Jett Kwong Explores Identity Through Music, Writing and Film

After growing up in Denver and never quite fitting in with white kids or Asian Americans, Jett Kwong is using art to figure herself out.
After growing up in Denver and never quite fitting in with white kids or Asian Americans, Jett Kwong is using art to figure herself out. Ellyn Jameson
All her life, Jett Kwong has wrestled with her identity.

As an Asian American growing up in Denver, Kwong felt like she stood out among her white friends and classmates. As a mixed-race person, she felt like she stood out in Chinese and Asian circles.

Now residing in Los Angeles, the wrestling match continues, though it is now on Kwong’s terms. Consciously, she has decided to tell her multifaceted life story through music, film and written word and imagery.

“As an adult, I realize how white I look, and the kind of life that I’ve lived that is different than someone who looks more ethnic, per se,” says Kwong. “But growing up, I felt very different. I was identified as being different. Growing up, not being around very many people of color or Asian people definitely affected who I am now and what I’m seeking now.”

Since releasing her debut EP, 2016’s Stark Night, Kwong’s trek toward answering some of the biggest questions about her ancestors and herself remains one of the most fascinating, resonant and foundational elements of her work.

“With [music, film, and writing], I’m kind of narrowing it down a little bit into exploring questions around identity: As female, as someone who considers themselves Asian American, which is a very large umbrella that isn’t really as fixed as other groups in the U.S. at least, and figuring out how I can explore that in a larger way beyond myself. That’s kind of the larger path, and it’s one that is still unknown, and I won’t know until I keep moving forward. But I do know that it’s important that I interweave all these things that keep me afloat.”

She has given herself the time and space to use art as a way to explore what it means to be Asian American. She has written about the film Crazy Rich Asians on her online publication, Ming Lumino, directed short films and blended her signature sound of string instruments and meditative lyrics with elements of electronic music in her new singles “Cream” and “Away.”

“The reason why I do music is because I love movies and film, and I love the process of making things, and I love connecting with people and vice versa," she says. "I’m just sort of letting myself figure it out along the way and still push for the things that make me feel good and connect me to others.”

With family still in Denver, Kwong visits often, and she's well aware of the city's big changes. But while Denver is certainly bigger, and perhaps more dynamic in its food, beverage, and entertainment offerings, it continues to be a complicated place for her.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few years. When I was growing up, I went to a small school, and I know that Denver is technically very diverse, but the city center – it is changing, but still, it doesn’t feel very diverse," she says. “Denver is such a pleasant and neutral space in many ways. Anyone who asks me what’s it like, I always say that it’s a really neutral place – and not in a bad way. It’s kind of in no way at all. It’s just beautiful, and the weather is temperate; people are generally liberal and generally nice. I’m just really glad that I grew up in a place like that.”

As a result of the work that has gone into her art, conversations with others, and affording herself time to parse through her life up to this point, Kwong has experienced a shift in perspective. Knowing who she is and understanding her life has required her to know who others are and the lives they’ve lived.

“I think each of our experiences are important. I acknowledge that I felt a certain way, and it made me turn out a certain way, but I have moved through the world as basically a white person, which is kind of a funny thing to think about after feeling so different my whole life," she says. "That’s just been interesting – neither good nor bad, just an interesting thing to think about and talk to with people who are also mixed and people who are children of immigrants, people who look more ethnic than I am, whatever that means, and have had similar or completely different experiences.

“So far," she says, "it’s been a really interesting journey to connect with others who are also questioning what identity is, what categories they have been put into, and whether there need be categories at all.”

Jett Kwong, 7 p.m. Thursday, July 18, Leon Gallery, 1112 East 17th Avenue.
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Ben Wiese is a writer in Denver. He covers music for Westword.
Contact: Ben Wiese