Life advice How a rare condition changed the way DJ Tokimonsta viewed the world.
It hasn’t been easy for producer and DJ Jennifer Lee, aka Tokimonsta, to earn success in a male-dominated industry. But being diagnosed with a rare medical condition changed her approach to music – and mortality
Growing up in a suburb just outside of LA called Torrance, I listened to West Coast rap, hip-hop and punk rock on the radio. As I got older, and my knowledge of music expanded, I ended up loving more electronic music and discovering East Coast hip-hop.
My parents are from Korea, so I took piano lessons for a really long time. My mum would always complain and say, “You never play anything from start to finish.” And that’s because I didn’t like the entire song, so why would I want to play the entire thing? I didn’t think music would be my calling; I treated it as a hobby. I thought I would end up doing something more practical, like a desk job. But after doing this professionally for a good eight years, my mum is now OK with it. It took her a while!
I was the first woman signed to the Brainfeeder label, which had only had male rap stars previously. The main reason I’ve been able to get this far is because I’ve tried to focus so little on certain characteristics about me, namely being a woman and being Asian. On the flip side of that, I have a responsibility as an Asian woman to serve as a role model. It’s not something I asked for, but it’s something that comes with the territory. I take ownership of my identity.
In 2010 I was voted Hottest L.A. Lady DJ by LA Weekly. They meant “hottest” as in best, but many saw it as a sexist title about my looks. The only part I didn’t like was the word “Lady”. I don’t want to be the coolest “female” DJ. As proud as I am of getting the recognition, I think the step forward would be to not have men and women in separate categories.
I was diagnosed with a neurovascular condition called moyamoya at the end of 2015. I’ve had two major brain surgeries and extensive rehabilitation since then. I’ve had to face my mortality. Who knows what will happen? The way I perceive my music and understand who I am as a musician has changed completely.
The new album has been born out of this traumatic experience. All my albums are personal, but this one is even more so. It was really freeing to create this music. In the past I never gave into what people said about me anyway, but for this album I really don’t care what anyone thinks. If no-one likes it, it doesn’t matter to me. All that matters is that I like it, the people I love like it, and creating it brought me great peace. Lune Rouge is out October 6.