Hip-hop has long been big on crews – fostering collaboration, community and culture. The Wu-Tang Clan took crew love to another level in the ’90s, becoming a countercultural brand. The Fugees did something similar, while symbolically amplifying the presence of Haitian-Americans in urban music. The scene has since introduced us to A$AP Mob, Odd Future and BROCKHAMPTON – all as much multimedia platforms as crews. Today’s ‘It’ crew is 88rising, a digital-era super-collective founded in 2015 by Sean Miyashiro, a Californian of Japanese and Korean heritage. 88rising’s mission is to represent, and centre, diverse Asian creatives in a global urban-pop culture. 88rising is home to such stars as the Indonesian post-rapper Rich Brian, Japanese-Australian soul balladeer Joji, and Chinese hip-hop posse Higher Brothers.
Based out of New York, 88rising is a hybrid media company, functioning as a management agency, record label and content portal. Miyashiro’s fold has facilitated cross-exchanges between its talent and established Asian pop acts and US hip-hoppers alike, connecting diasporas and bridging East and West. In 2018, 88rising launched an annual “crew album”, Head In The Clouds (HITC), recently followed by HITC II (taking in the viral dancehall banger ‘Walking’ with the compilation’s executive-producer Joji, Hong Kong-born K-pop phenom Jackson Wang, Swae Lee, and Major Lazer). 88rising also has its own festival, again called Head In The Clouds, in Los Angeles. There’s even been a fashion capsule collection with GUESS.
88rising’s First Lady is Nicole “NIKI” Zefanya, hailing from Jakarta, Indonesia. She was exposed to music by her mother, who sang gospel. Zefanya picked up piano, then guitar. In high school, she uploaded folksy covers and original songs onto YouTube, eventually teaching herself production. Befriending Rich Brian, Zefanya debuted on 88rising in 2017 with the ballad ‘See U Never’, revealing an admiration of classic ’90s R&B names like Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child (the same year she relocated to Nashville, Tennessee for college). In 2018, Zefanya dropped an EP, Zephyr, attracting international media coverage. In May, the now 20-year-old resurfaced with an unexpectedly adventurous set, wanna take this downtown? (cue the slinky bop ‘lowkey’), amid talk of an upcoming album entitled Moonchild. Along the way, Zefanya contributed to Rich Brian’s 2018 LP, Amen, which crashed into the US Top 20, and she features heavily on both HITC and HITC II. Indeed, Zefanya’s head-nodder ‘Indigo’ was the lead single from HITC II.
This girl boss has had impressive co-signs. As early as 2014, Zefanya won a competition to open for Taylor Swift in Jakarta – astonishingly, it was her debut live premiere – and met Tay. She supported Halsey on an Asia tour and Charli XCX has included ‘Indigo’ on her Spotify playlist, ‘the motherfucking future.‘
Zefanya, who visited Australia as a kid, first performed here last year as a special guest on Rich Brian’s sold-out tour – YouTube footage showing her adeptly emulating an Australian accent in Sydney. And, she’s planning a return.
Music Feeds: I thought I might start by asking you about ‘Indigo’, since it’s your showcase from Head In The Clouds II – even though you have several songs on there. What can you tell us about it?
Nicole “NIKI” Zefanya: ‘Indigo’ is an anthem of empowerment for all my girls out there calling the shots. I wrote it with not really an initial idea in mind. I sort of spitballed the first few lines in the chorus off the top of my head at the session where I wrote it with these producers. Then it just became naturally one of my favourite empowering bops that I’ve ever written, really. But, yeah, it was a song that just kinda came out of nowhere and [is] probably one of my more on-the-nose R&B tracks so far.
MF: It’s amazing how 88rising has this international following. Its success has crept up on people. How did you come into the fold? Because I believe you were in Nashville studying around that time.
NZ: I got in contact with 88 before I moved to Nashville. I was still in Indonesia, in Jakarta – this is right after I graduated high school. I was acquainted because I had this song demo [of ‘See U Never’] that my friend Rich Brian, who’s also from Indonesia, had helped produce and then he showed his manager, the CEO of 88rising, Sean Miyashiro, who’s now my manager. But it really happened super-accidentally. He just showed the demo on a whim and Sean was like, “Oh wow, this is really cool – can we put this up on the channel?” That became my first single ever that I put out with 88 and then obviously that just started a rapport – and here we are. But it was an organic thing, really.
MF: I know you’ve just been in New York. Where are you based now?
NZ: I’m based in Los Angeles now, but I was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. I would say I’m kind of bi-continental – like I go home pretty much twice a year and, when I’m there, I’m there for a while.
MF: What do you miss about home?
NZ: I miss my family and I miss my friends, obviously, but I also miss the food. The food is truly impeccable and, yeah, incomparable!
MF: You’ve gained a lot of respect as a young female artist who’s in control of her music and vision. I wondered how you actually achieved that, if it was easier now that there are artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift out there who have that autonomy, or if you had to assert your own creative control – if it was a struggle?
NZ: I think I was really blessed with 88 in that platform. It’s just a creative environment where I had total liberty and, yeah, autonomy over what I wanted to do. I think that’s why I joined with 88 in the first place – because it wasn’t really like, “What can you offer us?” It’s more like, “How can we help you and how can we use our resources to grow what your vision looks like?” And then that’s how the deal started from the get-go – [it] was, “How do we help you?” as opposed to the other way around, which is, unfortunately, generally the way it is in the music industry.
But, yeah, obviously with the likes of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift – absolutely. They have definitely been giant inspirations for me growing up as a writer and in my artistry as well. It took a minute to get to this point, though, because in the beginning you’re young and you’re kind of navigating what you wanna do or what you wanna say, what you don’t say – all these things. But, thankfully I’ve just been with 88rising and it’s been a total family environment and everybody’s super-supportive of a woman over there. So it’s great.
MF: 88rising is such a unique platform. It’s really changed the game in hip-hop and R&B. How is it being a part of that fold – because it’s not a conventional collective like Odd Future, where everyone was in the same place or came up in the same city. Everyone in 88rising is from all-over. What kind of rapport do you have with the other affiliated artists?
NZ: Yeah, you’re absolutely right to say that 88 is a very unorthodox and unique set-up. I think that’s what it has going for it. It’s a media company, it’s a label, it’s a management [group] – it’s everything all-in-one. Everything’s in-house and we have creatives working for us and it’s truly a team. You’re right – it’s not just a collective where it’s like everybody comes from the same place. It’s not like a boy band or a girl band. It’s truly a team of like-minded individuals trying to create and catalyse a shift in culture – because the main motif that recurs through time and through all of this is that we just wanna see more Asians represented in this sphere of the world and in mainstream media specifically.
I think what separates us from all these other labels is also we work in conjunction with one another, but [we’re] not completely reliant on one another – if that makes sense. When I put out a song, it helps Brian and it helps Joji because we share fans and vice versa, but it’s not like I need them… We’re still our own individual artists, which is a really interesting set-up. And, due to the fact that it’s so unorthodox and unique, it’s very difficult to encompass in a very succinct manner. But all the artists also have real relationships with one another – like they’re my labelmates, but I can also call them my friends, you know? I think that’s not common in a lot of major labels – a lot of artists on the roster don’t even know one another at all. It’s really cool.
MF: I’m fascinated by what 88rising has meant to Asian communities. I’ve been listening to a lot of Russian and post-Soviet hip-hop – that’s a huge thing, but it’s very much marketed to its own audience. The artists don’t have any aspiration to reach beyond that, particularly. By contrast, 88rising is internationally-inclined and it’s had a huge impact in the US. What do you feel it means for a wider Asian music movement and for artists in that space? What do you think it means for the industry?
NZ: Oh, I think it’s a giant step towards just growth and cultural change – ’cause 10, 15 years ago, I don’t think you would see as many Asian faces on TV or in music or in anything the way you see them now. I think 88 is as much of a stepping stone can be towards that change. I think that’s our main goal: to just see more people that look like us. I think that’s the goal with us, too.
Me specifically, as an artist, my goal is I just want little Asian girls and boys out there to grow up and see like, “Oh, there’s somebody that looks like me pursuing their art and pursuing what they wanna do” – ’cause historically, as a people, I don’t think that we’ve been accurately represented in various ways. We’ve either been super-whitewashed in television roles or we’ve just been adhered to these very inaccurate and outdated stereotypes – like being the biology nerd or whatever and not having a social life. These things, that are just associated with being Asian.
The reason that going international is so instrumental and important to us is because we just want everybody to see that it’s possible to see Asian youth pursuing these things because it’s truly not a reality for a lot of Asian kids out there to wanna do what they want. Yeah, that’s the goal: it’s just to show them that you can and you should.
MF: You’ve had a couple of really cool EPs and you’ve just recorded some live acoustic versions of songs from this compilation. Are you working towards an album?
NZ: Yeah, I am currently… I just kind of took this year very slow [Zefanya lost her mother to cancer earlier in the year]. I was touring all of last year. I’m just living life, getting inspired. I’m just right now setting everything up so that I can start working on my debut album, which is TBD, but definitely sometime next year. And then hopefully, after that, I get to tour my first little headline tour. That’s what I’m working on right now – my debut album and what that’s gonna look like. It’s really still in its embryo stages, so I don’t have much to tell you – other than that’s in progress and it’s starting to be in the works.
MF: Is there any chance of you performing in Australia in future?
NZ: Oh, yeah, definitely. I was just there in May 2018, supporting Brian. So hopefully when I’m there, I’ll be on my own and I’ll be doing my own tour. So definitely – I love Australia… It’s a really cool place.