For 88rising star NIKI, performing at festivals such as Head in the Clouds and Coachella in front of thousands of adoring fans has become routine and almost expected in her meteoric ascension.
To that end, it would be easy to chalk up the Seattle stop of her “NICOLE” tour as yet another standard performance. However, the 23-year-old vocalist hosted something akin to a stripped back Friday night party with her bandmates and hundreds of friends she has never met.
So much so that I, a nerdy, Pokemon-loving introvert, somehow felt nostalgic for high school parties I never even attended.
Judging from the discography of the Indonesian singer-songwriter, she went to her fair share of parties back in high school and college. NIKI revisits these moments, shedding her stage moniker in the title of her tour, “NICOLE” – the same name as her recently released sophomore album. Many of “NICOLE”’s songs were remastered from old originals that NIKI once uploaded on her YouTube channel “nzee24,” which was taken down after she signed with 88rising.
On Sep. 9 at the Showbox in Seattle, NIKI kicked off the party with “Keeping Tabs,” a synth-spiced skippy doozy that supercharged her to zip around the stage. Meanwhile, concertgoers bounced in tandem and spiked large beach balls across the crowd, smacking the ceiling stage lights. The energy from this song crossed over into her 2019 R&B hit “Lowkey,” bolstering it with an addictive adrenaline achieved only through a live stage performance.
NIKI prefaces “The Apartment We Won’t Share” by asking how many people saw A24’s“Everything Everywhere All at Once” and noting that the track was written right around the time she saw the movie, which inspired her musings on the multiverse.
This version of NIKI plays piano instead of guitar as she reflects on the reverberations of life, warbling wishful words: “The dog we won’t have is now one I would not choose, the daughter we won’t raise still waits for you, the girl I won’t be is the one that’s yours” and “Your demons I won’t meet, now someone else’s word to keep, I’m sure she’s beautiful and sweet, not what I wanted, but what we need.”
In a multiverse of infinite possibilities, it’s difficult to imagine NIKI as anything else but the artist she is. At the age of 15, she was the opening act for Taylor Swift’s “The Red Tour” in Jakarta. She was the first female artist signed to 88rising, and she released her first EP “Zephyr” in 2018. That same year, at 88rising’s inaugural Head in the Clouds festival, NIKI addressed the crowd, saying, “I just want to say, as an Asian female, I do not take this day and this stage for granted. My hope is that above everything else today, that you feel heard, you feel understood, but most of all that you feel represented.”
With all of those accomplishments under her belt — including becoming one of the first Indonesian artists with labelmate Rich Brian to perform at Coachella last April, along with working on five songs for Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” soundtrack — NIKI is now using her platform to lift others and help them feel represented. Selected for NIKI’s opener was TikTok musician Paravi Das, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from India. Das used her bellowing voice to sing about her parents’ story, captivating audiences not just with musicality, but also with a sharp personality armed with quick jokes and a jubilant zeal.
Part of a memorable concert experience are the surprises that separate it from other events. Like a polite guest at a party, one fan brought NIKI flowers which she stopped mid-song to retrieve. “Oh my god, this is so sweet. Thank you!” she exclaimed. NIKI also delighted audiences by taking a song request from the crowd: her 2017 hit “I Like U.”
The Friday night shindig also celebrated the birthday of Rachel — “Yes, that Rachel,” NIKI clarified — one of the artist’s real life friends mentioned in her song “High School in Jakarta.” While onstage, NIKI called Rachel on FaceTime so the entire crowd could sing “Happy Birthday” to her. Instances like these are intimate invitations that transform the singer onstage, NIKI, to our friend, Nicole.
The music video for “High School in Jakarta,” which was released on Aug. 5, was the first among a trilogy of music videos that also consists of “Before” and “Oceans & Engines.” While NIKI sang these songs during the show, all of these music videos played on-screen. These videos also notably combine together to make her first-ever short film “But I’m Letting Go.” The best storytellers are the ones who transport you, and NIKI does this by holding your hand and guiding you to destinations in her diary, constructed from candid cursive to introduce you to her younger self.
We all have the kind of friends referenced in “High School in Jakarta”: the Amanda who moved away, the Kendra whose house served as a refuge and the Abby who we befriended in times of need. As though she was summoned by NIKI, herself, I ran into a very close friend I hadn’t seen in years. Candace was my Kendra, Abby ,role model and mentor during my “sorta modern Sparta” high school years, very much trying to survive against the “teenage suburban armadas” of an academically grandiloquent institution. I had the chance to catch up with Candace as NIKI’s videos played like a movie in the background, and I learned that she was working in occupational therapy, harboring a strong passion of working with kids with cerebral palsy — the same disability I have.
She told me about how her work has changed her perspective, allowing her to better understand the challenges faced by those with disabilities she never noticed back in high school. I revealed to her something I never told anyone before: that our high school initially resisted giving me disability accommodations. I was denied an alternative option for mandatory physical education, and a teacher balked at my test taking accommodations. This brought her to tears, but I reassured her that her path would help those like me not have to go through those injustices.
My favorite line in “High School in Jakarta” is “But I couldn’t have you sit there and think, that you’re better ’cause you’re older, are you better now that we’re older?” I am better now that I’m older. Candace is too. But NIKI is at her best here. By building upon bygone ballads, she embraces her roots to become the artist Nicole Zefanya envisioned all those years ago. At this concert-turned-high school reunion, I think Nicole would be proud of the person she has become. Risking mawkishness, she transcends from merely being a performer onstage at another tour stop to a storyteller who makes us reflect and draw out our own stories.
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