Western explorers of Mandarin music often find themselves in a world where the rules are very different, where innovation and independence are structured in a very different way from what they’re used to in their own music market. There’s a Chinese artist who’s been breaking the rules of Mandarin music, and he’s using his upbringing in Hawaii, Shanghai, and Hong Kong to explore old sounds in a very new way. He’s often considered one of the best artists in China’s modern offering of musicians and singers, but his humble nature and international outlook might not show it. His name is Khalil Fong, and Billboard Radio China got a chance to sit down with him in late November. Covering a variety of topics, from his international upbringing and Baha’i faith to his views on the future of Mandarin music and a surprising new artistic outlet.
Khalil is in a state of constant flux; his music is ever evolving and he sees himself as still trying to define the end result and his place as a musician. On top of that, he’s launched independent label Fu Music, is working with fellow Mandarin artist Diana Wang to help develop her sound and latest album, and has even published the first three parts of his new children’s book series. It’s easy to understand how he’s found less time to make musicthese days, but even more amazing to consider that over the last ten years, he’s become the face of the forefront of Chinese music. Sitting down with Billboard Radio China, Khalil explained where that musical sense came from and how his background as a fourth generation American influenced him.
Born in Hawaii in the early 80s, to an American-Chinese father and Hong Kong mother, Khalil moved to Shanghai at age 5 and then Hong Kong in his teenage years. His father, a drummer, introduced him to soul, funk, R&B, the blues, and all sorts of musical genres not typically found in Chinese music. He describes the “turning point” of his career as the moment he watched the 1987 film La Bamba, “it was more of the whole passion for music … That’s what I think ingrained in me the idea ‘Oh yeah, I want to sing someday’.” Over the course of his career, Khalil sees himself as one of the people who have “tried to introduce the genre of soul and R&B into the Mandarin market.”
Talking about the Mandarin market, it’s easy often to compare China to the successes found by Japanese and Korean music on the international stage. In discussing the path that China and mandarin music needs to take in order to find similar success, Khalil is quick to point out that the Chinese pop scene is much younger than both Japan and Korea. Building on that, though, he explains that there are a lot of Chinese musicians and artists building on the rich traditions of China’s heritage, but that it hasn’t been developed or as deeply explored to the same extent that other musical traditions in the US or around the world have. He says, “I think it’s really about acknowledging your cultural heritage and letting that speak through the music.” His latest album, Journey To The West, explores certain aspects of that, including one song which features Inner Mongolian band Hanggai on a track that goes to the roots of Mongolian music with a bridge that takes on influence from future R&B. His final message for people looking at China? “Just give it time and give a chance for everyone to meddle in their creativity.”
It’s not just playing and producing music for Khalil though. He’s partnered with his mother, an educator with curriculum credits under her belt, to develop a new series of illustrated novels for children in English, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese. Over 4 years in development, the books are Khalil’s work to continue what his mother started years ago, building on the same principles and ideas that came from her original works. Telling the story of Emi the Dreamcatcher, the first 3 books are about to be released and plans are to release 3 books a year for the foreseeable future. He explains, “it’s really for children to become more inquisitive and be filled with imagination. I think, hopefully as well, to be global minded and be global citizens.” Each book details a dream of the main character, Emi, experiencing a different culture in the future or the past. In typical fashion, Khalil is developing a theme song for the series, Motown inspired and fun are what he promises. He hopes, also, to deliver an additional song per book, leading to an Emi the Dreamcatcher album in the future.
There’s much to say about Khalil Fong, more so than can be expressed in a few paragraphs, and Billboard Radio China attempts to do as much as they can to explore the artist’s history, influences, past, present, and future. Khalil Fong will be performing as part of Billboard Radio China’s Billboard Radio Live event in January, entitled “American Express, The Official Sponsor Of Billboard Radio Live In Hong Kong 2018” alongside Fu Music label mate Diana Wang for their first performance together. More details can be found at billboardradiochina.com.
Find out more about Khalil Fong in the full interview at Billboard Radio China.