Nearly two years after Korean American music producer and DJ Jennifer Lee, aka TOKiMONSTA, was diagnosed with a rare and deadly brain disease, she is now gearing up for a comeback that is nothing short of miraculous.
In 2015, the hardworking Los Angeles-based musician had to take a break from the music scene after she was diagnosed with Moyamoya.
Lee was then in the middle of a successful career, doing collaborations with artists such as Thirsty Fish, Kool Keith, MNDR, and Anderson Paak, and remixing tracks for Andreya Triana, Daedelus, Jodeci, and Justin Timberlake.
Then one day, the disease just manifested itself.
“I had this weird episode where I was walking and suddenly I couldn’t feel my foot. It was a really strange sensation,” Lee revealed in an interview with Pitchfork’s Sasha Geffen. “I was completely fine after that one moment, but it scared the shit out of me.”
When tests revealed it was Moyamoya, she was told that she needed immediate treatment as it was not easily determined how quickly it progresses.
Moyamoya, as Lee explained, occurs when “your main arteries start shrinking, the blood still wants to reach your brain, so it starts taking these smaller, weaker collateral vessels… If your arteries start to shut down and the blood starts to take these weaker vessels, you’re either going to have a stroke or an aneurysm or thrombosis. It just explodes, basically, because those veins are not meant to take on an artery’s worth of blood.”
With brain surgery as her only option, she was scheduled for a set of two procedures a week apart on the following month.
“I had two options: either sit with it and possibly die thinking about what I should do, or do the surgery as soon as possible. That was December 2015. I set up surgery for the first week of January,” Lee said.
After undergoing two brain surgeries, Lee noticed that she was having trouble performing basic human actions.
“I couldn’t talk or understand speech. I could still think thoughts, but all the words I knew were gone. I even tried texting people and my texts were complete gibberish. It was almost like suddenly I spoke a different language than everyone else,” she explained.
While she soon improved on language, she still struggled in doing what she previously did best — making great hip-hop beats and awesome music.
“I tried to make music and it was just garbage. The part of my brain that knew how to put sounds together was broken. I didn’t understand why it didn’t make sense anymore. When you make music, so much of it is intuitive and natural,” Lee said.
Still, the 30-year-old musician pursued her passion, and through hard work, she eventually regained her ability to identify and create good music.
“I gave myself a couple weeks with music to be like, ‘Just don’t touch this shit—chill out, work on other aspects of your life, try to be normal again,’” Lee recalled.
“At that time, my boyfriend broke up with me—after my surgery, after taking care of me. I got dumped by someone I loved a lot while I was still recovering from surgery, still slightly unable to walk, still working on my language, still unable to make music. That moment was probably the worst I’ve ever felt in my entire life. But that sadness allowed me to regain some clarity. I knew I had to overcome it.”
Three months after having the surgery, Lee was already playing in front of 15,000 people in Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California.
“It was very significant to me. If I can do something like this, anyone can,” she said.
The songs that she wrote immediately after her full recovery will be included in her upcoming third album called “Lune Rouge”.
“After facing that experience, I thought, ‘You know what? This album isn’t going to be made to satisfy the needs of an industry or the needs of a trend. I’m just going to make songs that make me happy, and I really hope they make other people happy, too,’” she said.
Noticeably different from her previous efforts, Lee’s struggles during to the most harrowing episode of her life are encapsulated within the album’s 11 emotional tracks.
“That’s not to say that this is a happy album, but the whole process of creating it was very cathartic for me. It’s my most personal piece of work. Because I’m making beats, it might not be as obvious, but each of these beats—all these songs I put together—tell a story,” Lee explained.
“Lune Rouge”, which features the recently released R&B-infused single with Yuna called “Don’t Call Me”, will be out October 6 through TOKiMONSTA’s own Young Arts Records imprint.