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.