On April 13, Kathy Yaeji Lee, better known as Yaeji, left adoring throngs of fans spellbound at Oakland’s Fox Theater. Her performance commemorated the release of her debut album, With A Hammer, which dropped only one week earlier.
Throughout her musical career, Lee has created upbeat, energizing beats that masterfully merge ’90s and early 2000s hip hop, South Korean indie pop, dance/electronic and hyperpop genres. Draped in futuristic, colorful garments and wire-rimmed glasses, Lee enhances her experimental stage presence with themes of self-love and finding inner strength through smashing the obstacles that confine her. She takes a creative yet literal approach on and off stage by accessorizing with a giant, wooden-handled steel hammer.
The performance began with the opening artist, Jessy Lanza, whose clear soprano vocals were accented by clear reverb, aerophone and accompanying bandmates — Jessi Long on synths and Angeline Lanza on drums and backing vocals. Listeners could not help but become mesmerized by the giant screen behind the performers, which lit up with flashing colors and various idiosyncratic yet alluring animated designs and abstract film footage.
As the entire theater thrummed with unfiltered feminine joy and exhilarating pulses of energy, Lanza and her bandmates successfully facilitated thunderous anticipation for Lee’s performance by smiling and dancing around. To conclude the band’s time on stage, Lanza elaborated on the intimacy between her and Lee, emphasizing that they had plans to tour together for years.
After the opener, the grand, expansive space steadily reached full capacity. The overhead lights dimmed and the stage illuminated once again in a soft pink haze as Lee sauntered out to face the crowd. Clad in a gray zip-up vest, flowing gray skirt and knee high socks, Lee began with the first song on her album, “Submerge FM.” Lee sang of feeling helpless but unified in a digital age, alternating between sing-song Korean verse and melodious English lyrics as a catchy drum beat and wind instruments propelled the number forward.
Not missing a beat with a smooth transition between tracks, Lee jumped right into “For Granted,” flailing her limbs out across the stage and dissolving into a frenzy of electrostatic chaos, lights flashing and staccato tempo quickening. Lee remained strong and alert, making sustained eye contact with the audience and gesturing adamantly with her arms and hands.
Shortly after her first few numbers, Lee spoke sincerely and humbly to her fans, expressing it was a very special moment for her, considering it was the first time performing the most current and authentic version of her show while on tour. In addition to songs from With A Hammer, bonus tracks from collaborations with other artists, such as Oh Hyuk, and tracks from former projects were present.
Despite the more serious theme of Lee’s music, there was an exceptionally intimate bond between Lee and her backup dancers, who continuously utilized their movements to represent how machinery contrasts raw human emotion. While some movements were sassy and sensual, others displayed hostility and anger. In “Michin,” Lee and her dancers used their arms for hammer-like destruction, flipping and wiggling their feet on the ground as they melted into mechanized fury.
Throughout the evening, colorful lights washed over the auditorium and filled the whole venue with an electric glow. Lee made no effort to mask her joy in “Raingurl” and “Happy,” where she grinned into the microphone and serenaded the crowd alongside her hammer, which was notoriously marked with a cartoon face bearing a mischievous smirk.
Falling in love with herself and those around her, Lee emulated self-love and confidence in her attempts to connect with the crowd, and in the gentle way she handled her hammer. Lee admitted that Oakland was a special place in her heart and those of her crew members, who have friends and family dispersed around the city. Her presence at Fox Theater was nothing short of electrifying and refreshing, surely inspiring concertgoers with her transparency, originality and multicultural, South Korean-American identity.