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INTERVIEW: JËVA On Giving Up Becoming a K-Pop Idol And Embracing Life As A Queer Artist

Photo: ANGE | Edit: Ash Lim

When I first thought about interviewing a local Australian artist, I knew immediately I wanted to interview JËVA. I had just discovered him through Tones and I’s 'That One Song' competition on Instagram and his song entry ‘Typhoon’ blew me away. Not only was I hooked upon first listen, but I also really resonated with the three musical dreams he shared in his finalist video.

"The first is to make my immigrant parents proud".

"The second is to be the representation I wish I saw as a kid."

"Thirdly, I really want to give back by making the music I love and writing for others."

Who are you?

I am JËVA and I’m an artist and songwriter. My childhood influences were K-pop, 2010’s R&B like Rihanna's 'Umbrella' and Taylor Swift’s early song-writing. My modern influences are Troye Sivan, Maggie Rogers, The 1975 and LANY. My current goal is to write for K-pop and artists on the radio. My artist project is an online diary at the moment for personal fulfillment, but if it ever takes off I’d love to join the ranks of Rina Sawayama & Hayley Kiyoko to push for queer Asian representation in pop music.

How has being a queer person of colour influenced your music and your journey to become an artist?

After high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I took a gap year and realised I wanted to do music. I completed a music course at WAAPA and figured out my artistry there a little bit more. Before then, I hadn’t come out yet so I would song-write about hypothetical situations. For example, one song I wrote with a friend was about saying goodbye to a relationship, but I was closeted at the time and had never been in a relationship. I think I avoided saying ‘girl’ in the song because I didn’t want to be fake. The stuff I put out before was ambiguous and didn’t really mean anything because I wasn’t sure of myself yet. After I learnt to finally embrace my identity, I was able to carve an authentic brand of artistry.

You auditioned to become a K-pop idol, what was that like?

Everyone in K-pop has to be a specific type of look. For guys, I noticed they need to have very sharp jawlines and very strong side profiles. I saw this first hand when I went and auditioned with my friend. He had more of a 'K-pop face', whereas I didn’t have that but I knew I had a good voice - yet when the time came they called him back and not me. I didn’t have a K-pop face that they could mould, or they’d have to give me a lot of plastic surgery. That’s when I realised this is f*cked. Let’s wake up.

[Content warning: Self-harm and suicide] I hear the training regime for K-pop idols is extremely tough. Do you think that dream would've been worth it?

Yeah if that was really my dream, I could’ve moved to Korea after school, trained really hard and got plastic surgery. I’m sure I could’ve overcome those obstacles, as scary as they sound, but it got to a point where the older I got, the harder it was to get in… you start re-evaluating how much you want it.

I realised sh*t these guys have really hard lives. They’re working so hard, they barely get any sleep, they train so many hours a day, and you hear stories of the closeted ones being suicidal...

I've heard South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

I learnt this as I was self-training towards this K-pop dream and the more I thought about it… it really scared me. They’re a very high pressure society where Status and how you present yourself is very important. Its partially why I gave up the K-pop dream. Korea and Asia as a whole is still very homophobic. There’s heaps of closeted people in the industry but have to keep it a secret.

On variety shows, talk show hosts often ask speculated closeted entertainers about their girlfriends and why they don’t have one, and every time they have to pretend to be straight and say, “haha yeah I’m just really busy”.

I thought if that was me I would have an extremely tough time. I hadn’t even come to terms with my sexuality and still had so much self loathing. Sweeping it under the rug, It seemed like a huge scary demon that held so much power over me. If I dove deep into the K-Pop world where I would have to shamefully hide it amongst the public, I was scared I would be super vulnerable to the high pressure environment and eventually crack... It wasn’t worth it anymore. I was scared of becoming one of those horror stories.. because I wasn’t even ready to accept it myself, let alone accept it amongst my peers and my family.

What do you prefer about being an Asian Australian singer-songwriter?

I get to be authentically myself foremostly. I don’t really have to hide anything and my true self would bleed into all other aspects of my social/family life as well. Growing up I really struggled with my identity so I think being able to live my truth (or at least as close as I can get to it) is so incredibly important.

A part of me would still love a Freaky Friday moment where I get to perform as a K-pop star though, but I guess thats why I'd like to write for K-pop.

In the western music industry, do you feel queer Asian males have a different experience compared to their straight counterparts?

This is a huge can of worms but my theory is I don’t think Western society is ready to hear or see an ‘Asian’ Shawn Mendes type of leading man yet. I feel like a lot of this has to do with existing representation. Asian guys barely get the chance to play lead roles in Western movies, let alone be branded as the romantic pop star hunk. Unfortunately as a generalisation Western society still views Asian men as emasculated, geeky and unromantic. Representation in media shapes our psyche as a society and paints our underlying pre-existing beliefs of how we view and box each other. We shouldn’t have to go out of our way to challenge these beliefs later on as an adult and actively rewire the false truths and stereotypes we’ve been fed, just because the entertainment industry has been too lazy to change its ways. Media should represent society as it truly is… a diverse community of complex individuals, all capable of portraying all the different lights and shades of human characteristics and behaviours. Regarding Asian representation in music though, BTS and BLACKPINK definitely seem to be helping pave the way and I’m so proud. Asian women in pop are killing it as well and seem to be leading the movement amongst the diaspora. Rina Sawayama, Hayley Kiyoko, Raveena, Mxmtoom Beabadoobee, Audrey Nuna, Griff just to name a few. Based on my theory though, I’m hoping that my queerness is a curveball that cuts through the bullshit. It’s almost less threatening to entertain the thought of a queer Asian flamboyant funny pop star, than challenge the society into accepting and buying into a straight Asian leading pop hunk? Obviously I hope I’m proven wrong soon, there seems to be some growth and movement but these are just my thoughts as of now.

How important do you think cultural representation is in the music industry?

So so important. How is everyone else supposed to understand or acknowledge people from different backgrounds as worthy if they're underrepresented by the media? Everyone consumes media so much and it influences everything. Not only does there need to be more representation of people of different backgrounds and orientations, but they all need to be complex characters as well. Each type of person can be good, bad, trustworthy, dishonest. If you listen to music and fall in love with an artist whose background is different to yours, you’re gonna delve into that artist or the culture that is being presented, because you want to know more about them. Thus, you learn more about other people, and in turn will be more accepting of ideas outside of the mould, which is actually the truth.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming queer and/or POC artists?

Take it with a grain of salt. You have to really love it because it’s such a gruelling path. Not only is there no guarantee of success, but when you’re an upcoming person, especially if you’re a POC and from an ethnic background where there is this high achievement mentality of being an A+ kind of person, you’re probably going to translate that into your music career.. and if you feed too much into that you can spiral into a really dark place in a creative path that has no guarantees. I had a big wake up call this year and have only just recently come out of that, hopefully a stronger and more grounded person. At the end of the day, the main goal is to reach your highest potential. Shoot for the stars and you might land for the clouds. But still dream really big because there’s a lot of people from diverse backgrounds who are in the spotlight right now, and you could be one of them, just please don’t base your entire self-worth on your ability to achieve this dream.

How do you feel knowing that as a minority statistically it is harder for you to make it?

It’s so hard being a minority of any sortbut anyone from a diverse background who is hustling and sharing their things is fuelling the representation movement. One really famous ethnic person isn’t going to end the cause so don’t base your self worth on you being the one that’s going to save the day. At the same time, you can’t take the injustices too much to heart. I once heard someone say, 'Do you think Oprah got to where she is by having the ingrained idea that the world is unfair?' No one is giving me a chance because I’m a black woman? You have to acknowledge and understand the setbacks but perform small acts of activism towards it. It’s in your favour not to get too held down by the reality and to believe in your unlimited potential because that mindset may somehow unlock more doors. For example, you might give off a better energy, which in turn may lead more people to give you a chance.

Who would your dream collaboration be?

I’ve always struggled with this question.. Just because you love someone’s music, it doesn’t always mean you’d create something epic together. I have so many idols that I adore but I’ve come to realise that my dream collaboration would be with HONNE, I love their sound so much. They’ve managed to fuse indie, dreamwave, dance, pop and create that movie-like feeling that I’ve always loved and aspired to create. I really think with what I could bring to the table we could truly make something special.

What can we expect from you in the near future?

My single ‘Good Friends’ has just come out! The song is a follow up to ‘Typhoon’ which I put out in April. Whilst ‘Typhoon’ was about realising that I was swept away romantically by my friend who wasn’t even trying to woo me, ‘‘Good Friends’ is the inner monologue and conflict about me telling myself I want to date him, and then thinking no we should just be good friends.

These songs are part of the eponymous 'Typhoon' EP about randomly catching feelings for this old friend. It was so out of the blue. I never expected to catch feelings for him because he was in the ‘no go’ zone, but I suddenly fell head over heels. It got quite messy after that and the songs document the story in chronological order! I’m going to release the next single in January and then the rest of the EP shortly after.

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for you.

With a knack for writing irresistibly catchy hooks, keep JËVA on your radar because he might just be the next big thing and the hit songwriter behind all your future favourite bops!

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