REVIEW: Head in the Clouds 2023 proves it is no niche subculture

Head in the Clouds 2023 Finale mainbar

In the promo cycle for his Oscar-nominated role in Minari, actor Steven Yuen lamented upon a feeling familiar to the Asian & Pacific Islander diaspora: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” While relatively nascent, the phrase “representation matters” has been a ubiquitous rallying cry to address the isolation Yuen so aptly describes. It’s the feeling of being unseen, the notion of not mattering, and the loneliness of appearing invisible. 

For all its pomp and circumstance, the multinational collective known as 88Rising started from humble beginnings. Founded in the San Francisco Bay Area by producer Sean Miyashiro in 2015, Miyashiro sought to bridge the gap between Asian and American cultures. His weapons of choice included capitalizing on trends that popular culture consistently employs. With viral artists like Rich Brian and Keith Ape coming into prominence, aggressive rap tracks backed by trap-style beats were supported by an Internet-first marketing infrastructure that is as glossy as it is consciously kitsch. With the addition of artists like JojiThe Higher Brothers, and Niki, the diversity of genres under 88Rising’s belt grew in breadth and depth — offering alternate interpretations of musical norms from an Asian lens. 

With Head in the Clouds 2023, a two-day festival at Goldenvoice’s preferred Los Angeles-based location, the Rose Bowl, 88Rising strives to nurture a physical manifestation of its mission statement. By inviting Asian artists from multiple regions, including China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, etc., the festival is a buffet of Asian delicacies. Often ignored by the powers that drive mainstream Western culture, the international powerhouses that serve as the headliners across the two-day festival have amassed a quiet riot of a following — verified by the millions who follow them on social media and the vociferous nature of their admiration. Walking through the festival was an education in this specific fandom, with rows of cosplayers signifying vaguely familiar anime characters, caravans of fangirls and boys camping out in front of the main stage in blistering 94-degree weather, and a litany of praised-filled signs desperate to capture the attention of their enduring heroes. While the Asian diaspora is not often represented in mainstream Western culture, the devotion emanating from the Rose Bowl suggests that what many see as a niche subculture is not very niche at all. 

XG photo by Eric Han

If Head in the Clouds 2023 prides itself on having regional diversity, they are likely equally as proud of the bevy of creative women featured across the bill. Women like MILLI (a hip-hop provocateur from Thailand), XG (a South Korean-based girl group giving Blackpink a run for their money), Yoasobi (a Japanese duo led by the spunky singer-songwriter Lilas Ikuta), Akini Jing (Chinese-Born, ethnically-Dai performer), Niki (Indonesian-born indie folk singer), and Rina Sawayama (Japanese-born British singer, dancer, and John Wick co-star) all had stand out performances — proving that while the boys have historically cornered the market, the ubiquity of art coming from women continues to be the beating pulse of the movement. 

That’s not to say there was an absence of what one might expect from a crowd that would label themselves as “Army,” “Dreamers,” or numerous other monikers that have been attached to hordes of ravenous fans from all parts of the globe to catch a glimpse of their favorite boys. The appearance of DPR LIVE and DPR IAN elicited a reaction akin to a controlled panic historically associated with cultural giants, The Beatles. A communal wave of deafening shouts from the audience would sometime rival the music coming from the stage — even more impressive given the festival took place in an outdoor venue. While DPR LIVE brought an admirable braggadocious confidence, DPR IAN brought out a Goth sensibility to his pop music that signals back to when My Chemical Romance was at the apex of its prime. 

The theatricality of DPR IAN set a precedent for day one’s closer — Hong Kong-born Jackson Wang showcased a theatricality that was more Cirque du Soleil than K-Pop. Wang’s unabashed preference for the operatic signals his desire to set himself apart from his K-Pop roots. As his profile grows, so does the scrutiny regarding his past — a topic of conversation brought up with unease and consternation throughout the weekend amongst festival-goers. While the ultimate consensus amongst fans was to focus on the music, it was refreshing to hear such frank conversation considering the ethos of the festival — to bring the diversity of Asian culture to the forefront, which includes its nuances, complexities, and disagreements. 

DPR Ian photo by Eric Han

Unlike other festivals, Head in the Clouds 2023 ends with a star-studded “finale” that acts as a roll call of the festival’s bill. While new performers Tiger JK and Yoonmirae opened up the final act with great aplomb, it was the Japanese super-girl group Atarashii Gakko! returning to the stage with Yoasobi which dazzled the crowd. Looking more like the Sailor Guardians than a pop group, Atarashii Gakko! signaled a playful step forward in what Asian-Pop music can evolve into. Finally, the artist most synonymous with 88Rising, Indonesian-born rapper Rich Brian, returned to the stage with a flurry of his hits to end the weekend on a high. When the mic eventually cut off, likely due to curfew, Rich Brian conducted the crowd to sing an acapella version of “Midsummer Madness,” the hit track from the album that gave this festival its name. As he waved his arms to keep time with the crowd’s harmonious swooning, I was hard-pressed not to feel some wave of cultural catharsis. There was an acknowledgment that while underrepresentation across various minority groups is still a pernicious problem, artists across these groups will continue striving towards representing themselves. They won’t wait for mainstream acceptance. They’ll create their own. 

Words and photos by Eric Han


Jackson Wang
Rich Brian
Rina Sawayama