The last concert I attended was way back in January 2020. (It was Seventeen, at the Prudential Center in New Jersey). At the time, I had no idea it was going to be my last show for almost two years. So the opportunity for me to fly out to L.A. to attend 88Rising’s third Head In The Clouds festival—and its lineup that boasted CL, the queen of K-pop, along with Saweetie, Rich Brian, DPR Live, DPR Ian, Japanese Breakfast and many others—seemed like the perfect event for me to reenter the world of live music.
Additionally, West Coast Asian and Asian-American culture has influenced and directly birthed so much of the music I love, so I was stoked to finally attend a festival that celebrated it. For the uninitiated, 88Rising is a music company with a simple goal for its fest: It tries to round up the best and brightest acts from the Asian continent and the Asian diaspora. And after nearly two years of increased violence and prejudice against the Asian community in the wake of COVID-19, a celebration of its culture felt even more necessary.
Following my five-hour flight (which included a very yappy Pomeranian who barked the entire trip) I was shuttled through LAX into an Uber (I know everyone says you have to drive everywhere in L.A., but damn, y’all really have to drive everywhere) and deposited at my swanky hotel in Koreatown this past Friday night.
Of course, Friday night was also the night of Astroworld, which means I received the horrific news just as I was getting ready to start my own festival weekend. It’s very dizzy and unsettling to prepare for a music fest so soon after learning of the tragedy and the deaths that transpired there, and I’m sure it was something that also weighed heavily on HITC organizers and security guards’ minds as we all headed into the weekend.
Head In The Clouds, day one (DPR Live and DPR Ian, eaJ, Saweetie, CL, and Illenium)
Well, the vibes are off to a bad start. After getting dropped off at the Rose Bowl, I notice immediately that line for will call is very long. Like, probably the longest box office line I’ve ever seen at a concert before, or has possibly ever existed in human history. When I join, I ask around to find out if there’s a separate line for media. They tell me, no, it’s all one line.
Which of course means that, about 40 minutes later, when I finally get close enough to speak to someone else the the box office, I realized that there is, in fact, a completely different line for media. I walk over to that window and get my wristbands in five minutes flat. Sigh.
When I make it past the gates, I am immediately overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. After over a year of being in quarantine and avoiding crowds, I’ve forgotten how to be around a crowd larger than ten people. And as I walk awkwardly and stiffly across the grassy field, I’m pretty sure it shows.
I walk past the merch stalls and take stock of the food vendor options (I notice a boba stall, a dim sum stall, one place that serves pork belly buns and another place that makes mapo tater tots at first pass), heading towards the main “88Rising” stage.
I also survey the crowd. It’s a pretty eclectic mix: There are the guys who look like frat boys from a state college, couples who already can’t keep their hands off of each other, girls in fishnets and mesh who look dressed for a rave, and people who look ready to party like it’s 2019. I’m not totally sure how many people are expected to turn out this weekend but I already know that this will easily be the largest festival I’ve ever attended.
DPR Live and DPR Ian’s joint set was the one I was looking forward to the most. Live’s music is more firmly hip hop-based; I’ve listened to him for years, and his set was full of crowd pleasers like “Martini Blue,” “Text Me,” and “To Myself.” (For that last one, just picture thousands of people screaming along to, “DPR, we gang gang!”) Live and Ian were joined by Korean-American musician eaJ for their collaboration “Jam & Butterfly,” and I was absolutely thrilled—I’m interviewing eaJ later, so it was good to get a little a preview before his own HITC slot tomorrow.
Ian’s contribution to the DPR set included “Nerves,” “Scaredy Cat,” and his powerhouse debut single, “So Beautiful.” This was also Ian’s first time performing a show—ever. A pretty rad stage debut, if you ask me.
Saweetie has just kicked off her set, and with the light work and projection screen illuminating the crowd, I can see how much the main stage area has filled out. My friends and I pick a less crowded patch of grass in the VIP section of the field to hang out for the evening. Also, it’s finally dark out, so it feels more like a concert now; the energy has ratcheted up.
Saweetie is one of those artists I never though I’d see live, so having her on this lineup is a treat. During her set she expresses appreciation for HITC and gives a special shoutout to her “Asian king and queens” in the crowd, delivering a set list that includes “My Type,” “Tap In,” and “Best Friend” (sadly, she performs that last one solo, without Doja Cat).
My interview with eaJ goes smoothly (you can check that out when it goes up this weekend) but I was nervous that I would miss the main draw: CL. As I leave the media clubhouse and hurry out to the stage, it all kind of happens in slow motion: CL starts singing my favorite song “+DONE161201+,” I power-walk to the grass, and plant myself among a group of concertgoers who have decided to enjoy the show while sprawled out on top of some picnic blankets.
By the time CL brings Ian and Live out on stage to do “No Blueberries,” I’m getting a little embarrassingly emotional over how much I fucking missed live music. I forgot what it was like to listen to a song over and over again in your room alone, for months, and then go to a show and have the chance to scream the song with a bunch of strangers who love it just as much as you do. It’s so damn powerful.
This is when the night takes a turn for the worse.
After CL’s performance, I meet back up with my friends, and we all decide it’s finally time to get food. All of the lines for the food stalls are incredibly long, so we decide to hop on the Korean barbecue line. After 20 minutes in line, we get to the cashier, only for me to discover they’re out of their only vegetarian option—which for me, a vegetarian, sucks. And to add the most brutal insult to injury, though I didn’t know it yet: It was time for Illenium’s set.
To be honest, before Head In The Clouds, I’d never listened to Illenium. After HITC, I realized that my ignorance was bliss. Illenium is a DJ who makes some of the most grating EDM I have ever heard in my life. Maybe the people who aren’t covering this festival for work and who are on multiple recreational substances can appreciate his set, but for me, it’s awful. As his performance continues, I leave the field and seek refuge in the media clubhouse.
With the vibes of the evening thoroughly destroyed by Illenium (the only white dude performer on the lineup, and he sent our mood and energy levels into a nosedive!), I decide to call it a night. After all, I have to be back the next afternoon to do this all over again.
As I’m leaving the Rose Bowl, I walk past the Double Happiness stage. Japanese Breakfast is in the tail end of her set; the crowd is more subdued over at this stage, but they’re super-engaged, and I can tell that JBrekkie’s set was the polar opposite of... whatever the hell Illenium had going on.
We left the Rose Bowl and only had a slightly sketchy and mildly terrifying experience with the fake “cab company” that took us back to our Airbnb. The L.A. experience, baby! A rich tapestry!
Head In The Clouds, day two (Feelghoodmusic, Keshi, eaJ, Niki, Joji)
The Feelghoodmusic set is another combination, featuring MFBTY and Bibi—artists from the Feel Ghood Music label, created by Tiger JK in 2013. Tiger JK, his wife and bandmate Yoon Mi-rae, and Bizzy—all of the OG K-hip hop group, MFBTY—take the stage, and they don’t let us forget their long history in the industry. “We’re old as shit,” Tiger JK tells the crowd.
However, that doesn’t stop them from dialing up the energy as we head into the second evening of the festival. The group’s enthusiasm is so infectious, I watch two separate breakdancing circles open up just on the other side of the VIP fence. And I mean honest-to-god breakdancing—people are doing handstands and backflips! Tiger JK doesn’t seem eager to leave the crowd, because he blatantly ignores his cue to end their set until the music is cut, the projection screen goes black, and the metaphorical rug is pulled out from under them.
For Bibi’s half of the Feelghoodmusic set, she keeps the momentum going but adds a layer of slightly unhinged sex appeal. “Who’s having sex tonight?” she asks before shoving a hand into the giant beige purse she brought onstage with her; it’s filled with condoms and she gleefully throws handful after handful into the crowd. (I find out later that she actually hopped down off the stage, walked over to the barriers, and smooched one of the festivalgoers right on the mouth.) A part of me is obsessed with the chaotic and powerful energy of that... but a far bigger part of me is, uhhhh, horrified at the idea of kissing a stranger, in the middle of a crowd, in the middle of a pandemic.
One of the best things about a festival is when you stumble onto performance you hadn’t planned to watch, and end up walking away with a brand new music obsession. That’s what happened with me and Keshi.
Before he comes out, the crowd starts chanting his name. No performer yet has inspired such a reaction, so my interest is piqued. When he starts the first line of “Beside you,” every single person has their phone up and is recording. Again, no other artist other has had this much of the crowd completely enamored, all at once—and to be honest, I’m hooked too. He keeps the audience in the palm of his charismatic hand, even when his mic goes out.
Keshi’s stage presence was especially shocking for me because the music he makes is pretty low key, lo-fi R&B. “It’s quarantine music,” my friend tells me. My other friend agrees: “Yeah, everyone got super into Keshi” during the pandemic. The way everyone around me is screaming Keshi’s own lyrics back at him seems like evidence enough.
eaJ has a way of building rapport with a crowd. When I saw him perform with his group Day6 back in November 2019, it was the first thing I noticed. The way he bantered with his fans while on stage felt incredibly intimate. I wonder if he’ll be able to recreate that relationship with this massive festival crowd, especially given it’s a solo stage this time around.
I quickly got my answer: Yes. When he gets on stage, eaJ jokes about the arrangement of his setlist, “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m stupid and I make bad decisions. The energy transfer [and] how I divided between songs is not good. I don’t know who the fuck made the track list... I did. I don’t know what I was thinking.” He also playfully laments his fans and their purposefully embarrassing handmade signs. “Why are all my fans always meme-ing on me, bro? Y’all are whack!”
But he isn’t all quips and no substance. Somehow, eaJ—who still technically doesn’t have any songs available on streaming platforms—commands the crowd. He brings Keshi back out onstage to perform their song “Pillows,” and when it’s time to do fan-favorite “50 Proof,” eaJ pulls off a gut-wrenching rendition that feels like I’m being taken to church. “I know some of y’all don’t know me but I know you fuck with me now,” he tells the audience at one point. Amen.
Niki is a goddamn superstar. For those who don’t yet know this artist, she’s a 22-year-old singer from Indonesia and who’s been releasing music with 88Rising since 2017.
And from the moment she walks out onstage, Head In The Clouds becomes The Niki Show. First of all, she has not one, but three outfit changes (first a sparkly sequin outfit with matching eyeshadow, then a pink ruffled dress, and finally a gold romper with matching gold duster jacket). She cycles between doing choreography with her dancers, playing the piano, and playing the guitar. It’s riveting. Keshi comes onstage with her (his third stage appearance of the night) but his mic is still messed up. His mic issues have lasted for hours; what the hell?!
It’s time for headliner Joji’s set, but after reaching the end of these two days, I am tired. Tired enough that I tell my friends to go ahead into the crowd while I sit this one out. And I mean literally sit it out—right here, on the plush faux-suede couches just outside of the media clubhouse.
As I watch Joji’s set, I find myself again filled with the same emotions I felt this time last night. I missed live music, and I’m so beyond grateful to be here. I’m also a nostalgia monster—so naturally, I’m already mourning the end of this festival and this weekend, even while I’m still here.
It’s hard to describe the West Coast Asian-American music scene, but I’m struck by how very L.A. this festival has been. From the warm and sunny weather, to stalls selling spiked boba, to the festival’s lineup itself: Many of these performers are from overseas, and yet they were able to draw massive crowds of people who likely wouldn’t get to see these artists live outside of HITC.
After seeing the enthusiastic crowd this weekend and witnessing how smoothly things went (terrible box office experience notwithstanding), I have high hopes for this festival next year. I imagine that—following the huge turnout and the fact that the entire show was livestreamed on Amazon—Head In the Clouds 2022 will be bigger, better, and have an even more impressive lineup. (Especially if we are finally freed of COVID and its subsequent travel restrictions.)
So, I’ll be back next year... but I’m renting a car.