Photo: Daniel Reichert
Jen Shyu On New Album 'Zero Grasses: Ritual For The Losses,' Overcoming Grief & Discrimination In Enlightened Spaces
On her new album, 'Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses,' vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu gazes unflinchingly into the maw of grief and discrimination
It’s a fact: Asian people face discrimination in America. And as composer and multi-Instrumentalist Jen Shyu points out, it happens everywhere—including the conservatories and concert halls on the coasts.
The comments and microaggressions in those spaces come fast and hard. At an upstate artist's residency, she was called "an Asian Meredith Monk." The vocalist/composer is frequently mistaken for various musicians of Asian descent—and vice versa. One time, a composer approached her and complimented her bass playing—and Shyu replied that she wasn't Linda Oh.
"He scurried away like a rat!" Shyu tells GRAMMY.com with a sharp laugh. "And I just wish I could remember his name!"
Shyu takes these instances in stride and files them away in her memory bank. This is apparent on her new album, Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses, which came out on Pi Recordings on April 12. A harrowing-yet-beautiful grief journey, the album braids the shock of Shyu's father's death with memories of racism and sexism from throughout her life.
On tunes like "Lament for Breonna Taylor," "When I Have Power" and "Father Slipped Into Eternal Dream," personal and global sorrow pool into one. "I just think these themes are interlinked," she explains, in the context of a deadly pandemic and continuing police violence. "You kind of see how differently that manifests for people, depending on your privilege." But by examining both micro and macro grief through the same lens, Shyu sees both with more clarity—and by communing with Zero Grasses, listeners can too.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Jen Shyu over Zoom to discuss the traumatic experiences that informed Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses and how she continues to rise above daily challenges in her field.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This album is about grief in various forms. The pandemic and police killings add new dimensions to global sorrow.
I just think these themes are interlinked. You kind of see how differently that manifests for people, depending on your privilege. Now we're seeing it with Daunte Wright. It's frightening and can be paralyzing. You see no justice being served. It's hard to fight through that and carry on.
When my friend Joko [Raharjo and his family were] killed in a car crash, his mother and I were texting and she wrote, "I've cried all the tears." This is all in Indonesian. "I don't have any more tears left. But we still have an obligation in this life. Those of us who are still alive still have an obligation in this world." That has really stayed with me.
The word for "obligation" is wajib in Indonesian. So, indeed. That is the effort to carry on and inspire and comfort.
I can connect the dots as to how a family dying in a car wreck would compel you to express yourself in an unvarnished way. Loss makes it incumbent to tell people the things you always meant to tell them because they might not be around tomorrow.
Yeah, absolutely. It comes from life experience. I think this will always be part of my artistic output—immediacy. Wanting, being hungry for that rawness. When I created "When I Have Power"—where I talk about the young boy calling me a chk—that was written in August or September of 2019. That was before the pandemic. And the text was from when I was 15; it was from my diary.
So, it's like: "Oh, that's always been there." It just happened that this is coming out when there have been incidents of violence [reported] in the media. These instances of violence have finally been shown. That feeling of anti-Asian racism has always been there. All these things—if they stay hidden and remain unspoken, nothing's going to be done. Nothing's going to change.
Just to speak these things out: First, it makes people aware, and second, if it's visible, then OK, we can do something.
Jen Shyu. Photo © Marco Giugliarelli for Civitella Ranieri Foundation, 2019.
I'm curious as to where this album fits into your larger body of work.
This is my eighth finished recording. The first featured standards done in an unusual way. I did a couple, then, that were just digital. You can find these on Bandcamp. But then, when I started working with Pi, the first album was a duo with [bassist] Mark Dresser, who's amazing.
After that, I went to Indonesia right away! I got my Fulbright. That was 2011. I became a dual citizen of East Timor since my mom is from there. I came back and did [2015's] Sounds and Cries of the World. It was personal, song-to-song, which I recorded after producing my first solo theatrical work called Solo Rites: Seven Breaths that involved a lot of that music. It was autobiographical in the sense that it was about a woman on this journey to, first, her homeland, and then to all different areas and what she discovers. Very abstract, though.
That was the first time I connected the theatrical and the dramatic with the musical aspects of my vision. Definitely, an early influence on that would be Meredith Monk, whom I got to meet when I was at Stanford. She was kind of the first example of that for me.
Now, funny story! [sharp laugh] This is evidence of what one goes through as an Asian artist. There was this residency I was doing and this very famed composer—more in the classical world—he was at that same residency. I think this may have been at Yaddo, which is an artist residency upstate in Saratoga Springs.
We often do these presentations for each other. It's all voluntary ... So, I presented something and this composer came up to me after. He was like, "Oh, Jen, that was amazing. Your voice is so incredible. You're like an Asian Meredith Monk!"
And I was like, "Oh, thank you! Yeah, she's great!" Because he clearly meant it as a compliment. And then I thought about it: "Oh, I don't know about that!" So, yeah, that was pretty interesting.
Do you get patronizing comments like that often?
All the time. Oh my god! All the time. In different forms. There was a manager who's a veteran. I won't mention her name. She had told me, "Oh, yes, I looked at your work. Ostensibly, you'd be a perfect client for me, but I just signed a koto virtuoso and I think there might be some overlap there."
[loud laugh] I looked her up and she's not a singer. She's not a composer. She just plays koto, and she does some interesting projects. She's great! But not the same, you know? The only thing we had in common was "Asian woman." Alright.
There are so many examples. First of all, I always get mistaken for Linda Oh, and she gets mistaken for me. Susie Ibarra. We get mistaken for each other. There are so few of us, perhaps. That's a big thing. It's the white male gaze. That's nothing against you personally. A lot of the gaze is from that perspective.
[Being mistaken for Linda Oh], that was at a Henry Threadgill concert.
An academic, learned crowd.
[This guy] introduced himself to me and said, "I'm so-and-so. I'm a musician. I just wanted to say: You are an amazing bassist." I was like, "I'm so sorry, I'm not Linda Oh." And he literally ran away. He scurried away like a rat! And I just wish I could remember his name! It's too bad.
It's even from friends. Recently, a friend just sent me a link to a video that an amazing gayageum player made. She's come to a lot of my shows. She's from Korea; she went to New England Conservatory. Amazing player, and I love her. She made this beautifully edited video that had her singing and playing.
This friend of mine sent me this video and said, "Hey, have you seen this yet? It reminds me a lot of you and your work." It kind of makes sense. She's been following me and she said I've been influencing her. But I kind of just told him, "You know, I've often been told this." People say, "Oh, I saw Bora Yoon and I thought of you!" She's a friend of mine also! But very different! So different!
It's this grouping together that's frustrating. People can't see the difference. It's like, "All Asian people look alike." This is what we're up against. Not only are we grouped and stereotyped, but if that's already what people can or cannot see, then how is our music going to even be appreciated?
I’m an artist who really embraces my ancestry. I go deep into it. That’s my path. But I know how frustrating it must be for other Asian artists who people might expect that of them. They just want to make music, you know? It’s just being the other. I’ve never let it stop me because I’m so hard-headed. I just go forward.
Photo: Michito Goto
Global Spin: Japanese Rock Band MAN WITH A MISSION Tear Up The Stage With An Electric Performance Of "Fly Again"
The half-man, half-wolf Japanese metal band MAN WITH A MISSION throw down on stage in this live performance of "Fly Again," a track from their 2011 self-titled album.
Japanese rockers MAN WITH A MISSION don't reveal their aesthetic in dribs and drabs; within mere seconds, you know what they're all about. And that's getting hyped — in the wolfiest of ways.*
Donning their signature canine headgear, the heavy Japanese collective gets throngs of disciples turnt up as they absolutely lay into a rendition of "Fly Again." The feeling is so new/ Believe in what you do," goes one verse. "Don't you ever be afraid in losing/ That's the clue." A wolf's creed indeed!
In this episode of Global Spin, raise a glass to AAPI month with this hair-raising live performance by a group at the vanguard of Japanese heaviness. And if you'd like to join the thrilled masses in this video, MAN WITH A MISSION are in the midst of a North American tour.
Enjoy MAN WITH A MISSION's electrifying performance of "Fly Again" above, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of Global Spin.
pHOTOS: RYAN LIMAFP via Getty Images,David Talukdar/NurPhoto via Getty Images, Prabhas Roy/Hindustan Times via Getty Images, Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images, SUJIT JAISWALAFP via Getty Images
5 Bollywood Stars To Discover: Shreya Ghoshal, Badshah & Others
A new generation of Bollywood singers and composers are bringing a fresh approach to the music, embedding their creations with influences from hip-hop and electronica, and fusing Indian folk and classical traditions with the pop mainstream.
For many decades, the lush soundscapes of Indian film music were dominated by a select group of singing legends: from Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle to Hemant Kumar, Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi. A change of the guard was inevitable, and it began during the last years of the 20th century.
As the film industry in India became more globalized and diversified, and reality shows opened up doors for young performers, it was only natural that talented playback singers — the actual performers recording vocals that are later mimed by the actors — would appear in all corners of the vast country.
The Bollywood standards that captivated the imagination of millions from the ‘50s to the ‘90s are still timeless. But a new generation of singers and composers are bringing a fresh approach to the music known as filmi — embedding their creations with influences from hip-hop and electronica, and fusing Indian folk and classical traditions with the pop mainstream.
Here are five young stars of Bollywood music who are ready to be discovered by the rest of the world.
One listen to “Kesariya,” the lilting ballad from the 2022 fantasy blockbuster Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva is enough to understand why 36-year-old singer and composer Arijit Singh has been the most streamed Indian artist on Spotify for the past three consecutive years. Singh’s velvety inflections demonstrate the influence of mainstream pop, while remaining faithful to the film masters that he grew up listening to — particularly golden era maestro Kishore Kumar.
Born in West Bengal, Singh was raised in a musical family. Everybody sang around him in childhood, and he was also exposed to both Western and Bengali classical music. Singh has been criticized for lending his voice to too many Bollywood productions, but a prolific output has defined playback singers since the very beginning of India’s movie industry. His association with composer Pritam is already legendary. This year, the team delivered an instant classic: the atmospheric “O Bedardeya,” from the romantic comedy Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar.
This 34-year-old vocalist from the northern city of Rishikesh (also where the Beatles studied meditation with the Maharishi in 1967) wasn’t alone on her path to Bollywood stardom. Neha is the youngest sister of playback singers Tony and Sonu Kakkar, and the entire family initially moved to Delhi in order to further their musical careers. At 16, Neha was a contestant in the second season of the reality show "Indian Idol," but was eliminated early — she would return to the show as judge, and gain notoriety for her empathetic reactions to the performances of aspiring stars.
In 2014, she collaborated with famed music director Amir Trivedi on the rambunctious “London Thumkada,” which accompanies an unforgettable wedding scene in the award-winning film Queen, about a young woman’s path to personal freedom. Since then, the self-taught Kakkar has recorded a number of soulful duets for Bollywood productions. In 2020, the groovy “Dil Ko Karaar Aaya” became one of her biggest hits.
It makes sense that the integration of hip-hop into the Indian music mainstream would generate some controversy, and the wild success of rapper and film producer Banshah has polarized critics.
Born in Delhi, Badshah studied civil engineering before turning into music full time. In 2020, his smash duet “Genda Phool” (Marigold Flower) with playback singer Payal Dev was met with hostility by the Indian press because it openly lifted lines from a classic Bengali folk tune. Badshah’s musical ambition, knack for bouncy beats and clever rhymes has transcended his critics. He continues to enrich filmi music with rap and novel ideas: Check out the darkly hued, sinuous melodic lines of “Bad Boy,” which he contributed to Saaho, the second highest grossing Bollywood film of 2019.
Growing up in Panipat, a city north of Delhi, Asees Kaur obsessively studied cassette tapes of Gurbani — the compositions of Sikh Gurus. It is not surprising that the 34-year-old playback singer’s best Bollywood moments are infused with a subtle spiritual vibe, a benign tranquility.
Her first big hit was “Bolna,” a duet from the 2016 family drama Kapoor & Sons. She recorded her vocals separately, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that the finished product also involved the voice of Anijit Singh. Kaur’s popularity skyrocketed in 2021 with “Raaraan Lambiyan,” the moving opening track to the Shershaah soundtrack — a stirring war biopic.
At 39, Shreya Ghoshal is already a legend among contemporary playback singers — her prodigious output and notorious versatility providing a link to the golden era of Indian cinema. Tonally, Ghoshal also evokes the spell of singing icon Lata Mangeshkar, one of her greatest influences.
Classically trained in Hindustani music, Ghoshal was a teenager when she won the reality show "Sa Re Ga Ma," attracting the attention of the film industry. Her auspicious debut as playback singer happened on the 2002 romantic drama Devdas, one of the quintessential Indian films of the past three decades. Mimed by actress Aishwarya Rai, the song “Silsila Ye Chahat Ka” made for a spectacular dancing sequence with lavish wardrobe and sets. Ghoshal's honeyed soprano has served her well, with a gallery of hits that includes recent tracks such as the gorgeous “Pal,” a duet with Arijit Singh from the 2018 film Jalebi.
Photos: Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW; Robert Okine/Getty Images; Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella; Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
5 Artists Showing The Future Of AAPI Representation In Rap: Audrey Nuna, TiaCorine & More
A growing number of Asian American and Pacific Islander artists are exploring how hip-hop can help them meaningfully express their multiculturalism — and they're being embraced for doing so.
At that point, some firsts for the community turned out to be false starts: In the ‘90s, Mountain Brothers was the first Asian American rap group to sign to a major label, but left just two years later. In the early aughts, MC Jin lost critical career momentum he gained from his impressive winning streak on "106 & Park’s" Freestyle Fridays, when Ruff Ryders delayed his debut album release by more than a year. As Miley Cyrus sparked a national conversation about cultural appropriation in hip-hop, Bad Rap’s subjects faced questions regarding whether they’re just as guilty as Cyrus, or whether their music was helping break the “model minority” stereotype.
Since then, hip-hop, a Black music tradition, has spawned countless global scenes, bringing contemporary rap across the Pacific and beyond. Rap taking hold in Asia can still seem contentious, whether dissecting K-pop's use of the genre or revisiting the viral songs that landed Awkwafina in Bad Rap. But, there is also a growing number of artists who are figuring out how hip-hop can help them meaningfully express and explore their multiculturalism — and are being embraced by the music industry for doing so.
In 2013, Kanye West’s jarring Yeezus changed Audrey Nuna’s music tastes for good, encouraging her to check out hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest and MF DOOM. From there, she "started making what I wanted to hear," as she told Pigeons and Planes.
Nuna prefers to call herself a singer, to better reflect the stylistic versatility throughout her 2021 debut a liquid breakfast. Still, the "Robitussin flow" in "Comic Sans" is undeniable — to where Jack Harlow responded to her cold email and hopped on the song’s remix.
The making of a liquid breakfast made Nuna realize that she never has to search far to find inspiration. On "Blossom," Nuna’s grandmother laughs as she tells her about how, while fleeing the Korean War, she woke up from a nap on the migrant trail to find that her travel group — including her family — accidentally left her behind.
In the future, Nuna hopes to feature more Korean instrumentation as she channels her current influence, Radiohead. As Nuna told W, "We’re sitting here, living, because our grandparents were able to survive."
"She fell in love with the lifestyle of a pop star," pH-1 raps in "Yuppie Ting," the third track off his 2021 album But For Now Leave Me Alone. As he boasts of the Louis Vuitton he wears and the Michelin star meals he eats, pH-1 alternates between rapping in Korean and English with impressive precision, his flow skating over BlackDoe’s garage-inspired production.
Behind the scenes, pH-1 has felt more torn between the Korean and Western music industries than his music lets on. Even Jay Park, who has followed pH-1 since he moved to Korean and competed on rap talent show "Show Me the Money," once told him to write more in Korean. But for pH-1, to write exclusively in Korean would be to deny his Stateside upbringing in Long Island and Boston, and how he, like so many Korean Americans, naturally alternate between Korean and English in conversation.
"If I want to ‘financially succeed’ in Korea, I would have to make a song that’s very Korean-style. But that’s not me," pH-1 said to fellow artist Eric Nam in 2019. Instead, the more glittering spots of But For Now Leave Me Alone showcase pH-1 to be the experienced globetrotter he is.
In Bad Rap, Rekstizzy films a music video where, at a cookout, he squeezes picnic condiments not onto hot dogs, but the backsides of dancing Black women — for a song called "God Bless America." In his larger quest to become the "Korean rapper" he dreamed of in elementary school, he figured that outrageously offensive visuals were a must." "Whatever we do, people are gonna talk shit about us ‘cause we’re Asian," he says in the documentary.
Straddling the Asian and American aspects of one’s identity can seem impossible. But now, years after Bad Rap and after guest appearances in Adventure Time and Beef, Rekstizzy seems to have figured out an ideal balance. Mostly, he doesn’t seem nearly as pressed over proving that he’s American.
His own pop culture references, crude as they may be ("May cop a lewd body pillow on Etsy"), speak volumes. His music’s debaucherous nature recalls a wide swath of U.S. regional rap styles, from the Bay Area ("요리 (Yori)"), to the Midwest ("Mal Do An Dweh") and Atlanta ("Hentai"). As for his attempts to rap entire verses in Korean for the first time, apparently the jokes write themselves. As he and Bad Rap co-star Dumbfoundead realized while recording "Mal Do An Dweh," their takes on Korean slang sound hopelessly out of date, because as the latter realized, "We communicate in Korean more with our parents than our friends who speak in Korean."
Spence Lee is the child of a first-generation Chinese American and a Vietnamese refugee. But for much of his earlier material, his ethnic origins were hard to discern on record alone.
Spence Lee’s previous moniker, Shotta Spence, honored the "Dirty Jersey" that raised him — more specifically, the Caribbean supporters he gained before he relocated to New York, modeled for Yeezy, and gained producer Mike WiLL Made It as a mentor. That influence also appears all over his last full-length, 2019’s 1012; on songs like "Bounce," his cadence is equally inspired by reggae and trap.
Spence still shouts out how he came up with "shottas" and "rastas" on the autobiographical single, 2022’s "On God," one of his first under a new moniker bearing his family name. But that fact makes up just one chapter in his larger journey to capturing both the attention of Mike WiLL and 88rising, who jointly released the single. Mike WiLL explained to Joysauce how he and 88rising founder Sean Miyashiro saw "how Spence could be the bridge for many cultures, being from Jersey \[and\] into fashion, understanding his history, having principles and morals."
But Spence perhaps puts his new direction best in "On God," when he raps, "I do all this s— for my mom."
TiaCorine (whose father is Black and Japanese, and whose mother is part of the Shoshone Nation) ends her 2022 breakout album, I Can’t Wait with a breakup anthem dedicated to the poor music exec who counted her out. In "You’re Fired," she raps to keep from crying and sounding completely helpless: "You never listen to my songs, I’m always doing something wrong."
Today, her sly single "FreakyT" has 21 million Spotify streams and a Latto remix, it’s impossible to imagine how the situation in "You’re Fired" must have played out in real life.
TiaCorine’s music is Southern rap by way of Hatsune Miku — and it makes perfect sense, in an age where streaming has turned both hip-hop and anime (two of her biggest influences) into Stateside juggernauts. Her music captures the zeitgeist, though it also comes from an authentic place: While her father played formative ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop in his Range Rover, her mother blared pop-rock instead. "That goes into my music — of me, just being free. Me just being confident in myself," TiaCorine told Preme magazine. Thanks to that confidence, mainstream success not only seems possible, but inevitable.
Photo: Courtesy of Henry Lau
Press Play: Henry Lau Shows Off His Musical Prowess With A Dynamic Performance Of "MOONLIGHT"
Genre-bending singer Henry Lau uses a loop station to perform his single "MOONLIGHT," incorporating the violin, cello and both electric and acoustic guitar.
With his single "MOONLIGHT," Henry Lau refuses to be burdened by his past relationships. Now, he's turning a new leaf, dancing carefree under the night sky, regardless of the negative emotions he might feel.
"I'm waking up in a daze, get it out of my face/ The sun is shining on every move that I make," the singer reveals in the second verse. "So, let's get to forgetting everything that went wrong/ Everybody here, we been crying too long/ We can dance about it to our favorite song."
In this episode of Press Play, Lau performs "MOONLIGHT" from a mansion rooftop during sunset. He constructs the entire song using a loop station, playing a violin, cello and electric and acoustic guitars — one of his signature performance techniques that prompted his nickname, "one-man band."
Lau released "MOONLIGHT" in January — marking his first single in two years — via Monster Entertainment, the label he founded alongside his brother Clinton. He released another single, "Real Love Still Exists," two months later; the track features Malaysian R&B singer Yuna.
Watch the video above to watch Henry Lau's impressive loop station performance of "MOONLIGHT," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.