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kiki vivi lily Shares Experience With Ageism & Lookism in J-Pop Industry: Billboard Women in Music Interview

Billboard Japan spoke with singer-songwriter kiki vivi lily for its Women in Music interview series featuring female players in the Japanese entertainment industry. The WIM initiative in Japan launched in 2022 to celebrate artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to music and inspired other women through their work. The first 30 interviews in this series were published in Japan as a “Billboard Japan Presents” collection by writer Rio Hirai.

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kiki vivi lily is a J-pop singer known for her soothing voice and various collaborative efforts with acts and artists in hip-hop and other genres, who realized her dream of making a living as an artist after working in the corporate world for a while. The 33-year-old sat down with Billboard Japan to look back on her career and share her thoughts on lookism and ageism in the Japanese music industry, cheerfully noting, “I think there are things I can do because I debuted as an adult.”

When did you decide to pursue music as a career?

I’ve always loved music and apparently used to sing on top of tables since I was two or three years old. I formed a band in junior high but it was just for fun and we covered other people’s songs by imitating them. It wasn’t until I entered university that I began to think seriously about wanting to become a musician. I saw a documentary on (J-pop superstar) Yumi Matsutoya and seeing the process of how the things she wrote became the finished songs was so amazing that I decided to try writing my own.

You’ve always written your own lyrics. Is there anything you are mindful of when you work on them?

So I love Yumi Matsutoya and when you listen to her songs, it’s like the landscape opens up before your eyes. The way she depicts the scene is incredible and she transports the listener to a different world through her music. I try to keep that in mind when I write, so that my listeners can experience something like that through my music. I’ve matured now compared to when I first got started, so I also want to write lyrics that empower people who listen to them.

Was there a reason why you started thinking that way?

Looking back on my career, being a female artist is something I’ve often been aware of. When I first began working in music, there was a clearer distinction between men and women than there is now, and with the rise of social media, I’ve had people say things about my appearance. A lot of the musicians around me were male, but when I discussed this with them, they didn’t seem to receive as many comments about the way they looked. Female artists were often criticized about their appearance and age more than their music, so I’ve always felt that was weird. I’ve always focused on trying to make the coolest music I can in my career, but it felt like people were only looking at the surface. I just pretended to ignore it and let it slide at the time, but have always thought that one day, when I have more influence, I want to do something to help others who are feeling the same way.

So after some time passed, you decided to put those feelings from back then into your work.

Right. I’d sort of given up at the time, thinking I wasn’t in a position to make a difference. Times have changed since then and words like lookism and gender gap are more well known now, so it’s easier for me to say what I want to say. I’m also at a point where I don’t really care what people say about me anymore and trust that there are people out there who will get what I’m saying.

I’d like to think that we’ve made some progress since the days when lookism was rampant, and when artists like you make your position clear, it definitely accelerates that advancement. Also, the topic of how female artists can continue their careers for a long time in a healthy way while dealing with changes in their lifestyles is something I’d like to ask you about.

That’s a really important topic for me as well. What I try to keep in mind for the long haul is to not sell myself short. The artists who write songs that I want to listen to for a long time stay grounded doing what they do. So I’ve also been working with the belief that what’s important is to steadily keep making music I think is good.

I started my music career my mid-twenties, and was sometimes told back then that I was quite old. Staff members would say it to my face or I’d hear that someone had said so. It made me sad every time, but that’s why I stayed away from people in authority who judged me based on my age or appearance, and made songs with artists of my generation. Looking back now, I know I was right not to let such things bother me, and that as long as I take what I do seriously, time will take care of things. Now that I’m older than I was back then, I’ve come to think that getting older isn’t something to be afraid of.

Are there any female artists you see as role models?

I always look forward to watching the Grammys. It’s great seeing women be successful. I think Victoria Monét is particularly wonderful, and after doing some digging about the way she uses her platform to speak out on social issues, I feel she’s one of the figures I aspire to be. In Japan, Yumi Matsutoya of course, and seeing artists like Chara and UA staying in the forefront through motherhood makes me want to try it, too.

I’m in my thirties now and the women around me are going through various life stages. My musician friends are really energetic and active in their careers, and I’m having a lot of fun, too. Meanwhile, my friends who have families also seem fulfilled. I started auditioning while in college, but once I graduated, I found a job and continued to work at a company while doing music. When the pandemic hit, I decided to focus on music. Because I debuted relatively late, I often think about how to keep doing what I do for a long time, and I’m like, “I’ll just do everything I want to do.”

It sounds like you’ve gone through a lot but put things behind you and are now able to focus on your career. What message do you want to convey through your music?

That there are no rules in life, I guess. There’s no such thing as “too late” to start something, and there’s no rule that says female artists must look attractive. It’d be great if everyone could do what they long to do. I need to be spending quality time and be filled with good vibes or I won’t have the energy to send out positive messages to people, so I’d like to see the wider world and experience a lot of things from now on, too.

This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan

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