Kathy Yaeji Lee is a woman of many artistic identities. A singer, rapper, DJ, electronic-music producer, visual artist, fashion designer and more; to be “Yaeji” is to refuse to be defined by one thing. Though despite Yaeji’s multiplicity, there is a cohesiveness to her creative being: an honesty and intimacy found at the core of all her creative work, especially in her most recent mixtape, “What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던,” released on April 2.
Yaeji sees her art as a kind of confession, a reflection of her inner state at that moment. “There’s this lyric in the song ‘Spell’ where I say, ‘It’s as if I cast a spell, I read out my diary in front of all these people.’ That’s kind of what it feels like sometimes when I play live or write music,” said Yaeji. “It’s like I’m pulling out the deepest, darkest stuff within me to share it with people that maybe I’ve never even met before.”
Through this radical vulnerability, Yaeji transforms club music into something introspective and personal. Alternating between Korean and English, robotic whisper-rap and hypnotic pop hooks, Yaeji pulls her listeners deeper and deeper into her multiverse.
However, Yaeji wasn’t always as comfortable with this intimacy. She initially only intended to share her first songs with her friends —maybe at tiny clubs house parties in Pittsburgh, where she attended Carnegie Mellon University for East Asian studies and graphic design.
“I was really lost about what I should even talk about in my music,” she said. “Speaking in Korean was an easy way to mask that because I didn’t have that many Korean peers, and so it was literally kind of like a code language for myself.”
Though as her music career progressed, her relationship with the language changed. She realized that Korean was “no longer a code language” because everywhere she toured, there was a Korean crowd rooting for her.
After this realization, Yaeji became increasingly aware of the emotional impact her music had on people, as well as where her music geographically reached. She also thought a lot more intentionally about what Korean meant to her, noting its “gorgeous texture” and association with family and home.
“I definitely feel like a slightly different person when I speak in Korean versus when I speak in English. Even my voice changes a little bit. So in that sense, it’s really interesting the interplay between these two people, or two different languages, and how one can help the other, or one can express things that the other can never express in words.”
Because of the bilingual dimension of her music, Yaeji’s race is often the focal point of her portrayal in the media. Though Yaeji was at first frustrated by the excessive focus on her race, she has since come to see it as an opportunity to expand the spotlight and bring attention to other marginalized voices.
“I learned that I can utilize the platform I have — the attention I have — to share other artists that I really believe in, and uplift each other and the community we have here.”
That “here” is Brooklyn, where Yaeji lives now, and where she is committed to calling out unfriendly neighbors who create toxic environments for marginalized people. “I’ve been to events that were intentionally meant for queer Asian, brown and black people be filled with white people that insensitively took up too much space on a weeknight,” she told me. “I don’t blame the party for this at all — it’s hard enough running an event, let alone one that is actively trying to be conscious of protecting marginalized people,” she clarified. But the problem remains. She said that while there is an active conversation within the Brooklyn music scene as to how to protect diversity — with certain parties and venues even posting specific guidelines against homophobia, transphobia, racism, uncomfortable touching and other behavior — there is still work to be done.
“Some pretend to care about these issues for clout or attention, but don’t actually understand why we need these spaces. The problem seems to be deeper, more complicated and interconnected with deep-rooted problems we see in America.”
Yaeji addresses these problems, through her art. In “What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던,” Yaeji emphasizes the power and importance of the collective “we” over the individual “you” or “I.” In fact, in hindsight the mixtape’s title made her think of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign; though originally the title was meant to represent the world that she and her loved ones have created together, one where “the marginalized celebrate, communicate and uplift each other.”
“It’s not just about me, it’s not just about you,” she explains (inadvertently echoing Sanders’ motto, “not me, us”). “It can only be achieved because we are all here together, making an active effort to understand each other and empathize with each other. It’s not being complacent. It’s always being willing to learn, it’s lending a shoulder, it’s being all ears.”
Yaeji’s creative process is imbued with this collectivist spirit. Active listening and mutual understanding are central to her creative process. While Yaeji writes and produces all of her own music, when a track feels nearly complete, she tries to be collaborative and open as possible, inviting her friends over to her studio for listening sessions, bouncing off ideas with the people she loves and trusts.
“Because music is so deeply personal, it’s actually so important that someone else validates that for you, you know? So when you get someone else to listen to it, and they hear the things that you heard, or maybe they heard something different, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I learned something,’ that helps you feel like the track is done.”
In this sense, Yaeji’s music is both personal and universal, the product of her unique vision merged with the perspectives of those around her.
Yaeji’s collaboration extends beyond close friends and families as well. On her mixtape “What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던,” she worked with a number of other musicians: Nappy Nina, Lil Fayo, trenchcoat, Sweet Pea, YonYon, G.L.A.M, Victoria Sin and Shy One. One of Yaeji’s favorite songs on the mixtape, “THE TH1NG,” is a collaboration with the two multimedia artists Victoria Sin and Shy One, whom she met a couple years ago in London. The duo came up with the lyrics after Yaeji sent a “super barebone” track with no lyrics, other than her counting in Korean over a basic drum beat. With Sin and Shy One’s lyrical additions, the song morphed into something much more abstract and existential.
What if it all was just the same thing?
What if we all just become one thing?
What if we are all just the same thing?
What if we were the same being?
The song is “questioning something about our being and existence,” said Yaeji. “It’s always really fluid in what we can be. I think because of the dance nature music of it and the repetitive nature of them repeating ‘the thing’ it has this effect of making you wonder, or become really curious about, what is this thing that they’re talking about?”
In this sense, from Yaeji we learn that there is no “one thing,” but instead, that the world, like herself, is composed of many different things, some complementary, others contradictory, but all interconnected, all the same thing.
This interview was conducted at Yale University in music composer Trevor Baca’s course “American Neighborhood Musics.”
Kiddest Sinke | firstname.lastname@example.org