What do we know about Chinese hip-hop? Although it’s been around for over 20 years in the country itself, it is in the last decade that the genre has been somewhat successful overseas. Many argue that Chinese is not suitable for rap music because it is a tonal language, however, those who claim that have little or no knowledge about the genre. Personally, I find the language very singable; just listen to GAI, Higher Brothers, Vava or Jackson Wang; these established artists have, without a doubt, brought something fresh to the world of hip-hop.
XENZU, a rapper, singer and songwriter, is unafraid to incorporate English and Mandarin Chinese in her music. In addition, she brings a new level of recognition to the Asian-American hip-hop and pop scene while doing so. As more Asian talent are finally getting recognized on the global stage, their very own hip-hop movement has also been receiving well-deserved attention. And seeing XENZU being part of that scene makes you realise that there is more to Asian music than just Korean pop.
XENZU recently opened three shows for JUNNY, a Korean-Canadian R&B singer, and she delighted the crowd with her rapping and singing, as well as her stage charisma.
While it was a very cold evening here in London, and XENZU was on the other side of the world, in warm and sunny LA, we both sat down comfortably over Zoom for a chat about her journey into music, her latest releases and her future plans.
Born in China and later raised in the US, XENZU showed a deep interest in music since she was a child. While she loved singing, she first learned how to play Guzheng, a traditional Chinese instrument.
“When I was younger, I think I was about five or so, I [already] loved to sing. My mum saw me singing, but you know, every kid enjoys singing when they are small. But then I started doing a lot of shows when I was in elementary and middle school, and that was the time when I found passion for music.” XENZU reflects on her beginnings with singing then continues, “[Then] My mom suggested [I learn Guzheng]. But I fell in love with the beautiful sound of it as well.”
“Have you ever thought of incorporating guzheng in your music?” I ask.
“I actually did, but this is unreleased material. I mixed guzheng with dance music,” XENZU confesses.
XENZU has a lot of drive and talent, and although she doesn’t put a hip-hop tag onto her music, many of her fans do. Having said that, the artist easily finds her way between rapping and singing as well as various music genres.
“I don’t have a personal favourite, but I will lean more towards singing,” she admits candidly when asked about whether she prefers rapping over singing.
“I always loved singing when I was younger. And when I was exploring different music genres, [I realised that] I do enjoy listening to all kinds of music, from Michael Jackson, to Prince, to R&B singer Rhianna. Later on, I was exploring different music styles in the recording studio and thinking about who I am as an artist and who I want to be as one,” XENZU adds. The singer goes on to say that it’s paramount for her to be an artist of her own, and, even though she tends to sing more than rap, she also does not want to restrain herself when it comes to both. “I won’t limit myself either when I am rapping or singing, it is just who I am. And little by little, I am figuring out my music style as well. At the moment I wanna call it Post-Pop.”
“Post-Pop?” I ask.
“I just thought of the Post-Pop word,” XENZU says with a chuckle. “I was thinking, what’s my music? Is it Pop, is it Urban, is it Hip-hop? I feel like it’s just a mixture of everything that people cannot define or box into one [definition].”
XENZU has just released her new single called Jelly. Although it didn’t take a long time to arrange it musically, the artist says that “the whole freestyle I did was already laying down all the structures and all that. [When] I was doing the top line melodies, some words popped up, and I just followed my feelings.”
Probably bunkering down in her studio helps XENZU to create future hits, and while discussing her newly released music, she passionately adds that “Jelly is more of a bizarre noun with the concept of a mystery of how we feel when it comes to life in general. Games and confusion will always be in the way, but just knowing that’s not what we really want as a mature person, means we can put energy into what we can get happiness instead. You reap what you sow.”
“I went to the studio and just freestyled this whole thing in a very short time, and I was imagining all the scenes when I was making this record,” XENZU says. “Jelly popped up in my mind and it fits the theme really well. The second song, Tell Me You Want Me, will be released around February. This particular song shows a vulnerable, bold, masculine and feminine side to me. [I would say] it’s a more balanced me,” XENZU adds.
Prior to the release of Jelly, XENZU unveiled Burn Book & Glow Up EP which is a mix of hip-hop, electronic, trap and hyper-pop. On it, the artist showed – yet again – her rapping and singing abilities. The EP’s unique music combination and catchy lyrics, according to the artist, describes “the growth process of people from losing themselves to finding themselves.” And with Journey being my favourite track, I ask XENZU about the creative process and inspiration behind the release.
“I actually created this EP a long time ago,” she explains, adding: “But I decided to release it last year. I was writing and recording the songs a while back and they were done during a different period of my life, particularly my emotional side. This release was definitely created out of my heart.”
Journey, with its electric beat, multi-layered synthesiser as well as bass, which was also performed by the artist in The Rap of China show, is one of those songs that really stands out amongst others on Burn Book & Glow Up.
“I wrote that song [Journey] a year and a half ago, the first time when I went back to China to start my career there. It’s like me telling myself ‘what’s my passion, what is my goal?’ I wrote it to mark myself as an individual at that time,” XENZU elaborates on Journey and then carries on: “The song itself is a reminder to myself about what I want to do in the future too.”
As mentioned before, the singer incorporates English with Mandarin Chinese in her lyrics. Although she likes to rap in English, and Mandarin Chinese is her mother tongue, she enjoys mixing the two.
“It is a pretty mixture,” XENZU says. “I moved to the States when I was 13. Although I learnt English before I moved over, going to an English-speaking school required me to speak and think in English. Therefore, when I write a song, I think in English first. And when I write in Chinese, I have to switch my mind to Chinese.”.
Although using both languages turns out to be a challenge at times, XENZU refuses to give up on either of them and decided to go along with it, “I don’t see a lot of artists mixing two or more languages in their music, and I think it’s great when [we actually do it].”
It is no secret that when artists choose to follow their own creative path, getting on top of the charts, sales and sold-out music venues can be a challenge. While record sales are declining, streaming is on the rise, and this might be one of the safety ropes for those artists. However, what happens when you decide to avoid mainstream music, or create something in between?
“I am afraid sometimes, but at this point of my life I just trust my intuition with my decisions. You know, a while back, I think it was in 2017, a lot of people told me that I ‘should do Mandarin mainstream pop. That’d be the only way songs can be successful on music platforms.’ But, what I heard at that time, and even now, is that mainstream music is not my style. I could write 10 songs per day about random stuff and it’d be boring, you know. I love to make creative meaningful stuff, so when I perform, I can show the audience who I really am,” XENZU explains, then adds that at times she can compromise and release something in between mainstream and her own preferable Post-Pop sound.
As a songwriter, XENZU enjoys writing lyrics every day. However, not all her songs get released as some of them were written a long time ago, and they were created at different moments in her life. They might not be relevant to the life she is living now.
XENZU admits that she motivates herself the most, “I often talk to myself saying what do I want, what do I really like and what messages do I want to send out to my people?” the singer says and quickly adds: “There were, and are, many mentors in my life too. They have supported me mentally, physically, and emotionally all the time. I think we always meet people that teach us something along the way.”
As an emerging artist, facing the big lion that the music industry is, has always been challenging, and feeling the resistance within the industry itself must be disheartening.
“That happened to me before. There were people telling me that ‘oh you are just a singer, not an artist’, and I was like ‘I don’t understand this.’ Many people used to tell me you are not good enough. But I already passed that phase when I doubted myself [as an artist]. Although different people have different opinions [about the music], your audience will always find you.”
While we chatted about her touring with JUNNY, somehow our conversation led us to touring in London. Although there are no concrete plans for when XENZU will come to London to perform, she is definitely keen on doing a show and presenting her music to the European audience.
“It would be great to come to London as this would be my first time,” XENZU candidly admits.
It is worth mentioning that the singer will be performing at SXSW 2023 (South by Southwest®) which is taking place from March 10 to 19 in Austin, Texas.
With her sunny personality, I hope XENZU continues to record more music as it does improve one’s mood, evokes emotions, and leaves us wanting more.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts, and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop / K-music, and Asian music in general, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, music, and arts, worldwide.