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Kuya James' Groundbreaking Debut Album 'ISA' Crosses Cultural Boundaries

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

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The arrival of ISA is a momentous occasion for Kuya James. After numerous years of hard work and inspiration, the Filipino-born Darwin based artist and producer has finally dropped his debut album. Inspired by experiences of growing up as an Asian-Australian amidst a westernised culture, this ten-track record explores the concept of the Australian identity through themes of ancestry and individuality. His mission? To highlight Asian-Australians in the music industry, a community that has often been overlooked, while celebrating the multicultural tapestry of this country.

"As I entered the Australian music scene, I felt like an outsider. My life was changed when I saw Quan from Regurgitator on a festival stage and it was the first time I thought that people like me had a place in our music culture. The same thing happened watching DJ Dexter killing it behind the decks with The Avalanches and then finding out he was a fellow Filipino," says James

Each track apart from the opener features at least one other artist, in line with his ambition to empower others and shine a light on Australia’s diverse talent pool. Opener ‘Live By New Rules’ draws you in with swelling vocals and layered synths before infusing striking oriental soundscapes. The combination of punchy electronic drums and samples of Asian instruments is symbolic of James’ own mixed heritage. Hear the chant, “Live by new rules" as if to urge Asian-Australian artists to pursue their dreams and break the mold regardless of current industry norms. Title track ‘Isa’ is dominated by fat trap beats and features Serina Pech’s brooding vocal melodies with fellow artist Emcille rapping in their native tongue.

‘Trust’ sees First Nations artist Emily Wurramara exclaiming, “Just trust, so teach, instruct, let loose.” Her spoken-word and sensual vocals proclaiming the need to educate over bouncy electronic beats really strikes a chord. A rush to the dance floor, ‘Rewind Our Love’ is the record’s most upbeat track, showcasing the sultry voices of Caiti Baker and the aforementioned Pech over a four-on-the-floor beat, making a perfect party dance track.

The second act moves into chill territory with New Zealander Harlen’s soulful vocals and harmonies on ‘Better Than That’ floating over dainty marimba melodies and heavier R&B beats, evoking a moody atmosphere. On ‘Mermaid’, an insistent beat grounds the quirky electronic track while Pech’s cutting vocals, eerie harmonies and hypnotic vocals engage the ear. ‘Why Dem Pills?’ brings in vocal powerhouse Stevie Jean who delivers alluring vocals, with energy reminiscent of Haiku Hands.

‘Goodbye’ has hip-hop artist Chong Ali rap over his parents' daunting experience as Vietnamese refugees: “It’s I pray you reach your destination / That boat’s a symbol of a new life for my generation.” His gritty yet fluid flow compels you to listen to every word of his unflinching storytelling, making this track one of my personal favourites.

On the penultimate track ‘Sabaw’, the Filipino word for ‘soup’, Pech’s heavenly vocals return and are accompanied by James’ rich production of 808s and oriental sounds. An extremely personal track to James, it tells of overcoming suppression and recognising the beauty and power in our authentic selves.

Ending on a powerful and impressive note is 'No Country' - my personal top pick. Tasman Keith and Don Nunggarrlu anthemically vocalise over a thunderous hip-hop beat about the theme of Indigenous cultural identity: "Our right to grow old was stolen / And replaced in the form of pain". Keith’s husky and visceral rap delivery coupled with Nunggarrlu’s vocals in his native stylings unite to create a spectacular cross-cultural blend.

Although the album spans genres from hip hop to disco, James’ signature punchy beats can be heard throughout, tying the record together. Embracing the sounds of his Asian ancestry in several of the tracks, it is clear James takes pride in his heritage and wants others to feel the same:

“I want young Asian people and those of mixed heritages to feel like they are represented in spaces they otherwise might feel like they are excluded from. I don’t want them to have to compromise any part of themselves in order to achieve their place in the game”.

As a fellow Asian-Australian artist, I resonate with James’ sentiment very much. Growing up, lack of representation meant I never entertained the idea of being an artist for more than a second because I never saw anyone who looked like me in the local music scene. A career in the creative arts was never encouraged let alone mentioned by my parents - a symptom of many First Generation Australians' desire for success in a new country - but I truly believe if more cultural representation existed when I was younger, many ethnically diverse Australians would have had the courage to earnestly express themselves.

Having said this, times are changing, and it is both reassuring and exciting to know that Asian-Australian artists like Kuya James do exist and are gaining exposure for their music, evoking social and cultural change. While there is still a long journey ahead, I hope in the near future, the art of artists from all backgrounds will become more normalised in mainstream society. For now though, let’s enjoy this momentous album that shines a light on the Asian-Australian music community and beyond, celebrating the melting pot of cultures in our country.




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