sippin On,” stretching out her vowels so that they hang in the air like creeping nightclub fog.
She’s unpretentious, like your everyday raver-next-door. She wears her hair in an unfussy bun, and her round, wire-framed glasses lend her an air of studiousness that she often breaks with uninhibited bursts of giggles. When she dances, she sometimes stands with her legs akimbo, thrusting her hips and elbows to the beat in an awkward style one fan likened to “an Asian dad at a wedding.” You get the sense that she can’t help but be completely herself.
Now, just one year after debuting her self-titled EP on Godmode, an L.A. label that also released her follow-up, EP2, in November 2017, Yaeji is playing boss-level festivals like Sónar and Coachella. “Have you ever raved with YAEJI?!” a friend in Singapore once asked me, eyes popping with incredulity. After the BBC tapped her as a “Sound of 2018” artist, the Korean press started to write about her too. That helped convince her parents, who live in Seoul and had long discouraged her from pursuing music in favor of a more stable career, that she was finally legit.
Yaeji is straddling the underground and commercial worlds in a way that very few artists can: her tracks frequently surface at DIY parties and on obscure DJ mixes, while friends have also heard her songs blasting at Chipotle. After leaving Godmode last year, she is now flying solo as an independent artist. She’s touring Europe this summer and, for the first time, she will be surrounded by more strangers than friends.
But first, in her home city of New York, Yaeji is hosting the latest edition of her party Yaeji and Friends, where she is inviting a huge squad of friends to join her on stage like a Brooklyn DIY smorgasbord. When they went on sale this April, tickets sold out in less than 10 minutes.
Yaeji was born in Flushing, Queens, a majority Asian enclave. She bounced around in Long Island and Manhattan before her family moved to Atlanta when she was 5. As one of the only Asian kids in her public school, Yaeji was often bullied. “Atlanta was rough,” she says. “There were black kids, but we were not having a dialogue. I was on my own.”
When Yaeji came home one day and started speaking in English instead of Korean, her parents worried that she was becoming too “Americanized” and forgetting her native tongue. They moved to Korea when she was 9, but there, she also stood out; she remembers random elderly people coming up to her on the street and scolding her for speaking English. “In one place, I look different. In the other place, I act and sound different,” she says, voicing a common sense of dislocation amongst third-culture kids.
Confused and lonely, Yaeji withdrew. “I was super introverted,” she says. “In a sense, to fit in, I always had to shut up. I felt I had to suppress my true self.”
“In one place, I look different. In the other place, I act and sound different.”
It wasn’t until she moved to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon — where she studied East Asian visual culture, fine arts, and communication design — that Yaeji began to come into her own. Joining the school’s student radio station was a revelation. “Everyone was a freak, including me,” she says with a grin. She was baptized into electronic music culture at her first rave, Pittsburgh’s notorious secret techno sex party Hot Mass.
In her second and third years of college, Yaeji started DJing and producing music of her own. “Even then she could get a room of people moving,” says Jeremy Wheeler, a radio station friend who met Yaeji when she was DJing a Pittsburgh house party. “The most special thing about Kathy’s music is her set of influences. She can curate a unique vibe just playing loose tracks from artists she likes.”
When she produces, Yaeji says she feels an intuitive pull towards house music, which she describes as “neither positive nor negative,” “emotional and nostalgic,” and “energetic.” “I’m always drawn to the same feelings,” she says. “I just end up there somehow every time. Some people say that my music sounds sad and lonely. I think that’s true — but that’s not necessarily something I want to show.” She pauses. “Maybe a part of me is trying to hide the darkness of all the times I’ve spent alone.”
She moved to New York in 2015, working as a graphic designer and artist assistant by day while diving into the city’s thriving ecosystem of DIY parties by night, sometimes going out five times a week. She started throwing a party called Curry in No Hurry, where she’d simply cook a big pot of Japanese curry and invite her friends to come over to her apartment. Since many of them were also self-taught musicians, they’d inevitably start playing tracks they’d been working on for each other. As the party grew, it moved to a proper Williamsburg venue called Kinfolk, and she did a version of it for her breakout Boiler Room set in October of last year.
“New York was a flood of different experiences all at once. Everything was mesmerizing to me,” Yaeji says. Ideas would often come to her as she moved around its streets. “On the subway, I would see or hear something and it would bring on a feeling,” she says. A lot of the times, she says, that feeling is “cringey.”
“I have so many cringey memories that come back to me. Do you ever have that?” she asks, giggling. “Like you’re waiting on a bus, and you’re like, Oh my gosh I shouldn’t remember something like that.” Blushing, she confesses, “Every time I have a cringey memory, I have to hum — that’s my way to get rid of it. So whenever you’re next to me and I’m humming, I’m probably remembering something shitty…”
When she first started out, she says she felt insecure about her untrained voice and vulnerable lyrics, so she would try to hide them with whispers and language barriers. On “Raingurl,” lines about “suffocated memories” and “windowless rooms” are sung in Korean, while the verses in English present a more playful side, including one of Yaeji’s most memorable bars: “When the sweaty walls are bangin / I don’t fuck with family planning / Make it rain girl, make it rain.”
But as she improved her production skills and learned how to treat her vocals with various effects, Yaeji says she’s gained a lot more confidence in her voice, which is now the focal point of her live set. In the past, when she was focused on DJing, she stuck to making songs between the danceable tempos of 110 to 130 BPM. Liberated from those confines, the new music she’s working on can be really fast or slow — and she’s moving away from house music’s minor chords. “Right now,” she says, “I’m interested in the feeling you get when the voice is very much up front, in the center, loud.”
There are more queer Asian techno punks and towering Asian drag queens in this room than I have ever seen. It’s 10 p.m. at the Bushwick club Elsewhere, and the Yaeji and Friends party is packed so tight it’s hard to move. Korean-American chef Danny Bowien appears in a pair of bright blue, skeleton-print leather pants from Supreme, clutching a giant paper bag of takeout from his award-winning restaurant, Mission Chinese. He tries to get backstage so he can personally deliver the food to Yaeji and meet her, but is told by her posse that she’s busy changing. “She’s the next Grimes, she just doesn’t know it yet!” squeals an eyeliner-streaked boy in a bathroom.
Eleven of Yaeji’s friends, ranging from techno DJs to live electronic producers to experimental pop musicians, will play their own wildly varying sets at the party. She’s split her own performance into an opening DJ set and live show later in the night, and will DJ between each of the other acts, in order to make sure people stay throughout the night. “I have to share everything that people think is Yaeji,” she explains backstage. “I’m just one part of it.”
“In a sense, my music career has been short compared to other people’s,” she continues. “So many talented people never got picked up by press, or haven’t gotten to play the perfect setting. Since I’m in a position now where I can provide a platform, I want to give it to people who really deserve it but didn’t get a chance or were marginalized. I really believe in them.”
When she appears behind a pair of CDJs and begins to warm up the crowd, the buzz in the air is electric, like static zapping your skin from a wooly sweater. “Heeeey everyone!” she says with a wave, encouraging the crowd to check out the second room, where DJs like False Witness and Malory are going to throw down for everyone who wants to really dance. Then she introduces the first live act: “This is my roommate Abbi Press. She’s one of my best friends!” Later a droning, experimental ambient set by No Intimate is followed by pretty much the opposite: a ’90s house extravaganza by performance artist Jennifer Vanilla, who storms on stage in a pink blazer and wig, gyrating with a troupe of dancers including a giant orange teddy bear.
“Kathy has a deep connection to each person in her life,” Press later tells me. “She’s always playing her friends’ music out in her DJ sets and gives us all a platform to perform whenever possible.” Press points out that the “Raingurl” video, which she choreographed, was also a celebration of Yaeji’s crew, whose members take turns showing off their signature dance moves to the camera. “Kathy wanted everyone to feel like themselves,” Press says. “She always does.”
Yaeji begins her second set a little before 2 a.m. Her translucent raincoat twinkles off the beams of red neon light behind her. Immediately, the chatter in the room dissolves into a roar. As she launches into “Feel It Out,” everyone sings along (or tries to):
Just a dream, I’ve been woken up
Bogoh, bwassuh, modu
Gotta feel it out
Holding a mic in one hand while triggering a sample pad with the other, Yaeji uses a vocal processor to turn her sing-song into a low growl or robotic stutter, occasionally drenching it in ghostly reverb. The crowd screams the song’s hook with their eyes closed:
Shit is crazy, shit is Yaeji!
“I feel like this is a historic moment!” an Asian guy in the crowd shouts to his friend, a white woman. He nods his head to the beat, then affirms, “It’s a representation thing.”
“Oh my god!” Yaeji cries with a laugh of disbelief the next day, when she hears that her show had been hailed as “historic.” She tells me she’s increasingly reminded of her position as one of the few Asian-American women in the spotlight — and its accompanying responsibilities. “On this tour, so many Asian girls came up to me and said, ‘I’ve always wanted to DJ, and seeing you do it makes me want to start,’” she says. “That’s making me realize this is not just about me anymore. It’s affecting my community, as well as everyone watching and listening to me.”
A queer Asian zeitgeist seems to be brewing in Brooklyn nightlife, with the ascent of parties like Hot ‘N Spicy and Bubble_T and the activist crew Yellow Jackets Collective. Many of these parties explicitly prohibit culturally appropriative costumes and ask guests to check their “white nonsense” at the door. Yaeji’s Curry In No Hurry party is more subtle but no less political — the rich smell of curry wafting through a dancefloor is a shakeup of club norms that speaks to any person of color who has ever been teased for bringing “smelly” food to school.
In the past six months or so, she says she’s been having more talks with other Asians who share her frustrations around navigating an underground arts community that’s mostly white. “Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is, as Asian-Americans, we don’t speak up as much — we want to do the right thing and move on,” Yaeji explains. “I have my own reasons for not speaking up. I was the minority everywhere I went. No one would listen to me, and I was scared of saying something wrong and being attacked. I feel different now. If we’re the ones that are marginalized, we all have to help each other. That goes for not just Asian-Americans, but if you’re queer or black or trans. Everyone should be uplifting each other.”
I ask if, on the other hand, she sometimes feels pigeonholed by all the attention on her cultural identity, as there is often a tendency to focus on what minority artists represent, instead of who they are. “Sometimes I feel like people are too hyper-aware of it, and that just reminds me that it’s not normalized — it’s still not equal,” Yaeji says. “People are focusing on something that’s just a part of me. But that’s not all of who I am.”
“I want to give a platform to all the people who really deserve it but didn’t get a chance or were marginalized.”
When Yaeji arrived in New York in 2015, Brooklyn was teeming with dozens of DIY electronic parties, and she says she would dance till 6 a.m. at one particularly notorious loft known for having a skate ramp on the roof. There, Yaeji says, she would often have moments where she locked into a groove. “You’re not keeping track of how long it’s been or interacting with people at that point — you’re pretty tired — but you’re still thinking about a lot of things.”
Her first official gig was three years ago at Technofeminism, a party thrown by Discwoman’s Umfang at Bossa Nova Civic Club. Yaeji initially worried that the techno-centric crowd wouldn’t vibe with the hip-hop and “weird stuff” she wanted to play in her set, but she says she was encouraged to “do what you wanna do.” “It felt great and people really responded,” Yaeji recalls. “That was such a huge learning experience.”
She cites DJing at last year’s Fourth World, a legendary 18-hour rave that’s become a cherished Fourth of July tradition, as one of her biggest accomplishments, despite the fact that few people even know what the party is. Fourth World, she says, was the first time she’d been to a marathon event where all kinds of experimental electronic music was being played to an open-minded audience. “All of this happened very quickly to me, and a lot of it is surreal,” she says. “For me to not lose focus and continue working, I have to have the same mindset of the first time I went to Fourth World, where the small things excite me and I’m super humble and naive.”
As the outside world started paying more attention to Brooklyn’s underground electronic scene, it suddenly felt like there were bigger stakes involved and real money to be made. Many warehouses were shut down over the past five or six years, and the previously covert network of illegal parties began to move into established venues and new nightclubs. Like Yaeji, some of my DJ friends struck it big and were whisked away on international tours to play major festivals and clubs like Berghain. But it was always difficult to predict who would find fame — and who would be left behind.
When I first started writing this story, I admit that I puzzled over how the unassuming girl I’d seen dancing around so many Bushwick loft parties had struck such sudden success, when so many others are still toiling in obscurity. As I spent time with her and her crew, I realized that what makes Yaeji special is that she’s a regular raver from Brooklyn — who makes sick bangers about the sides of club culture no one really talks about.
So much of nightlife centers on extremes: drowning out the incessant chatter in your head by losing your mind in a glut of human bodies. Yaeji’s music retreats inwards, exploring the strange, meditative headspace of lingering at the after-hours hugging a sweaty wall or riding the subway home alone. Awkwardness and loneliness is part of this too, she suggests — but it’s OK because we’re all in it together.
Perhaps the source of Yaeji’s ability to connect with so many with her music stems from how she spent so much of her life as a lonely outcast and marginalized minority, before she found her people on the dancefloor. Some would say that until you’ve raved till sunrise in a sketchy loft with your best friends, you don’t really know what it’s like to feel free.
The early evening sun is washing over the Coachella fields in a blinding amber glow, but inside the Yuma tent it’s already peak rave: flashing lights, pummeling techno. Yaeji’s set swerves from jubilant disco to acid house to Baltimore club, mixing in “Raingurl” before dropping a breakneck, 160-BPM footwork track by Jlin. When she ends with a heavy trap remix of Sango’s “Owe Me” by Ta-ku, a friend turns to me and remarks that her colorful, genre-agnostic set makes the European techno played by white male DJs that weekend sound “old-fashioned.”
After the show, I suddenly realize that the bespectacled dude standing next to me in a cap and backpack, who I’d assumed was another Brooklyn scenester, is actually Yaeji’s dad. Both of her parents, it turns out, have flown in from Korea. I quickly tuck away the BDSM mask that’s around my neck as they envelop their daughter in a proud hug. “OK, we’ll see you later — have fun,” they tell her. Yaeji and her posse retreat to her trailer, where she whips out a colorful plastic container of different powders to use for making mochi ice cream balls.
“It’s just a fun group activity to decompress,” she says with a giggle, attempting to decipher the Japanese instructions with a friend. But something goes wrong, and when she tries to knead the dough in her palms, it disintegrates into mush. She gives up and ducks into the bathroom to change, emerging in a white top fastened with metal hooks and a face mask similar to the ones you might see commuters wearing on a train in Seoul. She rounds up her friends, and they head out to dance.
Set design by Copper Vasquez, makeup by Marcelo Gutierrez, hair by Takeo Suzuki.