Image courtesy of 88rising

NIKI is on a mission to reverse the underrepresentation of Asian artists

With the release of her debut album 'Moonchild' on 88rising, the Jakarta-born, LA-based artist cements her position as role model and future star.

by Briony Wright
21 October 2020, 8:09pm

Image courtesy of 88rising

NIKI is a 21-year-old Jakartan singer, songwriter and producer who just released her debut album, Moonchild, a genre-fluid opus in three parts. Now based in LA and signed to Sean Miyashiro’s 88rising label, her rise contains echoes of Justin Bieber’s well-documented origin story. At 15, as a self-declared ‘foot-of-the-bed guitar-girl’, NIKI entered a competition to support Taylor Swift on the Indonesian leg of her tour. Reader: she won the contest. Pretty soon she was performing her original songs to an arena full of Swifties, a moment she describes as ‘truly surreal’.

“It was 15 minutes but it felt like five seconds,” NIKI says. “I half expected everybody to boo me off stage, so it was exciting to get such a positive reaction to my music.” With momentum building, she began sharing her music on YouTube, where people quickly picked up on her natural talent and easy charm. A few years later, she moved to America to study music in Nashville, later dropping out and shifting focus to her quickly evolving career.

With an EP, mixtape and now album under her belt, NIKI’s at the heart of a movement helmed by 88rising: a collective on a mission to change the historical underrepresentation of Asian artists. Along with label mates like Joji from Japan and fellow Jakartan Rich Brian, NIKI is showing her 1.2m Instagram followers — in particular the young creatives who look like her — that all this and more is possible.

“It’s just so important to me that Asian kids out there feel represented and seen,” she explains. “Growing up I rarely saw anyone I could relate to. When you’re watching a movie and there’s no one who looks like you physically, it’s a formative thing. If you don’t see yourself represented it gives you false ideas of what you can and can’t achieve. It’s so important to me that this generation has people to look up to and see that if I can do it, they can do it too.”

2020 is an interesting time for music coming out of East and South East Asia. Where Korean idol groups like BTS and BLACKPINK are taking over the world with their flawless pop, 88rising’s artists are doing it as their relatable and rebellious cousins. Where others are seen to stick to the script, these guys are writing their own rulebooks as they go. All are digital polymaths who grew up and found fame on YouTube, all are just as comfortable performing funny skits as they are releasing epic music videos or sharing their beauty routines. They’re all firmly in control of their own narratives.

In the past few years we’ve seen NIKI grow from singing about young love and hanging out with friends across soulful R&B tracks like “See U Never” and “Vintage”, to exploring more mature relationships and tackling themes of identity and empowerment. Moonchild — a concept album loosely tracing NIKI’s own journey — was made before COVID hit and released during lockdown. It’s an album full of big, addictive pop songs (“Switchblade” gives us hints of Lorde, “Plot Twist” is a total banger) with a generous dose of ballad (“Lose” might just make you cry). But ultimately, it’s a beautiful record about self-discovery.

NIKI’s biggest regret right now is not being able to tour the album she’s dedicated two whole years to making. “I think what it’s taught me is to slow down, and to appreciate slowing down,” she says of the pandemic. “When you’re on the go all the time you can miss the little things, the little joys in life. Honestly this has been a time of self-growth and reflection, a time of stillness I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” Of the music videos made during lockdown, she has a couple of favourites. “I love “Plot Twist” because I’m a huge lover of Disney and this was like my childhood dreams of playing dress-up. I also really liked working on “Indigo” for Head in the Clouds 2, which was like my 90s witchy alter ego coming to life.”

Right now NIKI is basking in the glow of her new album and looking forward to one day performing it live. More immediately, she hopes she might be able to travel home to see her family in Indonesia for Christmas… but she’s not holding her breath. Thankfully, in LA she’s got her 88rising family, who continue to support their artists with regular compilation mixtapes, label showcases and above all, friendship. It’s a model that lifts their artists individually as well as part of a collective, and it’s the kind of model that means we’ll be hearing a lot more from NIKI in the future.

Moonchild is out now on 88rising

i-D Asia