By Jocelle Koh
Thumbnail by Allison Sun
Jazz/Urban Taiwanese artist 9m88 (pronounced Joanne Baba) is by no means a clear-cut personality. From the moment the indie darling has stepped onto the Taiwanese music scene, her methods and mindset have been unconventional to say the least. Sporting a shock of curly hair and pulling off the wackiest, most fashion-forward looks this industry has seen in a while, her visual aesthetic is just one of the many ways in which the quirky artist stands out.
Even more so, her uncompromising approach to expressing herself accurately and the high expectations which she holds herself to are what makes the charming artist refreshing in a gaggle of yes-men. For Baba, her creative process is not about the goal; but rather about being present throughout the journey; something which comes through strongly in the chanteuse’s debut album ‘Beyond Mediocrity 平庸之上’:
“Some of the songs like ‘Leftlovers 廚餘戀人’, ‘Waste of Time 浪費時間’, ‘Love Rain 愛情與’ were already there. I wrote them a while ago… it’s just about my personality… I love to tell bittersweet stuff. I want to tell some sarcastic moments of my life, almost making fun of myself… so I was trying to sum up what I want, who I really am and what I really want to tell … and then I’m (also) trying to pave the way to telling people like, ‘oh yeah, at this age I’m feeling mediocre. And I want to break through this, but it’s hard and there’s like a lot of struggles, like inner battles…so I’m trying to write some other songs like ‘Beyond Mediocrity 平庸之上’ and ‘Aim High’ through this path…”
An album that was over a year in the making; ‘Beyond Mediocrity 平庸之上’ is an eclectic mix of musical titbits that showcase Baba’s personality, sense of humour and quirkily honest point of view. Yet simultaneously it is reflective of the bigger innermost conflicts the artist struggles with, digging deep into her insecurities and ambition to create a deliciously complex record. But the process was not always smooth sailing, with the biggest critic being Baba herself.
“I guess it’s just the way I do things. Because you feel you’re obliged to make it happen. And it’s based on my former experience, like … you just have to do it … there’s a lot of thoughts going on, like, maybe I’m not gonna do it well, or … people would expect it differently. But I guess it’s a spirit, you just have to finish it.”
The artist’s fighting spirit is but one of the things that makes her a venerable female role model in this day and age. Not your stereotypical fair-skinned Asian beauty, 9m88’s confidence in her own skin, diverse musical offerings and unique renegotiation of her femininity already have had a positive impact on her female listeners.
“Some of them message me. They’re telling me ‘Oh yeah, I don’t feel quite confident about myself. Because I’m not that beautiful compared to other girls. And I’m not the skinny slender beauty. But after listening to your music, I feel there’s options and I can just do whatever I want and try not to fall into the trap of, you know, stereotypes…’ they have motivation suddenly and try to eat healthily, try to work out, try to make more friends and … I don’t think it’s only because of myself but maybe as a starting point or something…”
Digging deeper to learn more about how Baba came to have such non-traditional ideas about gender, the singer-songwriter casually put it down to her upbringing and her innately strong opinions.
“I guess I grew up not being the typical cutest girl in class. And I’m kind of in the middle of like, I’m good friends with guys … and not the kind of girl other girls will be jealous of … And I guess my mom didn’t teach me that way to be like, as a woman, you have to be like this or that … I have strong opinions about being who I am… And I really hate some stereotypical thoughts about women. Still until now, so I’m trying to fight back with those thoughts and I just want to put this idea into my music…”
And it’s not just modern forward-thinking female listeners who find 9m88’s music relatable. Indeed, Baba’s is so diverse in themes and styles (Jazz/R&B/Hip Hop/Pop…) that there is something for everyone. From young children to the LGBTQ community, their unique interpretations give the singer all the warm fuzzies.
“I have some special listeners, like three years old, or like elementary school students, I feel really good about that. Because it means they like the music itself. And they are not sold to the idea of core coolness or anything else. They just like the melody…When I was performing in Japan, a dad brought his daughter, around three years old. And she has curly hair. And she came to the show and she asked for a signature and her dad was like, ‘Oh, she likes you so much because she thinks you guys look alike… and she wants to be like you when she grows up’… Cuz I assume she has natural curly hair, which I don’t really have. But maybe it encourages her to feel like yeah, it’s cool.”
It’s impossibly hard to summarise who 9m88 is in just a few words. But to me, that’s what’s so exciting about her appearance onto the scene and rising influence within the community. That her identity and persona is ever-evolving and changing; yet maintains its uniqueness all at the same time. Because in all her rawness and beauty, in spite of the inconsistency and flaws she openly discusses in her music, 9m88 represents what it means to be human.
We are complex beings, and not all of what we do makes sense. But we can still learn to embrace this complexity; to challenge ourselves to think more deeply about our actions and the world around us, and to think about what drives us to lead meaningful lives on the daily. And for Baba, it’s about learning how to go a little more beyond her definition of mediocrity one day at a time.
9m88’s latest album ‘Beyond Mediocrity 平庸之上’ is out now on all major streaming platforms.