One of my greatest frustrations with the English language would take too many words to describe. For as much as I love the written word, there are too many ways in which English fails me. At my most emotional, I default to my native Russian. I experience great frustration when I realize one word of Russian translates to several sentences of English, all dancing around my emotive point. This frustration is common in bilingual folks, and for artists who work their bilingualism into their music, that frustration can sometimes be their fuel.
Take “Could Be A Curse,” a trilingual cut off Chicago singer KAINA’s debut album, Next to The Sun. The song tackles all manner of depression and the weight of having a down day, but to communicate the proper emotional palette, KAINA turned to Spanish to best capture her feelings. Her frequent collaborator, friend, and fellow Chicago artist Sen Morimoto did the same with his verse in Japanese. The song is an incredibly touching ballad and a marvel of identity.
Then we have New Jersey spitter CRIMEAPPLE, who did Colombia proud with his DJ Muggs collab, Medallo. Slipping between English and Spanish on the same bar, we get to the root of his heritage: “We did the album in Colombia. The album is for everybody, but it was more about doing my heritage justice, and doing Colombian people justice, and doing Hispanics justice, before anyone else.”
Each of these three artists had to step outside of English to get to the crux of who they are. But working in Spanish or Japanese was never a conscious choice; it was something each artist had to grow into.
For KAINA, there was a pressure to perform in Spanish that pushed her away from the language—that is, until she felt comfortable unraveling her identity as a Latina in America. “I had to work my way into weaving Spanish into my music, just because I feel like there was an expectation to do that,” she tells me. “I would never want to write songs because I think it will get me more attention. I’m writing from a place that’s super genuine about my feelings, so I’m not gonna write a song in Spanish unless I can properly describe my feelings in Spanish.”
Sen and CRIMEAPPLE don’t necessarily echo KAINA’s sentiments, but they both admit to having to mature in some capacity to bring Japanese and Spanish, respectively, into their work. Sen, who has been rapping since his teen years and working Japanese into his early bars, only recently began to think “philosophically” about working Japanese into his music. CRIMEAPPLE attributes his bringing Spanish into his work as a product of becoming more and more like his parents. As it turns out, when it comes to being bilingual, family is a tremendous source of inspiration as well as frustration.
“It’s frustrating for me—with so much good stuff happening—to communicate my emotions and be open with my parents in Spanish so that they can fully understand it,” KAINA explains. “They understand English, but Spanish is always better for them. Sometimes I get frustrated when I don’t know the right words to communicate my joy and the emotions that I’m currently feeling, especially as I celebrate the album. As I continue to talk to them, I get better.”
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While certain emotions can only be communicated outside the realm of English and Western thought, transitioning to a B-language can prove trying. Sen shares KAINA’s difficulty in communicating with his family. He laments not being able to know his father to the most profound extent because his Japanese is not as strong as it could be. And yet, Sen could never imagine performing exclusively in English.
“If I wasn’t allowed to write in Japanese anymore?” he questions rhetorically. “That would be a bummer. It’s how I speak with my family, so it would just be weird to make music where I speak differently than when I speak with my family.”
“There’s whole phrases or types of feelings that really don’t exist [in English]. They can have a rough translation in English, but it doesn’t have the same feel. There’s a term I used in ‘Could Be A Curse,’ that I had been thinking about for a long time: Shō ga nai. It means… ‘There’s no point.’ What’s done is done, kind of. In a way that’s very uplifting and surrendering, and accepting. There’s not really a good way to say that in one phrase in English, that communicates the same kind of positivity of relinquishing power.” —Sen Morimoto
According to Sen, the failing of English comes down to a lack of specificity. Whereas in Japanese—and Russian, if I’m allowed to play—some single words or phrases capture a depth of emotion not available in the Western canon. When asked if this is a byproduct of emotions being so taboo in Western culture, Sen wholeheartedly agrees. He insists that we aren’t even meant to touch emotions in the West, and as a result, our language reflects our unwillingness as a society to be vulnerable.
Apart from accessing our base emotions, performing in more than one language allows for a deeper fan connection. “It’s kinda like a demographic that’s always been underrepresented,” CRIMEAPPLE says of the Spanish audience. “So when someone comes around and can [use Spanish] the right way, it leads to a strong connection with that audience.” As for his American fans, he finds that when they go out of their way to understand his bars, the feeling of connecting with them is all the more rewarding.
KAINA takes a similar stance. She insists that by bringing Spanish into her music, she’s allowing her Latinx fans, mostly first-generation as she points out, to unravel their own identities through her music.
“In writing songs in Spanish and English, and singing something their parents might listen to, I get to bridge the gap and also share with them,” she says. “I get to be like, ‘Hey, sometimes I don’t feel Latina enough.’ That’s a silly concept. I think it brings me closer to my audience.”
“I cover this Spanish standard, they’re called boleros, and I covered ‘Dos Gardenias,’ and when I sing that song, it helps me reach another feeling within myself that I don’t think I could reach, singing in English. Or my verse in ‘Could Be A Curse,’ it’s about my family and our habits and generational habits and traumas. If I don’t get to unravel these bits of myself that I wouldn’t be able to touch in English, then it’s not as fun for me.” —KAINA
For all three artists, too, there would be somewhat of an incomplete feeling if they were forced to perform only in English. There is a new level of emotion, and emotional connection accessed in non-English languages that makes the work more fun and makes the work feel more important. Representing fans, representing yourself, and opening up English music fans to a world outside of themselves cannot be underestimated. Performing exclusively in English would usurp so much power from these artists.
Or, as Sen said, it would be “a bummer.”