Jason Kwan is Breaking Stereotypes and Loving Authentically Through Music

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin interviews Jason Kwan on how his inspirations, process and goals fit within the mainstream music industry.

Jason Kwan (he/him) is the queer East London glam-pop artist creating outside of the gender binary and questioning oppressive beauty standards. Named ‘Asian on the Rise’ by Attitude Magazine, Jason is an emerging force to be reckoned with. He combines Eastern and Western perceptions and experiences of culture, music, identity and cabaret in his music, in order to simultaneously honour his Hong Kongese heritage and break from the traditional values and societal stereotypes that would otherwise diminish his authentic queer identity.

Jason’s creative output is incredibly important within the post-colonial British landscape. It was only earlier this year that Rina Sawayama shared her heartbreak at being unable to enter the Mercury Prize, due to their rule that solo artists must have British or Irish nationality to enter the competition. Rina, who has lived in the UK since she was a toddler – longer than some of the other nominees had even been alive – described the experience as “othering” and said that it made her question her status as an immigrant.

Jason subverts mainstream expectations, speaks to the wider queer Asian diaspora community, and explores themes of race, identity and belonging impeccably through his work – themes that lie close to my heart as a queer, non-binary, Indian immigrant, myself.

To mark the release of the music video to accompany his song, Seduction, the most recent addition to his debut EP, I was honoured to speak with Jason about his inspirations, his process and his goals, and how they fit within the context of the heteronormative white-gaze that has traditionally cast a dark shadow over the mainstream music industry.

Seduction single cover

Prishita: What is your primary intention behind your work and how do you think this ties in with your personal lived experiences?

Jason: My music comes from a place of contemplation. Songwriting is my way of navigating through my darker experiences and finding power in them. I’m currently releasing music from my debut EP, and although these songs come from places of insecurity, pain, and anger, they’ve transformed into ones of empowerment, joy, and celebration. I escaped a homophobic environment when I moved to the UK from Hong Kong on my own at 14, and having the ability to express myself through music was a lifesaver. It was the only way in which I could channel feelings of frustration and heartbreak from facing rejection, and struggles with my sense of identity and belonging. Isolation from society was a huge teenage barrier for me, and it still is, to a certain extent, today. My songs capture my identity and experiences of being a heartbroken lover, a struggling son, a queer non-binary genie, a Hong Konger, and a relentless musician.

P: It’s so lovely that your music helps you capture your identity. Building on that, how do you think your music and yourself, as an artist, fit within the context of the wider music industry, and society in general?

J: I don’t fit into the mainstream music scene at all: I am yellow-skinned from Hong Kong; I live in London; I speak with a psuedo-American accent; I write broody piano ballads which I then transform into dark, pulsating, glam rock, dance tracks. I’m queer, I’m non-binary, I’m the antithesis of the palatable pop star. However, I do fit in snug and tight in the London queer-cabaret scene, where I don’t have to compromise a single part of my musical expression. Taking that confidence to bigger stages has really helped me maintain who I am as an artist without compromising my expression. Because I speak English fluently, there is always an expectation for me to assimilate ‘white’ pop culture. But assimilation doesn’t serve me, my music, or my listeners in any way. There is a slow shift in culture where dominant pop tropes are being challenged, and I hope to continue to add to the diversification of pop artistry.

P: I hear you! It’s very admirable that you’re able to use the strength you gain from the safe space of the London queer-cabaret scene to be resilient to pressures around assimilation. Do you think this is why it’s so important for you to question the beauty standards for people of Asian heritage? And how do you think your relationship to this exploration is influenced by your queerness?

J: Western standards of Asian beauty place Asian men and women in positions of weakness and subservience; our beauty is othered and molded to fit the white gaze. When you throw queerness into the mix, you realise that queer-Asian people are either seen as undesirable or exoticised for our looks – even via the Eastern gaze, queer-Asian beauty does not receive appropriate representation or recognition. Growing up in Hong Kong, I was always chastised for being effeminate, for being camp, for acting ‘like a girl’ – as if femininity was a negative trait. It all stems from misogyny. As I came out and started expressing my identity more visibly, I was shamed for being ‘too gay’, and my queerness was called gross, disgusting, unnatural, and I was labelled a freak.

Seduction is a love song to myself; I’m seducing myself to love my body in its entirety. To be existing as a visibly queer-Asian musician, embracing my sexuality, embracing my ‘perverse silhouettes’, and celebrating all of this in my art, is the reason I make my work public. I really wanted to use this song to carve out more spaces for queer-Asian beauty. 

P: That’s fantastic! And yes, let’s talk more about Seduction. Firstly, congrats on the beautiful music video, which has been released today! How does this song make you feel?

J: Growing up, I was made to feel guilty for being queer; I was told it was wrong – and I endured these struggles alone. I didn’t know a single queer person growing up in Hong Kong, until I heard about Leslie Cheung. When I turned 8, the most revered pop star in Asia, Leslie Cheung, who was openly gay, committed suicide because of the pressures the world put him under for being queer. I watched the only queer person I knew kill himself. He was also a musician; the one thing I wanted to be. 

There wasn’t space for me to survive in Hong Kong. Seduction has helped me overcome that feeling of guilt. It brings me joy; it creates a space where I can feel sexy and celebrate lust, perversion, and sly witticism. Exploring my sexuality with a guy was the first time I felt comfortable enough to relinquish my body and mind. I had to unlearn feelings of guilt stemming from dating someone of the same gender, but I learnt to love my queer sexuality. I wanted to share this journey and experience because the guilt is still an everyday reality for a lot of people.

P: I’m so touched to hear that; that’s incredibly beautiful. The Seduction music video certainly does provide wonderful representation for queer-Asian beauty, but it also draws on a number of traditionally East Asian stylistic features and inspirations, such as Zhang Yimou’s most recent Wu Xia film, Shadow (2018), and calligraphy painted on your body. What does this represent for you and why was it important to you to include as part of this video?

J: For the Seduction music video, I worked with Directors Kristina Pringle, Nicolee Tsin, and Jemma Williams-Fyne to create a space where queerness and Asianness can co-exist. Kris and I have explored a lot of intimate queer East Asian experiences in previous videos, but, as a team, we wanted to centre the video around the strength and defiance that is depicted in Wu Xia films. Martial art films are traditionally very hetero-centric and focus on the defined separation of masculinity and femininity. The video was our way of challenging and rewriting this space, to blend together the beauty, allure, and balance of the yin and the yang – the masculine and the feminine – with the queer and the gender defiant. The Hong Kong aspects of my identity are just as much a part of me as my queer identity, and those two things can exist in one space.

P: Absolutely; I personally love how you tie these two, perhaps traditionally conflicting, aspects of your identity together. On that note, the calligraphy on your body consists of slurs written in Chinese, which is an incredible act of defiance and a powerful visual. What does this step towards reclamation mean to you and how do you think it fits into the wider body positivity movement, which was started by, and should primarily centre, Black women and femmes?

J: Black women and femmes are the reason I am confident in my own skin today, but I still struggle with self-acceptance. Growing up, I hated my body because it represented my queerness. It reminded me that I was ‘wrong’ and ‘undesirable’ in the eyes of Chinese culture. Seduction came from a place of lewd acceptance, one where I am embracing the parts of my body that are offensive to others; I’m almost getting off on that offence. 

In the video, I celebrate the slurs written in Chinese across my body – words I’ve been called time and time again: ‘not man, not woman’, ‘human freak’, ‘gross’, ‘ugly’. When I first wrote these words out and saw them painted onto me, it made me cringe and I felt sick. But by allowing them to exist on my skin, and then choosing to have them wiped away, I’m reclaiming these slurs as nothing but ink. And I’m doing this surrounded by my friends who know exactly how it feels to be called those things. I’m in control of my own narrative and body, and that is something that Black women and femmes have taught me.

P: I very much relate to that! I know that along with celebrating women and femmes through your ideology and providing representation on screen through your music videos, you also champion production teams made up of lesser-represented individuals. How do you go about this and why is it important to you?

J: My artistic team most consists of non-binary people, queer people, Black people and People of Colour because they just happen to be my friends! Having said that, the team has come together because of the message in the music I’m making. We all find power in not hindering ourselves and not limiting ourselves in these creative spaces. We uplift each other’s voices and support one another to express ourselves authentically. The process of putting a music video together has been a beautiful journey with this team. It’s not just my video; it captures all of our experiences.

Assimilation doesn’t serve me, my music, or my listeners in any way. There is a slow shift in culture where dominant pop tropes are being challenged, and I hope to continue to add to the diversification of pop artistry.

Jason Kwan

P: This conversation has made me reflect a lot on Rina Sawayama’s disappointment earlier this year at not being able to be nominated for the Mercury Prize, despite having lived in the UK most of her life. Do you have any thoughts on her experiences, what it says about the British music industry, and your own relevant personal experiences?

J: Rina’s exclusion from the Mercury Prize this year was a big hit to our community. Rina is someone who I revere and support with all of my heart, and she has been fighting and championing our community in a really beautiful way. The gatekeepers of the Mercury Prize have reminded us that Britishness is defined through exclusion. Instead of taking action to actively include, they have chosen to actively exclude. People can talk about equality, diversity, and inclusion as much as they want to, but until structures are challenged and those in power make changes, it’s all bullshit. Culture prevails and culture will speak for itself; Rina’s success is not defined by the Mercury Prize, or any prize! I am so happy to see her succeeding without compromise. What a ray of light, cutting through the morbid darkness!

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