After taking a hammer to racism, Yaeji is left with only love

Posted on : 2023-04-12 17:05 KST Modified on : 2023-04-13 14:49 KST
The Korean American singer and producer’s debut studio album came out on XL Recordings on April 7
Singer and producer Yaeji released “With a Hammer” (XL Recordings) on April 7. (courtesy of Kang & Music)
Singer and producer Yaeji released “With a Hammer” (XL Recordings) on April 7. (courtesy of Kang & Music)

“Once I made a record expressing my rage over racism, all that was left in me was love.”

Korean American singer and producer Yaeji, 30, expressed such sentiments in her recent written interview with Hankyoreh. On Friday, she released her first full-length album, “With a Hammer,” with the prestigious UK independent label XL Recordings, joining the ranks of acts like Adele, Radiohead, Vampire Weekend and more who have released albums on the label.

Yaeji got her start in the music business in her hometown of NYC in 2016. Her electronic sound gained attention, earning her a nomination for the BBC’s Sound of 2018 and a spot on Pitchfork’s “25 Artists Shaping the Future of Music” list.

The producer and singer says that the album was inspired by the anger she felt at the racial injustices that escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Being in NYC during the pandemic meant that I saw Black people getting killed, Asians becoming targets of hate crimes simply for wearing masks, Muslims and Black people being labeled as terrorists, all while living in a harsh capitalist society that values money over human lives,” she said. “I felt a lot of rage and started to write my story based on that. However, when I finished the album, all I had left was love.”

“With a Hammer” album cover. (courtesy of Kang & Music)
“With a Hammer” album cover. (courtesy of Kang & Music)

Yaeji holds a large hammer, dubbed “Hammer Lee,” in both the album’s cover and in the music videos that accompany it. She says that she was inspired by “rage rooms” – places in South Korea where people go to pay to relieve stress by smashing things with a hammer.

“I wanted to see myself holding a hammer in the mirror. I wondered if that would make me see myself in a different light, if it would help me express my anger better. But in the end, the hammer became my best friend. It became something that taught me to love.”

“With a Hammer” took two years for Yaeji to complete, as she traveled between New York, Seoul and London. Through experimental electronic music and melodic indie pop, and lyrics that switch fluidly between Korean and English, Yaeji does not shy away from expressing her vulnerability, fear and anger. In the track “Passed Me By,” she confronts a younger version of herself — a version of her that felt lost as an American who looked Asian — and offers words of encouragement to other young Yaejis out there somewhere.

“Yes, I do face inequality sometimes, but I didn’t want to ignore everything else around me,” Yaeji stated. “It’s only natural that my music reflects my cultural background.”

Yaeji embarks on her North American tour this April and will perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival 2023, the largest music festival in North America, from April 14-16 and April 21-23.

“It’s been a while since I performed at Coachella, and since I toured. I’m grateful that I can get to do all of that again, and I want to celebrate it with all my heart. My voice can be the most exciting when I’m performing live, and I’ll be showing video content on the big screen, so that it will feel like the whole performance is a story. You’ll be able to see the stage transform into a club.”

By Suh Jeong-min, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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