The stark, white rooms of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver are filled with paintings, sculptures, fabrics and pottery. But when singer YaSi, born Yasman Azimi, and I walk through the space, we're immediately drawn to a huge vat of honey from artist Kristin Hatgi Sink.
"Do you ever feel stuck in your art?" I ask Azimi, joking about the honey.
She pauses to think about the question and contemplate the artwork – as she does with every question I ask and every artwork on display.
"With me, everything has to be genuine,” she answers. "It has to be real; it has to come from me. Otherwise, what's the point of creating something?"
The singer has a busy summer ahead, with gigs performing at the Westword Music Showcase, the Underground Music Showcase and the MCA itself for the B-Side Music Series. At the MCA, we talked with her about how she views art and her own blossoming musical career.
Westword: Your website states that you use "music to cope with cultural disconnect." How does this come through in your sound?
YaSi: A lot of the themes in my life that translate to my music are not understanding other people or feeling like people don’t really understand me, and that can go back to when I was a kid and trying to figure out American culture by myself.
How does cultural disconnect show up in Denver?
We have a lot of transplants coming in. ... We have a lot more people who can be exposed to our art and our culture, but at the same time, I feel like we are getting displaced and people in neighborhoods like Five Points are getting displaced from their homes. I’ve never seen the rent so high in Denver. It makes me kind of sick when you’re driving down the road and you see all these new apartment complexes going up and then you look over and there are so many homeless people everywhere. And I don't know if Denver is really doing enough to help the homeless population.
If you weren’t creating, what do you think you would be doing?
I would be in human rights. That is something that I am passionate about.
I’ve noticed you use your social-media platform to post about human rights. Are there other platforms you want to bring this to?
With Twitter, you’re just one voice in hundreds of thousands, but to not say something is an injustice. When I went to Iran last year to see my family, I would post videos of my cousins and I hanging out, and it was snowing, and for people to be like, "Oh, I didn’t know it was like that over there," you’re opening up somebody’s eyes to a situation they would have never been exposed to. I do hope that if my platform grows and grows, I can bring light to issues in the Middle East, light to police brutality and racism and sexism and all the things we are experiencing and bring communication and understanding with one another.
Have you always spoken out about these issues?
When I was younger, I was into where I was from, my culture. When I got to middle school and high school, I kind of abandoned it completely, because I was the only kid at my school that I knew of Middle Eastern descent...I wanted to blend in.
But when I met a bunch of my really good friends in the past two years, I realized culture was a beautiful thing that not a lot of people get to be connected with as close as I am. If I’m not going to protect my history, who is? I think because I’ve become more open with my culture, my background, who I am as a person, it’s made me want to be more real in my music.
How do you combat the dissonance between your heritage and your space in American culture?
I think the Middle East has a really bad rep in America, and I don’t think a lot of people understand how lucky we are as Americans to go after our dreams
For me, I wake up with a lot of guilt most of the time that I can do whatever I want to do and live whatever kind of life I want to live, whereas my family back home has a lot of boundaries set in place by world society, their own society. ... We need to have more compassion for other countries.
Like an artist picks up a pen or brush, how do you enter your songs?
I read this quote: 'You can’t ever expect your art to change if you go about it the same way every time.' Lately, I’ve been writing in my journal just a free write, just getting my thoughts out so there’s no judgment there.
I started exploring other art forms because I wanted to quit music and find another creative outlet. There was a point where I didn’t feel like what I was doing had any purpose. It didn’t feel artistic. I didn’t feel musical. I didn’t feel like I was going to make a difference, so I started creating other art to remind myself that I can still be creative.
When you invite people into your musical journey, where do you want them to end up after listening?
I think the reason I make music and a lot of people listen to music is because they want to be understood or be taken to another world. When I listen to Frank Ocean, I feel like I’m living in the world he created. The emotions he experienced are things I myself have not experienced, but the way he adequately writes everything makes you experience the things he is writing about. I think that’s a very beautiful thing, and hope that I can invoke it for people.
What are some tangible ways you think Denver can grow its music scene?
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For artists, just keep creating really great art and keep bringing a new experience to people when they come [to] see you live. Show that you're passionate and it’s not just a hobby, because people aren’t going to take you seriously if you are just doing things willy-nilly. And of course, you have to have fun with it, but you also have to be professional and show you are an artist.
Denver’s music marketability isn’t the same as New York City's or L.A.’s. What do you think are the pros and cons to this?
It’s great to be in a market that is starting to explode a little more. ...There’s a little bit more of a blueprint that you can follow in other cities as opposed to here, especially with R&B, hip-hop and pop. You often overhear people say an R&B and hip-hop show can’t pull as many as a rock show — and that’s not true at all. There are so many people in these scenes out here that are really talented. I think the market in terms of publicity, PR and marketing can be a lot better, but at the same time, we have the Internet, so the power of the Internet is your own power to use.
YaSi plays the Westword Music Showcase on Saturday, June 23. Get tickets and more information at westwordshowcase.com.