In Conversation: Amber Akilla shares her tracks of the week
Amber Akilla is not only a DJ, but a multi-hyphenate artist dedicated to uplifting women and encouraging community. An innate world traveller, she left the confined DJ’ing scene of Perth (Australia) where she grew up after graduating law school, in order to find better opportunities; on her journey, creating inclusive spaces where people of all backgrounds feel safe to party.
Landing in Shanghai in 2017, she’s toured extensively as a DJ across Asia, the US and Europe; working with brands such as Nike, Saint Laurent and Gucci. Now, she divides her time between DJ’ing and running NVSHU Workshop – the female-led collective co-founded with fellow cultural curator Asian Eyez, which encourages young people – particularly those who identify within the LGBTQI community – to get behind the decks. Together with the very people she’s inspiring with this new cultural movement within the DJ’ing scene, she hosts parties, panel discussions and even has a hand in the creative direction behind many of the projects we see coming from the collective today.
Ever a woman who’s known for her ability to get things done, through her multi-faceted work Akilla has been showing young people that trusting yourself can land you in the right places. Further, that a little imagination and patience is all it takes to create the life you see for yourself despite wider society’s constant pressure to ‘fit in’. NBGA recently got the chance to catch up with with the well-loved DJ to talk about how she forged her career, the exciting creative endeavours she’s working on and her not so secret obsession with K-Pop. Not only this, we get the priceless opportunity to deep dive into Akilla’s music library, as she takes over our tracks of the week. A passionate creative with a work-ethic that knows no bounds, you won’t want to miss out on Akilla’s current soundtrack to sass and success.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, and the kind of music that defined your childhood?
I was born and raised in Perth, Australia. However, my family all hail from the South-east of China – we’re originally from quite a small and isolated city. When I was a kid, I was really into playing instruments, but I’d always get to a certain level and then quit. Then, just before I finished high school, I got into singing jazz; I was completely obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald and Amy Winehouse. I think the late 2000’s and early 2010’s was such an exciting time for music, I remember exploring all sorts of genres from indie-rock to pop. I’d listen to bands like Vampire Weekend, Kings of Leon and MGMT. Other than indie-rock, I began getting into electronic music and would listen to a lot of Justice and Ed Banger records, but also a lot of hip hop and R’n’B. Growing up my music taste was very eclectic because I was looking for music in as many places as I could.
Can you tell us the story behind how you chose your DJ’ing moniker?
Well, I kind of started DJ’ing as a joke. I was a bit of an introvert whilst at university and I didn’t really like going out and partying, but I’ve always loved music. Over the course of learning how to DJ I’ve had a few names, some more embarrassing than others if I’m honest. I guess, when I eventually started DJ’ing regularly enough, I felt like I needed to come up with something that I could use more consistently. At first, I decided to call myself ‘Akila’, but then it evolved over time into ‘Amber Akilla’. Akilla sounds like a euphemism for ‘a killer’ and I like that it sounds like an assassin’s name.
When did you know that you wanted to make DJ’ing your career?
I started DJ’ing in 2012 when I was still at law school. I took to the technical stuff very quickly, but I’d say it’s taken much longer for me to develop my career as a DJ. I’d say this is due to their being very limited opportunities to explore as a DJ in Perth. When I moved to Shanghai in 2017, I would play in a lot of clubs – alongside working a full time job – and through this gained the opportunity to build my name as a DJ; eventually getting to work with brands such as Saint Laurent, Gucci and Nike. I think over time my passion for DJ’ing has remained strong. Looking back, I think regardless of whether I made the decision to focus on it exclusively as a career or not, I was always adamant to make it a part of my life. It’s not the only thing I do now, but it’s given me a lot of opportunities that I’m super grateful for.
You’re also a talented visual artist; where does your passion for creating films, documentaries and photographs stem from?
I guess it goes back to me being anti-social when I was a kid; I’ve always enjoyed making things. Growing up as the only child of a single mother meant I had to find ways to keep myself entertained whilst at home alone. I think what drives all my creative endeavours is a passion for sharing stories and ideas. Interestingly, as I get older, I find myself becoming increasingly hesitant about pushing myself to create. Most of the time, it’s the result of overthinking and questioning my own abilities. However, this year I’m hoping to work through that mental block and keep creating unapologetically. It all comes back to the age old saying that “only you can stand in your way” – I’m currently learning how to get around it.
Tell us about NVSHU & Friend Crush?
NVSHU is a female led LGBTQI centered project that I started with my friend Lhaga a.k.a Asianeyez. We wanted to create spaces and collaborate on hosting events that are intentionally focused on the skills of female and LGBTQI creatives. So, we started out hosting a DJ and invited other female DJ’s in Shanghai to co-host with us. We also host parties, put together panels and work in creative direction. The Chinese word NVSHU translates to “women’s skill”, so fittingly we named the collective this in reference to the wider historical female scripts from China, whose name has a similar phonetic pronunciation. I guess through this collaboration we’re writing our own history; or her-story.
Friend Crush is more of a personal project of mine – it’s more of a hobby. It’s a place for me to collate all the cute pictures I find on the internet that make me smile, as well as memes and candid photos of my friends and I. I’ve done a few Friend Crush parties where I’ve invited my friends to play, and as someone who struggled to find ‘her people’ whilst growing up, I really cherish and value the friendships I have around the world now. I use this particular platform to pay homage to that. Hopefully this year I can continue to branch out.
What the best thing you’ve learned through collaborating with other women?
I think we’ve all learned a lot through our experiences working together. I’ve learned a great deal about the power of communication. I always enjoy working with people who don’t bring any ego to our projects, for the simple fact that when we’re all working together towards the same goal, we always achieve the best possible outcome. Learning to communicate and knowing when not to take things too personally is really important to all of us.
You’re truly a multi-hyphenate artist – how do you manage to maintain all of your creative outlets whilst simultaneously staying inspired?
For me, my inspiration comes quite randomly and sporadically. I think that as a millennial it’s easy to feel pressured to fill up all of your free time. I find that its always in those moments of rest when I’ll come up with my best ideas. I’ve definitely felt conflicted at many stages along the way, oftentimes with regards to which discipline I should be giving the most focus to, but I’ve quickly realised that experiences gained from one project have the potential to inform the others –that’s what keeps it all interesting for me.
We’re living in a time where musical genres are more widely accepted and interchangeable than ever. As a DJ you’re known for playing energetic, genre-bending sets all over the world. Is there anywhere you haven’t played yet that may seem like unchartered waters for your sound in particular?
I love travelling, the opportunities I get to work whilst travelling are exciting enough that I’d allow them to take me anywhere I’m welcomed. There are still so many places I’d love to explore! I hope I get the chance to play in Europe and the US more, as well as places like South Africa and India where I’ve heard their music scenes are developing quite quickly.
So far, your DJ’ing career has seen you playing in clubs from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo. Of all the venues you’ve visited, which ones stand out and why?
I think they’re all truly great in completely different ways, mainly because the people hosting me are always really friendly and welcoming. I’m super lucky in that respect. Tokyo is always fun, I was out there twice last year, the first time I played Vision and the second time I played on Sarushima Island just after sunset. Both parties had their own vibe, but each crowd was super responsive which is always good. Kuala Lumpur was also special because so many girls came up to me after the set saying that they’d had such a great time and that they were super excited to see a girl behind the decks. Other honourable mentions would have to go to Seoul, and of course my home Shanghai – I always love playing there.
You’re currently out in L.A – how do the parties in America compare to those you’ve played in Asia?
Honestly, I have a love/hate relationship with L.A! After living in a city like Shanghai that has developed and modernised so much in the last few decades, sometimes I feel like L.A can be very slow and inconvenient. With that being said, I’m always grateful to be in the city because I have so many inspiring friends out here. I guess L.A is known for its early starts and finishes when it comes to partying – which is great on those nights when I’m ready for bed at midnight. Still, its a massively different city to Shanghai, where – even on a quiet night – we’ll end up getting hand pulled noodles after the club at 3AM.
Who are some of your top artists to watch out for in 2020? Is there anyone on your radar that you think is super underrated right now?
Yes! There are so many artists killing it right now: Sumin from South Korea, Lyzza from Amsterdam, Chippy Nonstop and Bambii from Toronto, BowAsWell from Shanghai and Fishdoll from Beijing.
Lastly, can you give us a little introduction to the tracks that you’ve included in this week’s playlist?
Of course. The playlist starts with Erika de Casier’s “Do My Thing” – this track induces such a good mood, it’s tongue-and-cheek yet laid back and every time I listen I find myself nodding in agreement with the lyrics. Recently, I’ve also been listening to Nicolas Jarr’s latest Against All Logic project- I’m obsessed with the Beyonce/Sean Paul sample on the track “Fantasy”. I also have a not so secret affinity for K-Pop and have been getting into girl groups like TWICE recently. The other day, I listened to “TRICK IT” on a loop and then ended up having a really emotional afternoon. Somehow, I ended up crying with the hook of the song still stuck in my head later that day; life has been a rollercoaster recently! The playlist finishes with what I think is one of Azealia Banks’ more underrated tracks. “Us” embodies that sassy but chill vibe I get from listening to “Do My Thing”. Azealia can be a very divisive artist – according to some – but I think she’s great. Happy listening guys!
Listen to DJ Amber Akilla’s Tracks of the Week Below!
COVER IMAGE: Courtesy of Amber Akilla
Photographer: Sophia Li (@sophialmy)
Stylist: Miso Dam (@misodam)
Makeup: Laquisha Seams (@laquishaseams)
TEXT: Tahirah Thomas