"Nothing kicks your ass into motion like living back at home as an adult," says music producer Jennifer Lee.
Referring to her life nearly a decade ago, when she was just beginning to release beats under the moniker TOKiMONSTA, Lee explains: "Once I decided to do music, that's all I did. I had money saved from my previous career and I was living at home, so financially I was stable enough. I was probably a little rickety for a year, but everything improved from there."
To say that Lee's career "improved" would be putting it mildly. After quitting her job as a business coordinator for a video game publisher, she threw herself into DJing at nightclubs around the Los Angeles area, converting her longtime hobby into a full-time profession. Only a year later, she released her debut album Midnight Menu under Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label, and was able to move out of her mother’s house. Now, at 32, she's released five full-length albums and six EPs, and was just nominated for a Grammy in the Best Dance/Electronic Album category for Lune Rouge, her 2017 album written in the aftermath of her life-saving brain surgery.
Raised by a single mother in the tidy suburbs of Torrance, California, Lee was experimenting with making beats as early as high school, but had brushed off her interest in music as "purely [a] hobby" for the majority of her early life.
"In my case, growing up in an Asian immigrant family, there is this pressure," Lee says. "Deeply ingrained is this idea that you 'owe' it to [your family] to do what they want you to do. I held onto that idea for so long—until I abandoned it. When I decided to do music, I made a decision that was for me and not for anyone else. Nothing is ever guaranteed, but I didn't want to regret not trying."
Her mom, she says, "wasn't pleased" when she decided to pursue music as a career, but Lee reasoned that, "If I became a lawyer and hated it, it wasn't my mom that would have to live this resentful and regretful life." Besides, "the willpower to prove [people] wrong makes you try harder. I think when you're thinking of your career, you should be mostly thinking for yourself."
While her music is an intricate flurry of synth and drums, when Jennifer Lee speaks, she uses concise, exact language. When Lee discusses her stage name, she dismisses it as an old screenname (a mash-up of "toki," the Korean word for "rabbit," and "monster"), but then cryptically concludes, "It has more significance now. To adopt the cute with the ugly, the soft and hard, the joy and pain."
Never has Lee's inclination for privacy been more apparent than when she was struggling with brain damage. In late 2015, after experiencing a number of stroke-like symptoms, including severe migraines and temporarily losing sensation in parts of her body, Lee was diagnosed with Moyamoya, a rare and poorly understood brain disorder that gradually restricts blood flow to the brain. When Moyamoya is left untreated, patients usually die before the age of 40. Suddenly confronted with the potential imminence of her death, Lee flew to Stanford University's Moyamoya Center and underwent two surgeries a month after her diagnosis. Beyond her close friends and family, no one knew about Lee's condition, or her surgery.
Even though the hours of artery transplants and brain reconfiguration paid off—Lee now has healthy channels of blood flowing to her brain—in the weeks after the surgery, she says her mind was unable to comprehend language and music, and that all conversations and songs sounded to her like raucous, metallic noise.
In an essay she published in Pitchfork about her illness and recovery, Lee writes: "I tried to make music, and it was just garbage. The part of my brain that knew how to put sounds together was broken.... I didn't want to pity myself, but it was a heart-wrenching pain."
Not until months after her surgery was Lee ready to produce "I Wish I Could," her first successful song post-surgery. (It's now one of the most popular tracks on Lune Rouge.) Lee says her musical instincts gradually returned to her, as did her ability to speak and understand language. Within the same year as her surgery, Lee had recuperated well enough to perform at Coachella to a crowd of thousands, and headline a tour across the United States.
In that same Pitchfork essay about her recovery and rediscovery of music, Lee offers a humble exhortation: "If I can do something like this, anyone can."
Lee's determined attitude goes beyond her struggle with Moyamoya; she is similarly driven to foil people's diminutive perceptions of her, especially the ones that stem from her sex and ethnicity.
"I am Asian American and one of very few people representing our group in music. I cannot ignore that," Lee says. "In the past, I tried not to be too political because I didn't want to steer focus away from my music. But lately, I've become more outspoken because I think it's important for people like me—Asians, women, and minority groups—to know that I care about us. If I saw more people like me growing up, I would have felt more confident going into this field."
"I grew up in a mostly ethnically diverse area, so I never felt too out of touch with who I was as a Korean American," Lee says. "Being an Asian woman is not a disability, and at the same time it should not be used as a crutch. It is who I am, and I can't change it."
"After making music for nearly 10 years, I think I've proven myself," Lee continues. "It's unfortunate that I had to 'prove myself' as a female producer, but hopefully the next generation will not have to deal with the doubt that was presented to me as an emerging artist."
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