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88rising’s digital festival proved that URL can match IRL.

Malaysia pop star Alextbh may be stressed about the state of the world – but he still has the humour to make coronavirus sound like a primary school maths teacher. ‘Miss Covid really has us scratching our heads trying to reinvent the industry in these trying times,’ he tells me.

It’s no wonder that it’s time for reinvention. The spread of Covid-19 has led to an unprecedented tipp-exing of the world’s global calendar – no gigs, concerts or public events of any sort, as you all know. Let alone festivals.

Enter 88rising, the epicentre of Asian music right now (their roster boasts Jackson Wang, Rich Brian and Joji, to name a few). Sensing a time for something experimental, they set-up a virtual festival – Asian Rising Forever – to give a stage to the wealth of young Asian talent across the continent.

For fans of rap and K-pop, the line-up reads like a who’s-who of powerhouse names, alphabetised on the post in a nice anti-headliner touch. After all, it’d be pretty testing to pick out the big name in a list of so many.

Streaming across all platforms on Wednesday, the festival saw a heaving crowd of three million bop through its virtual gates, interacting online with high-quality, impeccably produced performances from their fave stars. Rapper Dumfounded hosted the party, with all profits going to Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

The choice of charity was carefully curated. The festival’s focus was to boost representation of Asian music, after all, and to send a message to an often Western-centric festival calendar.

‘Representation matters,’ NIKI, the Indonesian singer who smashed her performance, tells me. ‘A common theme that seemed to pop up during the stream is that growing up, many didn’t feel like they had people to look up to that looked like them,’ she explains.

Crucially, it wasn’t aimed Asian fans from a certain location – but an intersectional effort to represent all. It follows NIKI’s incredible speech at the festival ‘Head in the Clouds’, shining a light on a lack of representation in the industry.

‘It’s not just Asian Americans,’ she explains. ‘That speech was for all Asians. Asians in Asia, Asians in America, Asians in the UK, Asians anywhere that feel a need to be represented. My personal goal as an Asian musician with a global platform is to make sure my audience knows I’m not just doing this for shits and giggles. I’m doing this, so Asians everywhere know I got their back.’

Alextbh agrees on the importance of inclusivity. ‘Representation (is important). I love all the artists that are featured in the festival but what we’ve shown you is just the tip of the iceberg,’ he says. ‘There are so many people from different facets of the continent, showcasing the coolest type of sound that you wouldn’t find in the Western world.’

The Malaysian star isn’t just a voice for Asian music – but for the queer community too. ‘I don’t see it as a trophy or a plaque that I carry around to tell everyone “look I’m queer and therefore you have to treat me a certain way”,’ he notes.

‘But I do carry a responsibility of speaking up for the minorities, and that’s something that I’m never ashamed about,’ he continues. ‘I had enough with how the community had been treated, and how sometimes our upbringing conditioned us to be internally homophobic as well.

While the festival was a celebration of music (we danced all night) first and foremost, then, it also offered an important message of inclusivity to the world. In terms of programme and purpose, it’s set the bar way beyond the stratosphere.

Virtually, too, it was a success. ‘The fans were able to interact via live chat during the stream, and it was really fun seeing their comments & reading their tweets,’ NIKI says. The best thing for Alextbh? Hanging with stans. ‘ I mostly spent my online time with my fans on Twitter.’

There was one problem though – no gloriously cakey mud or sweat-stained shirts. ‘Tonight was so special, but I wish I could be out there sweating it out,’ Alextbh laughs. ‘I want that whole festival experience — muddy boots, a towel that I stole from the hotel to wipe my sweat off, running around telling my favourite artists that I’ve been stanning them… that’s the real deal!’

Praying for it to be IRL next year, pretty please.

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