Meet Aristophanes, the Subversive Taiwanese Rapper Co-Signed by Grimes

Meet Aristophanes, the Subversive Taiwanese Rapper Co-Signed by Grimes

You've never heard anything quite like her.

You've never heard anything quite like her.

Photography: Puzzleman Leung

Styling: Lin Xiu Wei

Text: Erica Russell

Upon first glance, Pan Wei Ju could not possibly seem more different than the ancient Greek playwright she adopted her stage name from. Young, female and Taiwanese—not to mention born centuries after his death in 386 B.C.—there’s little in common between Taipei-based rapper Aristophanes and the Father of Comedy from which she took her moniker after it appeared to her in a dream. (True story.)

However, a deeper look into Aristophanes’ lyrics indicates that the MC may not be so far removed from the acclaimed dramatist after all. Stacked with feminist subject matter, observations about the decay of civilization, as well as sharp political and capitalist critique, the artist—introduced to many in the West after being featured on “SCREAM” off Grimes’s glistening Art Angels—is as much a social commentator as the original Aristophanes, who was famously anti-rhetoric in his art.

On her debut album, Humans Become Machines, the mysterious rapper and self-professed literature nerd (who doubles as a creative writing tutor by day) waxes poetic on everything from the patriarchy to individualism to rape culture over a soundscape of sinister, spaced-out beats, hazy synths and sickly-sweet melodies. Her signature vocalization is cute to the point of creepy—much like the kawaii illustration on the cover of her frenetic 2016 EP, No Rush to Leave Dreams.

Like mixing too many drugs late at night, Aristophanes’ music is inescapably intoxicating; from your headphones it seeps into your brain, only to pour back out from every pore on your body as your muscles twitch along to her bewitching aural sorcery.

On the titular single off the record, the artist delivers mid-tempo electronica that is equal parts dreamy and nightmarish. Produced by Grimes, marking the two musicians’ second collaboration and the first time the Canadian pop star has produced for another artist, the otherworldly “Humans Become Machines” is all skittering beats, guttural moans and anxious, breathy verses spat in Mandarin. Language barrier be damned, though: you can feel this one in your bones.

Listen to her latest single below:

Ahead of Aristophanes’ new mixtape, out February 24, I spoke to the artist about smashing gender expectations, the potential stagnation of Taipei’s music culture, and working on music with Grimes in her L.A. home studio.

Your music is both dreamy and aggressive, expressing the raw dichotomy between feminine vulnerability and strength. Is that an intentional expression for you?

I don't usually do intentional expression [with my] music. I am just trying to capture blurry ideas in accurate movement as much as possible, and as this amazes me a lot. My music definitely reflects what kind of person I am. I think it's part of my personality.

You first collaborated with Grimes on her 2015 album and now she's produced "Humans Become Machines" for your record. How did you two work together on the song?

I wrote and recorded the lyrics for "Humans Become Machines" during the same time as "Scream,” but we were focused on “Scream” then. Last summer when I was in New York City and working on new music, we started working on this song again, and Claire changed everything of the production. When I heard the new version I was totally mind-blown, therefore both of us were passionate about this new collaboration. So when I went to Los Angeles, we recorded my vocal again at her place. That's was the first time we worked together physically and it was so much fun! Claire is so smart and sensitive to the texture and details of my voice, which is really impressive to me. After that, she recorded her vocal and finished the whole production.

Grimes has spoken of her struggle as a producer in a male-dominated industry, and I would imagine you probably experience similar challenges as a rapper. Do you two bond over being artists—who just so happen to be women—who are working to dismantle a gendered system of music-making?

We haven't talked about this properly, but I totally respect and admire what she has been doing. That makes me feel strong and accepted even just knowing somebody is trying to change things in her own way in the music industry. Since I got the chance to be around so many talented women, I know the fact that letting more women get into the game is good for the whole music industry, not just for women. We already know how many women and LGBTQ [artists] have made pop music and modern culture interesting, so just let us in!

On your last release you collaborated with producers and artists from Japan, the U.S. as well as other Taiwanese musicians. What draws you to specific collaborators? How do you know when another artist will understand your vision/fit into your artistic frame?

I work with artists I consider interesting, and mostly I can know some of their vision [from listening to] their music. But I can't be sure with that 100% of the time because every artist is unique and complicated. The more interesting an artist is, the more unpredictable he or she is, so we need further communication. Just like any kind of relationship, it takes time and patience—and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

 

Do you feel a responsibility to explore socially and culturally resonant themes in your music?

As an artist, the only thing I feel a responsibility for is to simply explore, no matter what. I am not necessarily using my music as a weapon to fight against culture or society, but I am also not interested in only expressing my own feelings and experiences. It's about more than that.

Some of your songs criticize capitalist power structures. Would you consider your music anti-capitalist?

I don't really think so. It costs a lot of money (from capitalism!) to make music so far… So if I were extremely anti-capitalist, I would not [be able to] do what I am doing.

I understand you love literature. Which books, poems or works have impacted you most?

Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino, “Too Loud a Solitude” by Bohumil Hrabal and some novels by Milan Kundera.

This album appears to emerge from a feminist perspective, tackling topics like gender and sexuality and patriarchy. Is there something you hope people will learn from these songs?

I don't consider my music as a textbook or a user's guide, so I honestly don't expect people to learn anything. People hopefully can just feel my feelings as a woman through my music if they want. And if they don't, I am totally cool with that. There is no mission because I am not going to give a lecture. However, if someone finds something new and meaningful for herself or himself, that’s beautiful, but I haven't aimed to achieve it.

You collaborated with Arcade Fire’s Will Butler on "Stop," a track which is about rape. Was this a difficult topic for you to write about?

It was not difficult to write—but it was difficult to make up my mind to write about.

Which track is most personal for you?

“Stop.”

Do you believe music can transcend language barrier?

To me, music itself is a language. It has its own barrier to different people. But a barrier is not always a bad thing that we need to break. My voice and the sounds which occur in my songs could have different meaning to the people who can't understand my language, yet it's still a real experience of music. I am happy to see people making the effort to understand my lyrics, but don't forget: being unable to understand something immediately can be a filter which makes you feel something else.

Which other Taiwanese artists would you recommend new listeners to discover?

Sonic Deadhorse.

What do you enjoy most about Taipei's art and music scene?

If you are just a visitor it might be cool and interesting, but honestly, for most artists living here it's hopeless. So if you are good and passionate at what you're doing, you gotta find your own way because there's no system that will support you, and this makes survivors here have different ways of thinking. Additionally, the complicated political situation and history of Taiwan, and the most open-minded attitude to gender issues in East Asia, give a different atmosphere and energy for the artists here. To be honest, the reason I don't stay here now is that it doesn't have many things to make me excited about—but I still consider Taipei as a potential city that may be important in the Asian music/art scene in the future, if people find their own ways to do their own things and not just copy South Korea and Japan.

What would you like listeners to take away from your music?

I want them to feel and to react honestly to the things they relate to the most.

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