TOKiMONSTA inspires audience with more than just her music

Austin Shipley/Staff

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You’re near the front of the stage, anxiously awaiting the band to go on. Tensions in the room are building as the crowd screams louder and louder. Finally, the band walks out and plays one of your favorite songs. You know every word to it, because you’ve belted it in car rides or in the shower, and listened to it through your headphones late at night — but it gets better.

The lead vocalist looks down at you smiling, and the two of you sing the lyrics together. A moment you’ll never forget, an instant connection. Your life, in other words, is complete.

It’s a pretty awesome moment, but unfortunately, those moments don’t happen too often in the EDM world. It seems no matter how close you are to the stage, no matter how much you scream their name, DJs can’t keep their eyes off their control boards. This, however, was not the case for Jennifer Lee — better known as TOKiMONSTA — this last Wednesday night at the Mezzanine in San Francisco.

TOKiMONSTA captivated the audience’s attention with a sweet smile and a wave before beginning the set. Soft lights danced around the walls as unique swirling colors and shapes panned over the audience. Galaxy graphics lit up the screen behind her while she opened with melodic violins that gradually turned into strobe lights and heavier hip hop beats.

As the music picked up in intensity, she played songs from her new album, Lune Rouge, releasing Oct. 6, such as “We Love” (feat. MNDR) and “NO WAY” feat. Isaiah Rashad, Joey Pup and Ambré Perkins. As the audience sang the lyrics to her songs, she looked up several times to sing right back, grinning from ear to ear. The Mezzanine offers a second floor for viewing, complete with couches and its own bar, and even if one was on the second floor of the venue, the graphics and shapes projected over the crowd offered an amazing alternative perspective. No matter where you stood, though you were shoulder to shoulder with someone, your experience was mesmerizing.

Though the show alone was incredible, knowing what Lee had endured in the last two years made her presence on stage an extraordinary miracle. In December 2015, Lee was diagnosed with a rare deadly brain disease known as Moyamoya. After enduring two brain surgeries, uncertain what her fate would be, she lost her ability to comprehend music, understand language or even walk.

I could always put sounds together, play a little ditty on the piano. I never had to think about doing it. And then I’m there in front of my computer going, ‘I don’t understand if this is a good sound or a bad sound. I don’t know if I’m playing a melody,’ ” Lee explained in an interview with Pitchfork. Though she was physically and mentally broken down, Lee was determined to continue producing music. After being discharged from the hospital nearly a month later, TOKiMONSTA played at Coachella just three months afterward — all while keeping her condition private.

Featured on Lune Rouge are songs inspired by what she had to go through. Though at the moment only four of her songs are released, she played an unreleased song at her Wednesday night show, “I Wish I Could” feat. Selah Sue, after sharing what it was like to relearn how to make music. Lee’s life altering experience is reflected in her new album and shows us a side we have yet to see.

While a good portion of TOKiMONSTA is soft hip-hop and melodic beats drawn from Lee’s Korean culture, she is not afraid to turn up, and that’s exactly what she did when she entertained the crowd with an encore. When the beat dropped, the crowd did too — the lights went haywire, hands went up in the air and screams filled the venue as she played samples from Daft Punk and other heavy rap artists.

Despite the odds Lee faced in recovery, she has inspired more than just the creation of her new album. TOKiMONSTA’s performance, coupled with her experiences, is a reminder to appreciate the things that make you happy, because ultimately life is too precious to think otherwise.

Contact the Austin Shipley at [email protected].