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Head in the Clouds 2023: Day 1 sees spirited performances on festival stage

Standing in front of the blue glow of a screen, Jackson Wang sings into the microphone while surrounded by dancers in all black. The Head in the Clouds music and arts festival kicked off Saturday in Pasadena with 20 acts. (Megan Cai/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Dannela Lagrimas

Aug. 6, 2023 6:18 p.m.

Head in the Clouds brought sky-high energy to combat the hot Pasadena sun.

The two-day music and arts festival returned to Brookside at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday afternoon for the fifth year. Hosted by 88rising, the event featured live performances from a plethora of Asian and Asian American artists, alongside a variety of eats curated by the 626 Night Market.

Read on for the Daily Bruin’s coverage of day one of Head in the Clouds 2023.

Rapper Spence Lee performs whilst pointing under the glow of red lights. The Chinese-Vietnamese artist's set included an unreleased song. (Megan Cai/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Rapper Spence Lee performs whilst pointing under the glow of red lights. The Chinese-Vietnamese artist’s set included an unreleased song. (Megan Cai/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Spence Lee

Spence Lee is writing his name on the festival stage.

Lee hit the Honda Double Happiness stage running at 3:10 p.m., bantering with the crowd about a bandana he designed. Dressed in a dark sweater with silver chains and sunglasses, the New Jersey rapper made several references to his Chinese-Vietnamese heritage in between songs.

“When you’re striving for greatness, people are going to try to hold you back … People are gonna try to keep you from rising,” he said in a callback to 88rising’s mission. “But where we’re from, we’re always rising.”

During “Write My Name,” Lee approached the audience barricade, shaking hands with fans while he kept rapping. The audience waved their hands in time to the slower, rollicking beat while Lee’s DJs ad libbed on top of the track. His final track, an unreleased song, kept the crowd moving despite the early afternoon heat.

Lee’s spirited performance set the scene for day one.

Held by two dancers in flowing white dresses, Rina Sawayama reaches out. The Japanese-British musician made a statement about racism leading up to her performance of "STFU!" (Megan Cai/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Held by two dancers in flowing white dresses, Rina Sawayama reaches out. The Japanese-British musician made a statement about racism leading up to her performance of “STFU!” (Megan Cai/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Rina Sawayama

Rina Sawayama transformed idyllic clouds into intense hurricanes.

The Japanese-British artist strutted onto the 88rising stage at 4:45 p.m. to “Hold The Girl,” taken from her second studio album of the same name. Accompanied by two dancers and clad in a flowing white dress, Sawayama used her arms to create dramatic movements while she belted the song. For the following rock track, “Hurricanes,” she ditched her skirt as the screens displayed swirling storms and lightning bolts.

After the dancers performed a frenetic interlude, Sawayama reentered the stage. Dressed in a black top and baggy jeans, she began “Dynasty,” an anthem that explores intergenerational trauma. She occasionally interacted with the crowd to introduce a song, like she did prior to “STFU!” a heavy metal song that deplores racism towards Asian people.

“I’m seeing a lot of Asian faces in the crowd today,” she said while the guitarist played the song’s opening riff. “We’ve made so much f—— progress, but you and I know that in our daily lives, people still say some racist s— about us – is that okay with you?”

Theatrical flourishes continued toward the end of her set. During “Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys),” a synth dance track that explores success, visuals of Sawayama on the cover of British Vogue flashed on the screen. Dressed in a scarlet bodysuit and cape while cracking a bullwhip, Sawayama made full use of the main stage, interacting with her dancers during “XS.” She continued to banter with the crowd before her final song – “This Hell,” a country pop tune which ended in an enthusiastic call and response.

Head in the Clouds may be heavenly – but Sawayama brought a lick of hellish heat to match.

[Related: Concert review: Rina Sawayama brings big energy, dynamic performance on Dynasty tour]

In a high-contrast collage, (Left) DPR Ian extends a gloved hand dressed in black against a digital backdrop of flames. On the other side, DPR LIVE hunches over whilst singing into the microphone, sporting an emerald green tracksuit with ivory fringe. (Megan Cai/Daily Bruin senior staff)
In a high-contrast collage, (Left) DPR Ian extends a gloved hand dressed in black against a digital backdrop of flames. On the other side, DPR LIVE hunches over whilst singing into the microphone, sporting an emerald green tracksuit with ivory fringe. (Megan Cai/Daily Bruin senior staff)

DPR LIVE and DPR IAN

Dream Perfect Regime’s duo ruled the 88rising stage.

The South Korean label split its set between two of its founders – Hong Da-bin, known as DPR LIVE, and Christian Yu, or DPR IAN. Hong began the set dressed in an emerald cheetah print set featuring a hood with a lengthy, ivory fringe. The rapper opened with “Legacy,” which featured confident verses and a quick, yet steady flow.

Hong spent most of his set alone on the catwalk, bouncing to the rhythm of his tracks and interacting with the audience. He also kept his setlist fresh with “KISS ME,” where he sang the hook of the love song while the screens displayed colorful visualizers that matched the up-tempo beat.

“This is the part where I step offstage, but before I do that I want to bring out a sexy gentleman,” Hong said as the camera followed him backstage and Yu’s vocals flooded the venue. Accompanied by an entourage of dancers, Yu’s performance heavily emphasized performance and production, with special fog effects and drums that intensified his introduction.

Wearing a sheer, silvery shirt and lace gloves alongside his trademark smokey eyeshadow, Yu moved lithely about the stage with swagger as he sang “So Beautiful.” Yu welcomed Hong back to the stage during “No Blueberries,” much to the delight of the cheering crowd.

With colorful, flashing visuals continuing on screen, Yu removed his shirt and performed his final drum-heavy song, “Ballroom Extravaganza,” which encouraged crowd members to jump in time to the music. Fireworks flared on stage as Yu stood in the center, arms around his dancers.

“Thank you to all the dreamers who came out,” he said. “We wish we had more time – thank you.”

[Related: Head in the Clouds 2023 Q&A: Thai artist Phum Viphurit discusses building connections and festival atmospheres]

Surrounded by backup dancers and on-screen images of haze, Jackson Wang took the stage in a half-crimson, half-black suit. The headliner's performance began shortly after 10 p.m. (Megan Cai/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Surrounded by backup dancers and on-screen images of haze, Jackson Wang took the stage in a suit split into crimson and black halves. The headliner’s performance began shortly after 10 p.m. (Megan Cai/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Jackson Wang

Jackson Wang returned with one more magic trick.

As strobes and haze filled the main stage at 10 p.m., an electric guitar intro played while Wang’s dancers flooded the stage. Visuals spelling “MAGIC MAN” on the stage vanished when Wang himself suddenly appeared on stage, dressed in all black, to sing “100 Ways.” With visual effects and choreography befitting his headlining performance, Wang did a quick change to reveal a suit that was half-crimson, half-black before “Blow.”

In “Greedy,” a new release, Wang’s breathy vocals were reminiscent of Prince. A featured dancer joined Wang on the catwalk with sensual moves that prompted the crowd to scream appreciatively. He also showcased his discography’s diversity with “Long Gone,” a gentler pop song compared to his upbeat opening songs, which all relied heavily on electric guitar and resounding drums. At first accompanied by soft magenta lights and the crowd’s flashlights, pink soon gave way to blood-red as “Her Type of Party” began.

Wang concluded his set with “Cruel,” which saw the artist clawing at the stage dramatically as the dancers surrounded him, thrusting their arms out in synchronized jabs. But despite his set’s focus on high production and theatrics, Wang shone in his conversations with the audience, bringing the crowd of tens of thousands into a more intimate setting.

“A lot of times, we’re lost and we don’t know who we are anymore, so please find your own true standard of happiness,” he said, head bowed.

Email Lagrimas at [email protected] or tweet @dannelawrites.

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Dannela Lagrimas | Lifestyle editor
Lagrimas is the 2022-2023 lifestyle editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2021-2022. She is also a second-year communication and political science student from Temecula, California.
Lagrimas is the 2022-2023 lifestyle editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2021-2022. She is also a second-year communication and political science student from Temecula, California.
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