Photo Courtesy of Emily Li

“Sorry I didn’t see your texts, I was in the city doing sessions,” Emily Li ’22 told me when we first met at Blue State.  

Sessions for what? Why would a student be in New York on a Tuesday? Not knowing enough about Li’s background before the interview, I was lost. Little did I know that Li, who moonlights as a senior cognitive science major in Timothy Dwight, is somewhat of a pop sensation. 

Known as Emei, Li is a singer-songwriter with 165,771 monthly listeners on Spotify and over fourteen-thousand followers on Instagram. Earlier this fall, she released her second single “Late to the Party,” which attracted over four-hundred thousand likes on Tik-Tok in a matter of weeks. Along with this growing fanbase came attention from record labels and critics. Li now regularly commutes from New Haven to Manhattan, where she develops her music with producers, meets with business managers and attorneys, and collaborates with other artists.

Although her original work has entered the mainstream only recently, Li has been on the path to pop idoldom for over a decade, since her parents inadvertently introduced her to the world of music. She grew up in suburban New Jersey in a Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrant family. On her ninth birthday, her parents bought her a pink laptop, which introduced Li to the world of music videos. She withdrew into her room and spent every hour searching for new artists. She replayed each song until she memorized the lyrics and, once thoroughly enthralled by the melodies, began to imitate her favorite artists. Everyday was a new round of karaoke: play, pause, sing, repeat, repeat, repeat. 

Neither of her parents, an accountant and an engineer, is particularly musical. But they recognized their daughter’s potential and hired a vocal coach. Not long after her age crossed into the double digits, the Li-family wunderkind was ready: Emily went on tour. 

The tour targeted the Chinese-American communities in the Tri-State area. Li traveled with her teacher to Flushing, Queens, over an hour away from home, where she would perform at restaurants and family gatherings. The young girl’s voice proved popular, and her audience relished her performances in Mandarin, their native tongue. The warm reactions spurred Emily to pursue music more and more seriously. As she rose through middle school, her specialty remained singing Chinese songs to Chinese audiences. 

At fifteen years old, Li placed well in a voice contest and realized her chance to break through. With the complete support of her parents, she decided to put high school on hold for a year and move to Shanghai on her own.

Li arrived in the megacity to compete in the second season of “Chinese Idol.” Similar to “American Idol,” the show brought singers in front of a panel to compete for the title of China’s best. On these new stages, the American teenager became the object of intrigue. The judges were impressed by her soft but precise voice as well as her versatility. Performing both Mandarin-language pieces and Top 40 staples such as “I Knew You Were Trouble” and the soundtrack of Frozen, Li ultimately placed third in “Chinese Idol.” Her success on the show provided an opening into every corner of the Chinese media landscape. She performed in different parts of the country, acted in other shows, and even transformed into a reality show host. As the presenter of an adventure-based series similar to Amazing Race, Li found herself on planes across Asia, Africa and even to Pacific Islands.
The experience travelling around the world was thrilling, but Li shared that it was also isolating. Li’s network provided an “assistant” to supervise the child star throughout her lone stay in China. Foreign managers prescribed her every move; sporadic facetime calls formed her only link to her friends from home. After a year of life as a full-time performer, Li returned home.

Back in the United States, Li picked up where she left off and unabashedly embraced her identity as the resident artistic tour de force. She joined dance groups, played the lead role in every high school musical, and traveled across New Jersey for all-state festivals. She was broadly following her previous path, but her return to America marked a critical personal transition: from a singer to a singer-songwriter

Li wanted to expand beyond exclusively performing other’s music, in order to connect singing with her own experiences and feelings. She attended a songwriting workshop and founded a songwriting club at her school. Ever since, she has stored passing thoughts and observations in a journal. Whenever the urge to write strikes — which usually, Li confides, is when she’s angry — she will open her journal and find an idea of kindling.

Li chose to attend Yale rather than a dedicated conservatory in order to have a more traditional college experience. None of Li’s first-year suitemates, three pre-med students and a poli sci major, were particularly musical. Nevertheless, the five girls bonded quickly and, today, still live together as seniors, years after the supposedly random housing draw made its match. Li herself isn’t majoring in music either — the department, she says, is too classically oriented. Instead, she discovered a knack for Cognitive Science while taking an intro course. She is now writing a thesis on the subject, finding time between recording sessions and studio meetings.

But when I suggested that Li seemed to have broadened her interests in college, she pushed back and said, “most of what I do is music.” In her first semester at Yale, Li met Caroline Ho ‘22, a pianist, cellist and composer with a burgeoning music career of her own. Realizing their mutual interest in music, the two began writing together, discovered a bassist and drummer among their classmates, and formed Timothy Dwight’s premier band: Grove. The quartet became a micro-icon, performing at almost every TD event and even debuting at the Radio House. Alongside singing for her homegrown ensemble, Li rushed Mixed Company, one of Yale’s coed acapella groups. Today, although Grove is defunct and she no longer performs acapella, she still remembers the experiences fondly.

If high school made her a songwriter, Li’s college days have made her an American songwriter. Growing up, Li had always imagined her career in China. After all, she became a singer within the diaspora community. Besides, her days with “Chinese Idol” had connected her with the film and music industries in China. As a college freshman, she even traveled back to the country in order to star in a movie. In 2019, Emily made her plans for the following summer: pursue Light Fellowship in Beijing, solidify her language skills and move closer to her future media-sphere. 

The pandemic canceled Li’s travel plans, and United States-China relations worsened. She found herself confronted with the question: could I succeed here? The question was answered when Li met a young music producer named Lucas Sim through a mutual friend. The duo clicked on a personal level as well as an artistic one. Last summer, Li moved with Lucas to California. Together, they created Emei’s most widely-acclaimed single yet: “Late to the Party.”

The idea of this song was born when Li scrawled in her journal, “have you noticed that in commercials we look more like parents than the kids?” The observation made her think about her age and led her to think about the Gen-Z influencer phenoms. Everyone else is passing life milestones and achieving commercial success, she thought, while she was staying still. Thus, the lyrics of “Late to the Party” demands,“Why is every seventeen year old a star? While I’m still trapped in my mom’s old car?” 

The theme is uncomfortably relatable, but Emei seems like an unlikely messenger. She is an impostor syndrome super spreader, who has been televised since before she could drive. Can she complain about being “late to the party” when she’s arrived so prodigiously early to it?

But what seems like irony, Li tells me, is actually her point. She recognizes her achievements, which nevertheless haven’t shielded her from anxiety and insecurity. In her case, the pressure in the music world has amplified these feelings. During her time in “Chinese Idol”, she was painfully aware of the expectations around her. “I think the reason I’m shorter than my siblings is because of ‘Chinese Idol,’” she said, joking about the immense stress she endured during her time in China. The critical attention generated by Li’s recent singles has brought her closer to her dream. But in the back of her mind, she knows that the buzz could end any second. “My next song could flop,” she said.

In Li’s Tik Tok — its.emei, 40k followers — there are two videos in which she lists “8 people who got a grammy before turning 21.” Lorde and Rihanna clearly aren’t just names on Li’s playlist—they’re her inspiration. She declares in the lyrics ofLate to the Party” that “I don’t want to care / how people look at me.” But at the same time, she sings and winks at her listeners, “but still can’t wait to get on tour.” 

Stardom is a dream for young singers, most of whom have never won an international voice contest and been dubbed an “alt-pop wonder” before graduating college. From the moment I sat down with Li at Blue State to the moment we left, she seemed confident and, with her track record, she should be. Just as the lyrics of Late to the Party sing,

“Twenty-onе without

A Grammy or degree

Too bad, that’s sad

Maybe at twenty-three”

Mahesh Agarwal writes for WKND. Originally from New Hampshire, he is a sophomore in Branford College tentatively majoring in either history or environmental studies.