Khalil Fong on the making of “Journey To The West”

Ask any self-respecting ABC (stands for American-born-Chinese) for a list of their favourite Chinese music artists off the top of their head, and there’s a high chance Khalil Fong is somewhere on that list.

The prolific artist, who since his debut in 2006 has made a name for himself with his unique curation of Soul, R&B, Urban, Blues and Jazz music is largely lauded for his introduction of soul and blues music into the Chinese music scene. As his musical influences imply, Fong is an ABC himself-born in Hawaii, he lived in Shanghai and Guangzhou during his early years and is now based in Hong Kong. Although in the past he has never made any moves to veil his East-Meets-West musical  philosophy, in my 10-year-long recollection of his musical repertoire, never before has he been so radically vocal about it as he has been in his latest groundbreaking double album Journey To The West.

“In the past, as a student of Soul, R&B, Urban, Blues and Jazz, I sought out to introduce that genre to the Chinese audience. With Journey To The West however, I wanted to further explore my sound and to convey a very specific philosophy with my music. All labelling and genres aside, I always saw music similarly to how Bruce Lee saw martial arts. “Be like water” he would say, and that is how I see my songwriting and production process. I want my songs to break cultural barriers, to represent unity in diversity and to maintain a creative edge while still maintaining classic elements.”

Indeed, Khalil’s latest album Journey To The West is crystal clear in transmitting his message, so much so that the Hello Asia team decided to award it ‘Best C-Pop Album of 2016’. Infusing an immiscible mix of Eastern and Western elements, Journey To The West presents a sound considered radical even coming from the innovative Khalil-a futuristic yet tasteful palette of Eastern and Western sounds; delectable mash that beckons you not to analyse, but to savour and indulge. Featuring a slew of collaborations on this album with some artists you’ve certainly heard of (Wang Leehom, Jane Zhang, Diana Wang) and others whose names of yet ring unfamiliar, Fong sang praises of the ones we brought up; in the process showing his thoughtful appreciation of good music-no matter what genre or location it came from.

“Me and Lee Hom actually had the idea of a collaboration about six years ago but it didn’t happen till now. He’s one of the first few Chinese artists who experimented with the East meets West sound. I’m really glad we were able to do “Flow” together and it is a really eclectic blend of genres and instrumentation. Jane is an amazing vocalist and good friend…when I began to work on the double album, she was top on the list of special guests that I wanted to invite. I’ve known Diana for many years and in some way you can say our paths always crossed at different stages of our careers. Both of our primary influences are R&B and urban music and we have had a couple opportunities to work together over the years. My team and I did a couple tracks for her latest EP and I must say that she is developing into quite the songwriter. Check out her recent track “Heartbeat” that was written by her. Fifi Rong has a very haunting voice and although she normally does dub step and electronica, when someone has such unique and soulful delivery as she does, it can work in almost any genre. As for Zion.T and Crush, it just so happened that we had been following each others music as well as Instagram. We have many of the same musical influences and yet we each have our distinct approach. With “Flavor”, I wanted to bring back some smooth R&B vibes with them. All in all this happened to be one of those right time right place situations. Nothing was forced or calculated. All of these artists are uniquely talented, have very different backgrounds and all share a great passion for music. I feel very lucky that all of these collaborations just naturally ended up on this project.”

His seemingly bottomless passion for his music and breaking cultural barriers is infectious; until today, Fong remains one of the core influences motivating my personal efforts in bringing Chinese music to Western audiences. But it seems that I’m not the only one who’s been infected by the East-meets-West bug. During the backend of 2016, Fong announced the creation of his own music and visual arts label Fu Music with several other like-minded individuals. When asked about his motivation behind this new venture, he said:

“Fu Music stands for a vision of what I want to achieve that I can’t achieve on my own. It’s going to be a collective effort of likeminded individuals working to give birth to a new sound for Chinese music. I don’t mean we will BE the new sound but rather I foresee us playing a prominent role in the future development of the Chinese music scene. Our aim is to open up new possibilities, try new things and to keep people curious. With this new direction will come new responsibilities and as much as it is fun and exciting, it is also challenging to run a label.”

But “Soul Boy”, as his fans affectionately name him has his sights set more much more than just a new sound. In the long term, he plans to expand into books, film, TV and other mediums with his avant-garde brand.

“Fu Music is a part of a bigger picture called Fu Group, my goal is to delve into music, film, books, and other areas of cultural and creative media. The main philosophy is East-meets-West as well as bringing an international sensibility and production quality to all of our endeavours. On the film side, me and the co-founder of Fu Films, Neysan Sobhani, have already finished two scripts that we are hoping to shoot within the next two years. We have been in serious conversations with a film production company and I think there is a high chance for our projects to get green lit. We are really looking towards diversifying the genres of Chinese films and to create unique thoughtful films that will also appeal to the masses.”

Just hearing him talk about his plans already have this writer giddy with excitement. With 2016 marking the anniversary to his 11th year in the industry, these new changes created some misinterpretation within the media when Khalil announced at the end of 2016 his hiatus from doing full-length albums in the near future. To clarify, Fong told us:

“There’s been a lot of hearsay and misinterpretation pertaining to the fact that after JTW I’ll be taking a hiatus from doing “原創大碟 (albums of original works)”. It doesn’t mean that I’ll be going in to hiding. I’ve specified that definition very carefully as I do have other interesting projects lined up that I can’t tell you about yet.”

But what Khalil could share with us during our interview about his upcoming projects was that Fu Music will be debuting their first artist for the label very soon.

“Me and two other Fu Music producers, Derrick Sepnio and Fergus Chow are currently working on material for the label’s first artist. As a producers collective we are now also known as JTW because all of our backgrounds and influences are a blend of east and west. We have been doing some co-writing with Korean producers and songwriters and will also be focusing on a variety of things this year. Keep an eye and ear out this year for the upcoming release.”

It is rare to see veteran artists who continue to have the amount of drive and passion as Khalil. And in all my years of pushing for greater acceptance of Chinese/Asian music in Western audiences, Fong is one of the most daring in his pursuit of such ideals. Starting with his love for music, Khalil has continually worked to expand his repertoire and his perspectives; finally cumulating in his creative vision for his new label Fu Music. Although the scene for Asian representation in Western media seems to be in a state of uncertainty at the moment, Fong’s vision for a world where cultural divides are relentlessly disregarded to spawn works which are truly international is a great place to start. Pioneering a broader definition of what it means to foster ‘East-meets-West’ collaborations, the sky’s the limit for Khalil Fong.