xTRILLIAMS talks childhood, culture and belonging in his new EP ‘Home Away’

Interviewed by Michelle Lim

Mike Yee aka xTrilliams is a Fijian- Chinese multitalented writer, rapper, and vocalist. Being raised in a multicultural suburb of Eastwood in Sydney, Mike tells the story of his childhood. Drawn to rap as a medium of storytelling and community, he wanted to reveal the genuine and authentic experience of being Asian Australian. Supported by his parents at a young age to pursue the Arts, he found his love in literature and writing, eventually turning short stories and poems into raps.

Now, Mike has released his debut EP ‘Home Away’ with Chonks. A project that exudes the immigrant experience tied in with punchy lyrics, flow, and memories of childhood. ‘Home Away’ is nostalgic of late 90’s and early 2000’s hip hop and rap with themes of belonging, culture, family, and community.    

“I’ll guess I’ll start off with the big question. What does being Asian Australian mean to you? Can you tell me more about your upbringing?”

“Being Asian Australian is an ongoing learning and understanding process. It’s this idea at a point, which you can identify, where being Asian and Australian are conjoined ideas. It also means understanding what that means today and looking back on what that means as well. Looking back at the nostalgia I felt, it was an Asian experience, not necessarily an Asian Australian experience. It’s looking at that experience and how it intertwines.”

“It sounds like you kind of lived in this Asian bubble where you had these two identities (Asian and Australian) but could not necessarily reconcile both identities.”

“I’m lucky I have two siblings, brothers, they’re working in the Arts and are working artists and between the three of us we grew up funnelled into stereotypical Asian activities like piano and maths and these containers. But one of the things that our parents became aware of, was that towards the end of primary school and the beginning of high school, they realised we were more artistically inclined. We took the Asian workhorse mentality even to the Arts. Even in the early stages of illustrating and painting, we would do it in a workhorse manner, I remember my brothers and I spent Saturdays like we were getting paid to do it. It was one of those things where it was constant stimulus and a lot of that influence came from American media and Americana such as novels, comic books, cartoons, and fantasy fiction. And our parents saw that and admitted that we were engaging in the Arts and just started running with our talents. Within that world of American fiction, there is this crossover with comic books and cartoons and fiction with Asian culture because of the admiration for that part of the Arts. Especially in the 90s and early 2000s, stuff that was more fringey and Asia seen as the precipice of that exotic fringe culture and that’s where that culture came from. Under the umbrella of my Western identity in Australia, it was very suburban, almost Nickelodeon like, but I didn’t imagine myself as Asian, I pictured myself looking like Bart Simpson.”

“I can imagine that the Fijian-Chinese community is quite small in Australia, but what is it like to be part of that community?”

“A lot of ambiguity, especially from Asians. My brothers are fraternal twins; one looks Chinese and the other looks more Filipino. People always assume the latter was Southeast Asian because of his darker skin. While the Chinese Fijian community is small, their presence is super prominent but spread out. Food plays a big part in the community, and that’s its own framework. Growing up in Sydney, I grew up been mass exposed to East Asian culture. I did say Chinese Fijian food was a big part, but Laksa and Banh Mi was also the food of my upbringing. The suburbs have very distinct cultural areas, and there are crossovers into different cultures and shared experiences through food. To all immigrants, this crossover isn’t challenging and it actually breaks barriers”

“That’s a really interesting take on your identity and upbringing. But it sounds like you didn’t really start in music but more in literature and fiction. Is this where you love for creative arts grew?”

“1000%. I don’t truly consider myself as musically gifted compared to those who I know who have knack in music, in areas like production and singing. But everything I do, even at work, is underpinned by a writing sensibility. I got into music because I fell in love with music structures, I started writing short stories and poems and then got into lyric writing that way. Music has always been an interesting concept to me. I played around a lot as a bedroom musician. In high school, I was battle rapping. As the class clown, it blew over. I used battle rapping to make jokes and curb the corniness and try to avoid that self-anxiety. One of my friends from high school was Maori and we connected over shared Pacific Islander experiences, we made music together. We’d go to the music college and use the studios to record. He’d produced and I’d be the vocalist. I’d drop mixtapes on Mediafire and MySpace, and people were listening to it. It felt like an underground experience. I moved to London for a few years and learnt more about music and production, just playing with my laptop and the microphone, and it was there where I really understood music holistically, not just rap.”

“Is there anyone who inspired you to get into this genre of music?”

“A lot of them were indie hip hop artists. It’s probably a really stereotypical answer but I was really into early Kanye and artists he was collaborating at the time. Jay-Z was someone I admired, especially his poetic story telling techniques that he uses in his music to talk about his life at that time. It was a really community driven genre and that’s what made me want to do hip- hop with my friends, not necessarily famous people. And that’s why I rap to illustrate what’s happening in my life at the time, probably for therapeutic reasons but also as a point of relating to other people.”

“In your music, there are themes of childhood and immigration, why did you choose to produce and rap about experiences?”

“I’ve been able to live quite a colourful life and I wanted to look back at it and describe it in fun and detailing way. I want to talk about the details and nuances of society while living in it and bring light to shared experiences. Immigrant parents have very nuanced and important stories but as young people to understand those stories we have to look back and reflect on those stories. It’s difficult to reconcile these stories when especially with our conflicting history with the indigenous population, and where we stand in that history. As immigrants, our experiences positive and negative, are part of the modern Australian history. I like to tell stories about real Asian Australians like ourselves, and humanise our experiences. Whatever is in vogue at the moment with Asian experiences, is defined as what the Asian Australian experience is but I didn’t wake up every Sunday morning going to dragon dancing classes, I woke up to go to swim school.”

“What were your motivations in wanting to release an EP now?”

“I’ve worked on a lot of projects, especially mixtapes, as they’re risk free. It’s a pragmatic approach as music is something that I’m not making full time. After doing shows and supporting people, I thought it would be a good time to nut out a solid set of tracks and see what sticks out and what doesn’t especially with COVID as well.”

As immigrants our experiences, positive and negative, are part of the modern Australian history.

Mike Yee

“Can you tell us what your thought process is when incorporating themes of culture and shared experiences?”

“The important thing is thematic sensibility. Looking at how I perceive everyday life and how that fits into the story and song. Rather than projecting this grandiose persona, I try to emanate myself and make sure that I don’t cookie cut my Asian identity. I add language switch ups and include things that I’m eating. I definitely make sure that I shout out where I grew up, that I grew up in Eastwood and didn’t come on a boat. I want to ground my music where my two feet are. A big point is when the elders say “good job” or give good feedback. In Asian culture, paying respects to elders and giving back is the most important. So incorporating culture and shared experiences is understanding what has come before you and paying that back. It’s been very humbling that my elders have enjoyed my music.”

“Recently, the mainstream scene has had an influx of Asian artists moving into the area such as BTS but also Joji, Rich Brian, NIKI. What do you think the impact of increasing visibility of Asian artists is?”

“I’ve been into Asian hip hop since the early 2000s, mainly American/Northern American music. But I’ve also listened to Big Bang, SNSD, 2NE1. A lot of it started off at K-pop/J-pop then made it’s way into mainstream Asian Hip Hop. There was this a point where I said, I was enjoying this but I didn’t know why. After digesting, Korean dramas, Hong Kong movies and those type of mediums, I realised it was because of facial recognition and cultural recognitions. It kind of goes back to the previous question, but the reason why I released this EP is because Asian music, faces and aesthetic are popular right now. That’s what the mainstream audience is consuming. It’s very surreal for us.”

“If you had to pick one song from your EP to let the AAP audience listen to, what would it be?”

“Would recommend Blame, the introd track. It’s the most vivid one. This is literally us going out to soju and K-BBQ in a song. That song is us growing up in that area.”

“What was it like working on this album with your regular collaborator Chonks? Who else was involved the making of the EP?”

“So Chonks (Nick) and I did 12 – 13 songs together. There were a lot of back burner and potential songs. As a vocalist, there’s a million songs that are a work in progress. Working with Nick was easy going, we both grew up and lived in the same general area. That was something both of us connected over, and so the music just came from those roots. Now it’s been a year of Nick and I learning about each other through music and increasing our knowledge together. The female vocals, sané, she was introduced to me by another producer. Even though she’s Asian American, when she started talking about her experiences, there were lightbulbs going through Nick and I’s head that we were connecting with her.”

“What songs are currently on your playlist?”

“I’m currently listening to a mix of podcast and radio. I listen to a lot of American West Coast music, stuff with light bouncy tunes. I’m also listening to Woodie GoChild and other home-grown talents – Jade Kenji and Kase Avila.”

“Do you have any advice for emerging Asian Australian artists? Or would you like to recommend any other Asian Australian artists?”

“It’s great watching other musicians that are devoted to the craft, as I’m getting older I feel more confident in not only my music, but in my life. I think the most important thing is to back yourself and make sure you’re genuine. In the creative process, don’t create an image of something that you’re not. Finding and exploring your identity is a continuous process, and don’t confine yourself to category because it’ll fit you quicker. Take the time to enjoy the process of creating.”

“What do you think is the future of Asian Australian music scene?”

“This is an extension to the Asian Australian Arts scene. I think we’ll start seeing bigger stories which focuses on the last 20 – 30 years of Asian Australians that are about living here, and not coming here. Whether it’s through literature, visual art or music, it’s going to benefit us in an economical way. In the future, there will be more opportunities in the creative space to tell our stories. It could be through events, charity or just giving back to Australians. It doesn’t have to be a white lens on discussing issues anymore.”

Listen to xTRILLIAMS’ EP here

What xTRILLIAMS recommends listening to:

Jade Kenji

Kase Avila

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