A fiercely independent artist, Fifi Rong has carved a career path as unique as her music. In the lead up to her forthcoming EP, she speaks with Clovis McEvoy about drawing inspiration from her heritage, making sacrifices for art, and the paradigm shift of web3.
“It was considered impossible by my family, they thought I was crazy in the beginning,” says Fifi Rong, and, under the circumstances, it’s not hard to see why they felt that way. These days, the Chinese-British artist can point to any number of career highlights – she’s collaborated with trip-hop trailblazer, Tricky, toured her music internationally, and now works at the forefront of the web3 music industry – but when Fifi first set foot in the UK, aged 16 and with only herself to depend on, the challenge of becoming a professional musician seemed insurmountable.
“This was not an easy choice; it was a huge risk,” she continues. “The obstacles – psychological, cultural, practical – were just so high. But I went for it because I wanted to do impossible things.” Having that clear-eyed sense of the challenges ahead, and the dogged determination necessary to overcome them, was key to how Fifi has not only built a successful career, but remained resolutely independent throughout.
Of course, becoming a “one woman music factory”, as she describes herself, did not happen overnight. Upon her arrival in the UK, Fifi’s initial steps were the practical ones laid out by her family: she studied Economics and ultimately attained a master’s degree in the field. Yet all the while, she was growing increasingly convinced that her long-held dream of making music was not as far-fetched as she ha’d been told. “It’s like supply and demand,” Fifi says, recalling her thought process at the time. “I am a rarity here; other Chinese people have gone back to their parents, or gone into accounting or banking. There are very few who choose music, and this makes my work special.”
Since her first release in 2013, Fifi has indeed brought a distinctive perspective to her music, establishing herself as a multigenre producer and songwriter capable of blending an array of eastern and western influences. “I have carried Chinese Opera, from my time in China, over to my music — all those revolutionary songs that I absorbed from my parents,” she says. “But then I was also hugely influenced by dubstep, grime, UK garage, and reggae.”
The resulting music is a dark and luscious brand of avant-garde pop that filters both traditional and modern influences through Fifi’s distinctive aesthetic. However, while she felt comfortable bringing Chinese culture into her music, Fifi says she initially resisted drawing upon those same influences to create the striking imagery that has now become so intimately associated with her work.
“Web3 gives artists the encouragement to get their true selves out there, whatever that is.”
— Fifi Rong
“I was very hesitant,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to show my face, I didn’t want to be seen as a Barbie doll and get called beautiful. I hated all that. I just wanted people to listen to my music.” Over time, Fifi says she grew more comfortable experimenting with her image in fashion and visual arts, seeing it as another opportunity to showcase the rich visual traditions that she grew up with and further distinguish herself within the UK music scene.
“From the start, I wanted to bring my culture into the West,” she says. “To show that there is so much more to Chinese culture than many people realise. Most people have just seen Hollywood movies with Geisha or something. So, I took on this dark, ‘no one can fuck with me’ look – and hey, I dominate this vibe.”
Perhaps the purest expression of Fifi’s musical style to date came with 2021’s double album, There Is A Funeral In My Heart, For Every Man I Loved. Released in both English and Chinese, the album – which Fifi wrote, recorded, and produced – is a remarkable achievement for a solo artist. Made over the course of five years, and whittled down from over 100 demos, its 12 original tracks centre around a woman caught in a cycle of love and loss; repeatedly choosing to reach out for a connection, whilst knowing that she will eventually be forced to let go.
Originally written in English, Fifi chose not to translate her lyrics for the Chinese version of the album. Instead, using the same melodies, she rewrote the lyrics for her native tongue, capturing the “creative intention” of the English original, whilst adding deeper layers of cultural meaning to the album’s deeply cathartic narrative. “I’ve seen myself, from the very beginning, as a poet,” she reflects. “When I was very young, before I had any idea that I had musical talent, I would write; I would mark down and document my emotional life because I wanted to be understood.”
In the months leading up to the album’s release, Fifi was simultaneously beginning to take note of the still embryonic web3 music scene, and ultimately became one of the earliest musicians to engage with the space.
In contrast to many other artists, when Fifi first began to experiment with blockchain technology, she was already well-versed in the kind of independent monetisation and fan-building strategies now associated with web3. She had already successfully crowdfunded a number of her EP’s and albums without record label backing, built an engaged online community, and experimented with innovative perks for backers and fans, such as VIP chats and group calls. In terms of her career, moving into this new space was less a radical departure as it was a natural progression towards the values that she had always prized – freedom, creativity, and independence.
However, where Fifi did see an immediate paradigm shift between web2 and web3 was in the tone and tenor of her interactions with supporters. “In web3 there’s less of a hierarchy in the relationship between the artists and the fans,” she says. “I’m not on a pedestal, and I think that’s much better from a mental health perspective for the artist.”
As she began releasing tracks from her double album as NFTs, Fifi quickly found that the walls and facades which felt necessary in web2 had fallen away, leaving her able to bring a new authenticity to her interactions. “I don’t want to put on a persona,” she says. “I have a very primal need to be understood and that's why I write songs. I want people to understand the subtlety and the truth that's in me – but in web2, the bigger you are as an artist, the more of a persona you need to put on. This place is the opposite; I can be fully myself here.”
“In web2, the bigger you are as an artist, the more of a persona you need to put on. This place is the opposite; I can be fully myself here.”
— Fifi Rong
Since her first NFT drops, Fifi has flourished in the web3 music scene. She’s released a number of sold-out collections, and, in early 2022, partnered with fellow web3 pioneer, Nifty Sax to create the Harmony Collection. The saxophonist and web3 label owner – with whom Fifi also works at the Nifty Music Academy to support aspiring musicians in web3 – is known for his spacious and calming instrumental music. Together, they released a set of seven meditative tracks. Drawing inspiration from the chakras found across numerous Asian philosophical and religious traditions, the music is a gorgeously ambient amalgamation of their two styles.
In parallel with her Harmony Collection project, Fifi also began her ambitious Yi Jing Live video series. Drawing deeply from Chinese history, mythology, and culture, Fifi takes the concept of a ‘live in the studio’ performance and elevates it into something dreamlike and ephemeral. With the production value and artistic vision of a short film, each episode is bursting with vivid colour and evocative imagery, intended to “translate” what Fifi does musically into the visual realm.
“The transition to web3 has impacted my whole being.”
— Fifi Rong
“There's a beautiful, long history – we claim 5,000 years of history in China – and you can really go back and make a cultural bridge from there to the West,” she says. “So, I’m playing with the avant garde, with sexiness, with tradition, to express the combination of two different origins. That combination is something unique, and that is extremely important to my art.”
Having recently wrapped up filming season one, she’s hard at work planning Yi Jing season two, which is intended to tie into a forthcoming series of EPs and NFT releases. The first in this new musical series, Hopium, is set for release in early 2023, and Fifi says it will be her biggest web3 project yet. However, she makes it clear that these EPs will also mark a change in direction from 2021's double album. “There Is A Funeral In My Heart was kind of extreme,” says Fifi. “It was the best I could possibly do and went deep into this ‘melancholic romanticism’ vibe. I wouldn’t want to compete with myself. Next, I’d like to do something bold, something fun.”
Hopium charts her journey in the web3 space so far, and will embrace the new level of creative freedom that the community has given her. “With Hopium,” she explains, “I'm putting in Beijing opera, trip hop, and hyper pop, together with ambient soundscapes — sometimes within one track! Because I’m free. Who can tell me that I can’t do this? Web3 gives artists the encouragement to get their true selves out there, whatever that is.”
Running through Fifi’s career, and the themes that she explores within her work, is a fearless pursuit of the right to self-expression. To follow one’s creative whims, wherever they may lead, is a privilege that some might take for granted, but one that Fifi has sacrificed much to achieve. Music was not a luxury, nor an idle pursuit, but the vehicle through which she attained personal freedom.
Within web3, Fifi has finally found a community which matches her values. Becoming part of that community has, in turn, profoundly impacted Fifi’s art and her very conception of what a music career can be. “Web3 is a catalyst,” she says. “Sometimes one catalyst can trigger a knock-on effect in your entire life. In web2, we only knew one definition of what it means to be successful in music. Through the emergence of web3, I started to question what success means. This transition that I have taken has impacted my whole being.”
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