For many, the two-day celebration of Asian music, culture, and food that was Head in the Clouds was the first music festival they’d attended since before the pandemic. The event, started by 88 Rising founder Sean Miyashiro, sought to bring only the best in Asian music to the stage, its lineup spanning genres. Between its mouth-watering lineup of food offerings, curated by the now legendary 626 Night Market, fans had plenty of exceptional vendors to choose from. Day one saw fans making hard-pressed decisions between acts and trying every food truck present — a dilemma made less aggravating given the proximity the festival’s two stages had to the eating areas.
Under what little warmth appeared for the afternoon, New Jersey-born R&B singer and rapper Audrey Nuna delivered a handful of songs off her recent debut album a liquid breakfast. Entrancing the early arrivers with her concussive, biting, and all-around volatile bars, Nuna was a tour-de-force of energy that burned like a wildfire through the crowd that gathered at the Double Happiness stage.
Rei Ami, a Seoul-born, Maryland-based musician that’s taken the world by storm with her virulent and punchy pop pieces, as well as her “Hello Kitty with a knife” persona — exploded onstage in a spectacular fashion. Surrounded by her dancers, Rei Ami might’ve walked out onto the smaller stage at Head in the Clouds, but you would’ve been hard-pressed to believe that while she was burning it down with her inflammatory set, one that featured heavily her debut album FOIL which dropped this year.
Later in the evening at the Double Happiness stage Seattle-native, R&B and neo-soul rising-star Umi kept fans warm with the tender intimacy of her jazz-inflected songs. With just one album out, Introspection Reimagined, a collection of reworked songs from a previous EP, Umi gushed with gratitude at the crowd that had gathered to hear her, and she thanked them by assuaging their anxieties with her soothing croons.
Japanese Breakfast closed out the Double Happiness stage, banging out the hits to paraphrase Michelle Zauner, the radiant creative mind behind the band. Brining the bulk of rock to day one’s festivities, Zauner and her band (which included bandmate and husband Peter Bradley) opened with the ecstatic one-two-punch of the first two songs off her latest album Paprika, as well as performing one dreamy song from the soundtrack she created for the video-game, Sable.
Over on the 88 stage, rap phenomenon Saweetie pulled out all the stops to keep the huge crowds that gathered in front of her something to keep screaming about. A true show stopper, at one point bringing out five “Icy” chains to throw to deserving fans, walking across the stage rapping the “Icy Grl” freestyle that first put her on the map and holding out the mic to hear who was rapping all the words back. She also made a point to celebrate all the “Asian kings and queens” in the audience, before diving right back into her short but eruptive set.
For its finale, however, Head in the Clouds reserved a flammable spectacle that involved the viral sensation himself: Rich Brian. Even when he wasn’t flanked by the over six-foot-tall flames that burst onstage around him, Rich Brian, shimmering and bedazzled in his all-white get-up, shut down the festival with his bombastic but introspective bars.
After two successful years at Los Angeles Historic Park in 2018 and 2019, the festival’s move to the larger fields that surround the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for its 2021 return was a necessary one. It gave fans the space to comfortably enjoy all that the event had to offer, and in light of the tragedy at Astroworld, the event made adjustments in its emphasis on crowd control, handing out waters to fans in the crowd and making announcements to be mindful of those upfront.
Head In The Clouds itself also couldn’t have come at a better time, occurring not only in earnest after two years of lockdown but also under the shadow of increased racist violence against Asian-Americans. But in the chill of Pasadena canyons and under the neon-ethereal lights that burned to light the fields at Head in the Clouds, fans huddled together in celebration of the endless and rich offerings of Asian culture, reveling in it together.
Words & Photography: Steven Ward