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Zona Zhou Interview

(Unlike the majority of interviewees, Zona is a young, high-school-aged artist who attends the high school from which I graduated. Most artists I interview on this blog are established, working musicians already out of college, but I wanted to make an exception to highlight Zona, someone younger with different perspectives who is already working on her craft ).

1. What is your name and your profession(s)?

My name is Zona, or Xchen. I am a journalist, activist, musician and…a high school student!

2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship?

I was born and raised in Shanghai, China, and spent my entire life there before coming to California for school two years ago.

3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry?

Both of my parents work in industries completely unrelated to music. My father is in the tech industry, while my mother is a college faculty and administrator. Both of them are frantic karaoke singers though, especially my dad.

4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies.

As a Chinese person coming to the U.S. on an F1 visa by myself, I've always felt out of place here. This sense of isolation was initially subtle. It may have been when my local friends mentioned spending weekends with their families that I suddenly realized, "Oh, I don't have a family or a home here. I am a complete foreigner to this land and its people. This realization upset me last year and led me to believe that I would never fully integrate. Recently, I noticed that my mindset has changed slightly. I still feel excluded, but it bothers me less as I find solidarity with people who are like me, going through a similar experience as a minority and a first-generation immigrant here in the U.S. It is challenging, but it's part of the process of personal growth and I will always be my biggest support system.

5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)?

I feel very connected to my culture, mainly because I lived in China until I came to the U.S. My understanding of Chinese culture and my heritage was shaped by soaking everything in during my time with my extended family, so I cherish every moment with them. To me, the essence of Chinese culture is not just what we do but also how we celebrate it – the large family reunion dinners and red packets for the younger kids… these and many other customs connect people who have left their hometowns with the people and places they miss. Some of my favorite memories consist of moments like once jamming my hand into a mahjong machine after eating a reunion dinner with my great-aunt.

6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Do you plan to major in music in college?

I got into music at the age of five as I watched Chinese artists Faye Wong and Eason Chan perform at the 2012 CMG Spring Festival Gala (it's like the Super Bowl but the New Year's celebration version). It's theatrical to believe that one moment made me fall in love with music. 

I used to sing so much that my dad joked that we wouldn't need the radio anymore. It felt like singing was a part of me, something I was born to do. As I grew older, I realized I didn't want music to become a job that I might end up resenting. I've always wanted to keep my relationship with music simple. So, when I discovered a strong interest in humanities and social science as I stepped into high school, I became more confident about keeping music as a passion rather than a career goal.

6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to release music? What were your parents’ reactions to you releasing music? Do they support your music career?

I started recording myself singing in fourth grade. I would sing into the mini microphone on those wired earphones and post them on a singing app. I had thirty thousand fans on that app as an elementary school kid. When I was twelve, I was exposed to mixing and mastering. I also got to know a lot of professional mixing engineers and arrangers by contacting them online. My first album was released in seventh grade, my second in eighth, and then one album each year on the last day of December. 

In the past years, songwriting has become an emotional outlet and a way of self-expression. And I am so lucky to have two extremely supportive parents. They love music and recognize what it can do. Whenever I release a new song, they repost it on social media. As for my career, they think that as long as what I do brings me joy in a fulfilling way, I should follow my heart and pursue it.


7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse.

My proudest music project is my newest album, "Endor," for which I am the singer, lyricist, and composer. I recorded everything in my dorm with a device my best friend gave me as a birthday gift. I collaborated with many great musicians and my closest friends, some of whom are new to music production, and others are far more experienced than me. I'm not even close to being the most professional artist but seeing that my music brings people together makes me proud. On a more irrelevant note, I want to thank everyone who has been the subject of my music. I am grateful to have you as part of my life.

8. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry or in general?

My experience has been that not all audiences respond with kindness when you release music online. I've been told my music is "too Chinese," my English isn't native enough, my pronunciation is cringeworthy, and I sound like a fake ABC (American-born Chinese). What affects me more than these comments is that they come from my community. It's a straight-up rejection of my identity in my community. For a while, I became self-conscious about how I sounded and worried that people wouldn't like my music because of who I am. 

I've also noticed that in some music styles & cultures are perceived as cooler and more superior nowadays. I must say this -- I hate it so much when people classify music into "cool" and "not cool." I see art as a medium of self-expression, and I hope everyone can respect every artist's work and their creative process.

I'm proud that my music reflects my bilingual identity. I love writing in both languages, and it's one of the best ways to express who I am and who I want to become.

9. 9a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why?

I really look up to artists like NIKI, Beabadoobee, and Mxmtoon. I love their music and how they approach and present it.

9b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general?

I hope the AAPI community gets more chances to celebrate and embrace our cultures. It doesn't matter if people get them. I think it’s always important to step up and spread the messages, whether through art or not. I see so many amazing AAPI artists around me, all so brilliant. A louder narrative should never overshadow the talents within the AAPI community and the community values.


10. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate.

I am a women's rights advocate. I led and hosted a podcast, "She Says," where we interviewed women leaders from different industries. Through it, we connected with female engineers, athletes, painters, CEOs, content creators, product managers, and more.

I am also a passionate journalist and serve as the Editor-in-Chief of one of the largest Chinese international student publications. Our team of writers shares their journey as international students / first-generation Chinese immigrants in the U.S. and reaches out to community members to share their stories.

11. Any final thoughts? Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community?

I am incredibly honored to be interviewed by AAPI Musicians and I am so grateful for having this opportunity to share a bit about myself. Hoping to connect :)


Support Zona online :)

Instagram - @zonachenxi

Spotify - Xchen

Images courtesy of Zona Zhou

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