Eight years ago, Sean Miyashiro founded the music and media company 88rising in New York with one simple aim – to represent immigrants, of Asian descent and otherwise. Since then, the brand has snowballed into one of the most well-respected music companies in the world, known for its finger-on-the-pulse taste and history-making collaborations. As it has grown, several offshoots have been launched – most notably the fun-filled festival celebrating the music, culture and food of the Asian diaspora, Head In The Clouds. Nearly a decade since the now-LA-based 88rising began and five years after the first edition of the event, this weekend (May 20-21), for the first time, HITC brings the label home.
While New York might have personal significance in 88rising’s original story, the location for HITC NY – Forest Hills, Queens – is also highly fitting. The borough is often dubbed “the world’s borough” thanks to the overwhelming number of its residents who are from or whose heritage are tied to other parts of the world. The festival’s line-up more than matches up to the area’s nickname, transporting attendees across Asia, America and beyond, delivering different sounds, styles and languages in one exciting bill.
On Saturday – amid a downpour that threatens to dampen HITC’s spirits but, instead, only seems to lift the crowd’s energy higher – we go from New Jersey all the way to Jakarta. Rapper Spence Lee makes the hop across the Hudson to deliver a rain-soaked set on the Double Happiness stage, getting the huddle of bodies draped in waterproof ponchos to bob along to the easygoing bounce of ‘On God’. Later, on the same stage, San Diego producer ISOxo turns the concrete space in front of him into a fist-pumping, electric rave.
Over on the main stage, Filipino indie star Beabadoobee throws things back with the hook-filled 2019 single ‘She Plays Bass’, but keeps one eye on the horizon. The recently released ‘Glue Song’ forms a swooning highlight of her performance, made all the more romantic by the rain. Indonesian rapper and 88rising mainstay Warren Hue, meanwhile, splits his set in two – first, backed by a DJ for commanding renditions of ‘Star In Love’ (which he opens with a refrain of NewJeans’ ‘OMG’) and the hectic pace of ‘omomo punk’. For the latter half, he’s joined by a guitarist and bassist, who help bring more depth to the likes of ‘In My Bag’ and a brand-new song ‘Tennessee’, which casts a woozy haze over Forest Hills Stadium.
The next day our travels take us to China and Korea, kicking off with a sun-kissed set from Chinese singer VeeGee. A charismatic performer, she and two backing dancers groove through a set including the smooth ‘Tiger’ and ‘Don’t Look Up’, but things veer into cheesy musical theatre in the choreography for the jaunty ‘Pretty Bite’. Her countryman MaSiWei turns up the heat on the main stage with a rapid-fire performance of crowd-pleasing hip-hop hits, rattling through ‘Promise’ and the more soulful ‘Storm’, before bringing out Spence Lee to preview a skittering new collaboration. It’s an airing of 2019’s ‘R&B All Night’, though, that shines brightest in his set, uniting the audience in singing along and raising their phones to capture the moment.
As Warren Hue hints at with his NewJeans homage, 2023 is the year of the girl group and HITC doesn’t leave fans wanting in that regard. On the first day, K-pop superstars ITZY illuminate the main stage for their first US festival headline performance, where they lead the top of the bill with Rich Brian. They alter the slick pop of their recorded releases with band-led versions of some of their title tracks – opening trio ‘Not Shy’, ‘Sorry Not Sorry’ and ‘In The Morning’ – adding new power to their setlist. Later, they thrill with the infectious ‘Wannabe’ and recruit the crowd to help them sing their English-language release ‘Boys Like You’, before closing things out with vibrant versions of ‘Sneakers’ and ‘Loco’, the latter causing the crowd to follow the song title’s suit.
Sunday presents a double bill of girl groups, with ATARASHII GAKKO!! the first to provide a grin-inducing performance. Dressed in matching sailor outfits, the Japanese four-piece race from punk to disco to EDM and more, capturing the crowds hearts with personality-filled versions of ‘Otonoblue’ and ‘Giri Giri’. The largest crowd, though, goes to XG – one of the most highly anticipated performers of the weekend as they make their US live debut. The huge audience isn’t disappointed as the seven-piece kick off with their early singles ‘Tippy Toes’ and ‘Mascara’ and then split to showcase their rap and vocal talents with covers like N.O.R.E.’s ‘Nothin’’ and Justin Bieber’s ‘Peaches’. It’s the final two songs that get the loudest response, though, as the group returns to the stage in matching denim to complete their domination of HITC with ‘Left Right’ and ‘Shooting Star’.
It wouldn’t be Head In The Clouds without performances from 88rising’s de facto king and queen, Rich Brian and NIKI. Brian closes out Saturday night by running the roaring crowd back through his career so far and – from the moment he appears on top of a pyramid in the middle of the stage to the last second of his set – he lives up to that royal title, complete with the aid of a marching band drummer. ‘Tokyo Drift Freestyle’ and ‘Rapapapa’ flex his flow, while the likes of ‘100 Degrees’ showcase a more melodic, infectious side to his performance.
A day later, NIKI occupies the top spot, operating in a different lane but no less majestic. Standing at the top of a raised platform, she opens with the airy ‘Before’, kickstarting an emotional and formidable performance that dips largely into her 2022 album ‘Nicole’ but pulls highlights from further back too. ‘Vintage’ brings R&B star power while ‘Oceans & Engines’ sounds even more heart-wrenching with a live band, and ‘High School In Jakarta’ bursts with life.
“Don’t fucking leave,” Miyashiro booms into the mic after NIKI’s set, hinting at more yet to come and sending the fans who’ve already started heading out hurtling back to the front of the crowd. They’re glad they listen – moments later, MaSiWei and Spence Lee race onto the stage to open a special finale set that sees them pass the baton to Rich Brian and Warren Hue, who bring out ATARASHII GAKKO!! and Thai rapper MILLI. By the end, the core 88rising family are all on stage, finishing off this homecoming in beautiful, brilliant style.