As someone who is mixed and played the Chinese guzheng growing up, I was absolutely floored to interview experimental pop artist, Jett Kwong. Kwong uses the Chinese guzheng, an instrument composed of 21 strings, to create a stunning and ethereally unique sound. Her latest single, “Cream”, perfectly replicates soothing summer vibes while maintaining a traditional feel in an ode to her Chinese heritage.
Kwong’s mixed race and passion towards social justice topics find their way into her music, making it rich with symbolism and important messages. I was honored to talk with the young artist about her music style and activist pursuits.
Ariel Zedric: When did you start playing the Chinese guzheng? What made you fall in love with the instrument?
Jett Kwong: I started playing guzheng during my last year of college. I fell in love with the unique subtleties in the sound and playing technique.
What other parts of your culture do you pull from for inspiration?
I’m actually equally driven by both my Cantonese and American heritage. As someone who is mixed, I kind of vacillate between a few different cultures. What I feel I’m expressing through music is not belonging to any one category or identity.
Talk a little about how your mixed heritage has impacted your music and overall style?
Being first generation American and also not belonging to any one group or identity definitely affects my work and life. In some ways it’s subtle, other ways more overt. There are so many details and complexities to each person, and everything affects the way we move throughout the world.
Tell me about the role music has played in your life, not only from a career standpoint but how it’s influenced you as a person!
Music has always been a through line in my life – it’s connected or disconnected me from others, brought me joy and pain, and comforts and challenges me.
What’s the inspiration behind your single. “Cream”!
“Cream” is, on one hand, a wistful ode to summer, to a time passed, to lusting after someone.. but ultimately I am lusting after an idealized version of a person or of the past itself. I was inspired by the realization that we all, including myself, fall prey to the romanticization of history, and the exoticism of Asia and Asian people. This to me is a legacy of colonialism, and that lens is particularly interesting when I apply them to my own family’s stories of surviving war, flourishing in post-WWII Hong Kong, and immigrating to the US.
Can you recall the moment you decided to write the track? Is there any event in particular that inspired it, or was it more of a culmination of things?
The 112-degree LA heat definitely had a part in inspiring this song!
You pull a lot of inspiration from social justice inequalities and issues. What’s the most difficult part about balancing a music career and an activist agenda?
Pursuing a career in the arts, certainly as a solo artist, is inherently self-centered. I’ve always wanted to play a part in the issues I care about, and balancing that with an essentially selfish career is a daily challenge. But especially in this era, there’s more room and acceptance for activism and artistry to go hand in hand. Bottom line it’s important to me to be more than an artist, in whatever way I can.
What’s it like being a female of color in the music industry? Have you had any obstacles thus far related to your gender or race?
I don’t consider myself a person of color, because I’ve experienced the luxury of having white skin. Certainly, I did feel different growing up, but I don’t think my experience can compare to someone of color necessarily. I definitely experience obstacles as a woman – in music, there’s still a “boy’s club” mentality in a lot of ways and most of the people in power are still men. There’s a lot of snubs, not being taken seriously, and subtle or overt objectification because of gender. Treatment because of my race is more of an opaque experience for me – I think because most of the time people don’t know “what I am” and their behavior changes depending on if they consider me white, Asian, or something else altogether.
Have you ever doubted your decision to pursue music? If so, what inspired you to keep going?
Yes of course, but a healthy amount of doubt is necessary I believe. It keeps you on your toes and thinking critically about your intentions. Everyone is a teacher, everything is a lesson.
If you could give one piece of advice for young aspiring artists, what would it be?
Consider what deeply drives you. Consider your ego – and if there is nothing else beneath that driving you towards being an artist, connect to something deeper or don’t bother pursuing the arts.
Feature image courtesy of Jett Kwong