Dyan Tai on performance, representation and their stunning new single, ‘Freedom’

Dyan Tai on the set of the 'Freedom' music video. Photo: supplied.

Dyan Tai opens up to the Sentinel about their new single Freedom and the intricacies of creating multi-faceted art. By Mike Hitch.

While Sydney’s creative community continues to gain recognition across the globe, it can also fall victim to the boredom of hegemony, unless that creativity draws from outside influences.

Dyan Tai, the self-proclaimed Asian Empress of the gay streets of Sydney, is an up-and-coming singer, songwriter, producer and performance artist who is battling against creative tedium by combining their Malaysian heritage with a penchant for pop – culminating in their latest release, Freedom.

Speaking about Freedom – a compelling work of pulsating beats, reverbed operatic echoes and spatterings of Chinese instrumentation – Tai revealed to the Sentinel that Freedom‘s inspiration came from their personal growth after migrating from conservative Malaysia to Australia.

“I wrote this song earlier this year at the start of Covid, and I finally got around to releasing it because I wanted to do something for myself,” Tai says, as we share a laugh over the creative horrors imposed by Covid-19 lockdown.

“2020’s been a hard year … a challenging year for a lot of people, so it’s important to do things for yourself. 

“[Freedom] is looking at my personal journey, and also the journeys of queer Asian people and queer, trans people of colour (POC). I can’t speak for everyone, but I grew up in conservative Malaysia and then moved to Australia, so it really speaks about that.

“I grew up in a small town called Ipoh, so growing up I didn’t have a queer role model to look up to, and we’re constantly being told that it’s ‘just a phase’ or ‘you’re going to hell’ or ‘it’s not normal’,” Tai explains.

“Malaysia is a Muslim country. While I’m not Muslim, it’s something that plays a huge part in Malaysia’s social interactions and cultural practices.

“So, Freedom is really about me reflecting on how I had to liberate myself from that situation … queer people exist in Malaysia and everywhere, but a lot of them choose to blend in. The problem with blending in is that people don’t think you exist, LGBTQI people don’t exist.”

Tai also draws inspiration from a wide palette of musical acts who can be considered iconoclasts within queer culture, from the experimental production of FKA Twigs to the gooey upbeat pop of Years and Years. 

However, aside from musical influences, Tai draws equal inspiration from art.

Freedom acts as a piece of concept art that exists in three parts: a studio single, a music video and a live performance – all of which embody different elements of Tai’s reflection of heritage and community. 

Dyan Tai behind the scenes on the Freedom music video. Image: supplied.

“For me, I always feel like I’m not purely just a singer who produces their music. I call myself a performance artist first and foremost because it’s a very powerful tool to connect with people,” Tai says, reflecting on these distinct separations.

The live performance of Freedom is set to debut in February as part of ‘Queer Nu Werk‘, presented by Performance Space and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

While the performance piece is still in development due to setbacks caused by Covid-19, Tai hopes to create art that’s similar to the music video, especially in its depictions of queer identity, Asian heritage and the creation of community.

The music video for Freedom, released last week, features an all queer Asian cast and creative team, including direction by Chris Quyen from SBS TV’s Hungry Ghosts, choreography by ‘bootylesque’ artist Demon Derriere, and costumes designed by Erin Carroll and Youkhana.

Tai notes that performance is just as important as the music itself, and considers the video a separate entity of performance art, complete with a modern interpretation of the Chinese water sleeve dance, pastel mood lighting and Chinese operatic makeup.

While the single embodies Tai’s personal discovery of ‘freedom’, the music video embodies a grander sense of ‘community’, and the freedom that comes with finding others who share your experience. 

“For me, the reason why I got into this and fell in love with it was because, looking back at my performances in cabaret spaces, I found myself to be one of the only queer Asian artists or even queer POC performing at gay venues,” Tai says through careful pauses.

Tai doesn’t want their artistic efforts to be read as a criticism of Sydney’s gay scene but, rather, a way to showcase talent and beauty that falls outside the ‘norm’. 

“Things are improving, and people are consciously being more inclusive. So, I thought I’d experiment with these sounds which I knew I wanted to part of my performance.

“There aren’t a lot of queer Asian performers here in Sydney, so when I have the opportunity and the platform to be seen, I want to bring my culture and my story through my performance.

“I feel like we need to see ourselves on TV and on stage to feel represented, to feel like we exist. We have stories to tell, and I think people want to see them and hear them – now more than ever.”

Freedom by Dyan Tai is now available to buy or stream. For more on Dyan Tai, visit www.dyantai.com.

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