How Yaeji is creating an inclusive dance party inspired by an online video game

By Jeff Ihaza
Updated:

It's hard to imagine not having come into contact with Yaeji's music in the past two years. Her single "Raingurl" quickly became ubiquitous on streaming playlists, and her performances at festivals and clubs around the world would eventually catapult the 26-year-old Queens native into a new form of superstardom. At the center of it all has been a undying sense of communion with the audience. Before the tours and magazine covers, Yaeji, née Kathy Lee, was a fixture in Brooklyn's underground party circuit, where she developed relationships with the city's sprawling dance music community.

In fact, it was her "Yaeji and Friends" party series that brought the young musician to national — and eventually global — prominence. There, Lee's friends and collaborators created intimate settings for talent and community to develop. Now, following several months of touring, and diligently working on a new project. Yaeji's returning to her original formula, enlisting the Brooklyn community that nurtured her for an expansive party themed after a little known online RPG where users could take on whatever identity they see fit. Dubbed Elancia, the party is chiefly concerned with creating a safe and diverse lineup as well as dance floor — baking those inherently political goals into the production.

On a recent afternoon, I met Yaeji at her Bushwick studio where she discussed the idea behind her new party — which takes place September 6th in Brooklyn — and the future of her music.

So is this an evolution of the Yaeji and friends parties?

Yeah. I definitely haven't talked about it that way, but to me it is, because there just came a point where 'Yaeji and Friends' didn't feel like what I wanted it to feel like. It didn't feel as intimate anymore and it didn't feel maybe as much about music as I wanted it to be in some ways. So I was like, maybe it's hard for me to put my name on it and also have it be at the intimate scale that I want it to be. Maybe that just doesn't make sense. And there are all these people that I know and love in New York that are doing these amazing parties, and they honestly don't get the shine because they're always busy booking, organizing, or flying in someone from out of town. So for the first time all of these different parties that I know are coming together to enjoy themselves. Sharing a little bit of the world they've created in New York. I think the crowd is going to be wild for that reason because all of these parties have such a specific crowd that's all diverse in different ways.

It seems like each of the groups that you've selected represent a distinct demographic. Was that important to you? Making sure you have Brooklyn OG's Soul Summit as well as a queer party like Papi Juice.

Yeah, I think it was important for us to reach out to Soul Summit because that feels really rooted to Brooklyn and rooted to New York for me. They've been doing this for 16 years and whenever I go, I really have the best time and really learn a lot. It just seemed really crucial to include them, especially because the organizers are way older, too. And there's a lot that we constantly learn from them. And we kind of want to show them what younger people are doing right now in the dance music scene in New York. And then with these other crews, I guess I kind of have a little bit of a story with each of them. But yeah, many of them are definitely POC centric and very clear about that aim. Hot and spicy for example is all about POC to the front. And they are very vocal that there is no homophobia, no racism, no transphobia allowed on the dance floor and they have a system where you can find a person with a bright red bracelet and seek help from them if there's any issue. A lot of dance floor monitoring that is very vocal, but at the same time positive and making it safe. And I see that a lot with my friend's parties. That's very important.

Your music is played everywhere, and you've been touring around the world, but you've decided to do something at home and do something at home that is specifically empowering groups that are disenfranchised on a larger scale. Is that something that's intentional for you?

I think all of this is very grounding for me. Because, it's been a while since I dropped some music, but everything happened really fast and in a lot of ways I just wasn't ready for that kind of pacing. So I think Brooklyn has always offered me home and always offered me so much inspiration. A lot of it really comes from going out to these parties and these people that I know inspire me with what they're doing. And so the Yaeji project in and of itself isn't really just me in my head and it has to do with a lot of the people that are involved in this party as well as the people I am surrounded by. So I think one that's really important for me to share and return that gratitude.

RobynVEVO on YouTube

Do you think there's a lot that could be done in terms of empowering those voices and empowering that safety that you were mentioning before? Like having dance floor monitoring and things like that happen?

Yeah, I definitely have a lot of thoughts like that while touring. I think actually though, I guess I go out most in New York, so I'm sure I know it better than other cities. I'm touring just for a second. But it does seem like what we have here is the best version of what I've seen so far in the sense that people are aware of certain issues and clearly addressing them. And it seems like, generally, people that listen to this music or come to these events are at least aware when something is wrong. So it's like let's like teach ourselves what's happening and fix the things that can maybe make people feel better and more safe. And it's a group effort and a group conversation that's going on, which I guess kind of speaks to just New York in general.

In curating this party, is diversity something that comes to mind, with everyone bringing their specific kind of crowd with them creating a NY-style melting pot?

Yeah, definitely. It's going to be a different melting pot in that all of these parties are already such an open minded melting pot of their own.

Yaeji on YouTube

What's behind the name?

There's this Korean online game called Elancia where you can interact with other people that are playing the game too and have conversations. So, the first place I experienced betrayal in my life was in this game. Because I was so young, I was like nine or something. maybe 10. And somebody just took my money and didn't give me any goods. [laughs] So, I just remember being devastated in front of the computer. Like I couldn't even talk to anyone. But at the same time, it was a magical fantastical world where you can pursue any type of career. There are infinite options and you can change your career at any point in the game. You can change your gender, you can change your race.

So it's a pretty clear metaphor.

Yeah. Which is cool to think about now, because I was so young and I didn't really think about these things. It's a lot about growth. So yeah. Now it seems super metaphorical unintentionally.

This is also a new kind of experience for your fans, too. Instead of putting something out in the traditional sense, you're creating something for them to participate in.

Yeah.

But, I'm sure fans will want to know, are you recording new music? What's the future for Yaeji as the music project?

I can't say too much, but there's new music. There's specifically a project that I am indeed going to drop next year. My goal is to drop it on the earlier end of the year. And I've been working on it for — yeah, all of these years, I guess.