It’s unheard of for a pop singer to combine Chinese opera with modern pop and R&B, but Diana Wang is the epitome of that clash of cultures and communities. Born in Holland to Chinese parents, Diana grew up in a household that listened to Michael Jackson and performed Chinese opera. With 2 albums, an EP, and a handful of singles to her name, it’s early days yet for the Dutch-Chinese singer, but she’s already pushing the limits of the Mandarin pop industry. In the lead up to her forthcoming performance at Billboard Radio China’s “Billboard Radio Live” event in January of 2018, she sat down with the station to discuss her career, development, and future goals as well as her latest album, Poem.
Her latest album, Poem, combines a sense of East and West, a mix of her native Holland and her Chinese ethnicity and heritage. It’s also a blend of modern and antique, bringing in the operatic traditions of her mother and maternal grandparents together with the modern sensibilities of smooth and futuristic R&B. The second single off of the album, Tomorrow, combines the two directly, featuring her mother singing Chinese opera and mentor Khalil Fong rocking a smooth R&B guitar line. It’s a weird combination, but something about the pairing makes it work in an evocative sort of way.
Talking about the pairing, Diana points out this is one of the most touching moments of the album for her. “I was really, really touched by that because, first of all, I grew up in the West, and it started with my grandmother, she’s an opera actor in China. … R&B music is R&B music, from the West, but then Chinese opera is so different and from so long ago, and putting these two things in music together, that was one of my touching moments, and also because it’s a collaboration with my family, with my mom. So I’m really thankful to Khalil, that he made this happen.”
Diana’s latest album might not have come about without the help of friend and mentor Khalil Fong. The pair first crossed paths at Warner Music, where they were both signed at the time, and Diana casually admits that Khalil was her only favourite musician in Asia. “Of course, I listened to a lot of things, but that was [my] favourite. He’s always been my idol, whether it’s music or his sense of style. He’s very creative.” She goes on to explain that, just before her first album Love Lesson was released, she was invited to shoot three of his music videos with him. The pair, both being pretty shy, didn’t get to know each other too well, despite Khalil writing a song for her first album. When Diana’s contract was ending with Warner, the pair reconnected to catch up which culminated in an offer from Khalil to join his recently launched independent label, Fu Music.
Diana explains that Khalil is very clear with what he wants and likes. His style is very rational, driven, and clear, and he even provides some great advice on her writing and musical development. In many ways, Khalil has become her guide on the road to personal growth and development as an artist and a professional. The pair have made an interesting combination, Khalil is known as one of the leaders of Mandarin music but both artists are bringing together their western backgrounds with their Asian heritage to develop a style of music that is quickly pushing Mando-pop into a new realm. Both artists have developed similar styles, but in widely divergent ways. While Khalil draws upon his father’s introductions of soul, funk, and R&B, Diana pulls together a cultural heritage of Asian music intertwined with her own discoveries of R&B and pop throughout her childhood in Europe.
In many ways, Diana’s unique set of experiences, growing up between two different cultures and communities, have set her up to be a unique voice in a world where artists are more concerned with staying within boundaries and the limitations of their markets. It may not be the same sounds as are heard in the Western world and it may not be the historically accurate sounds of China’s opera scene, but somewhere in between the two, Diana Wang is working on a sound that bridges the two and brings Chinese music into a whole new world of possibility.
To hear the full interview, head over to Billboard Radio China.