ZEMBU Is Trying to Hold All of Her Identities at Once

The half-Japanese, half-white musician with Jewish ancestry dives into self-examination with her new single, "Mixed."

Since the pandemic hit, some days seem to last years, while others disappear before they’ve gotten started. Many of us have spent more hours alone with ourselves than ever before, and have sought distraction — from bread-baking to TikTok — to fill those hours. Colorado-based queer musician ZEMBU has taken a different approach. She’s leaned into that solitude as an opportunity to reflect and work through unprocessed emotions.

An indie-pop electronic producer and musician, ZEMBU “combines ethereal, warm production with layers of soulful vocals and reflective lyricism that channels listeners to a nostalgic, thoughtful place.” She draws inspiration from artists like Låpsley, Little Dragon, Erykah Badu, Sylvan Esso, and James Blake. You may have heard her on Spotify and Apple Music editorial playlists, where her debut EP, “Recall,” now has over 1 million streams.

Her latest track, “Mixed,” releasing today, somehow turns the work of grappling with identity into a serene meditation. In ZEMBU’s own words: “Being half-Japanese and half-white with Jewish ancestry, I always feel the tension of holding multiple truths at once, and often those truths conflict with one another.” But the conflict doesn’t overwhelm the sense of wholeness in her music. The track opens with a resonant guitar line. Then, subtle vocals and synths grow around it, until waves of sound carry the listener through ZEMBU’s feelings:

2am up in this bed,
Oh feeling there’s so much more

Restless with my mixed self,
Never knew I lost it

That’s where I wanna go,
To the place,
The place that you are home

That’s where I wanna go,
To the place,
The place that you call home

Despite the lyrics’ uncertainty, they are beautifully simple, and the song has an ultimately reassuring quality, as if no journey of self-examination is too scary to undertake.

Alma chatted with ZEMBU over email about the family ties that inspired the song, and why now felt like the right time to write it.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Where did “Mixed” come from? What sparked it?

I am a light-skinned woman of color with an ancestry that has caused harm and been harmed. I’m learning how to hold my immense privilege while also honoring the parts of my identities that have been historically oppressed.

This year, I embarked on a journey of reconnecting with my Japanese identity after the death of my Japanese mother 11 years ago. “Mixed” captures a large part of this journey, exploring the complexities of being mixed race and finding wholeness in myself.

What is your relationship to Judaism, and has it fluctuated over time?

I have Jewish ancestry on my dad’s side. He grew up Jewish but didn’t raise my siblings and me religiously Jewish. My family celebrated Hanukkah and my dad cooked up traditional Jewish food on occasion throughout the year. That was about the extent of my connection to Judaism. Today, I still don’t identify with being religiously Jewish, but I do identify as being culturally Jewish, and am very much in the process of reconnecting with and unpacking what that means to me.

What Jewish foods did he make you?

Matzah ball soup, potato latkes, brisket, and hummus! My dad is a chef and baker so we were also lucky enough to have some delicious challah around every now and then.

Are there musicians out there whom you feel are doing a good job balancing all of their identities, both in their work and in how they present themselves? Or other public role models?

Ah, yes. I especially admire Madame Ghandi, Hollis, Noname, MILCK, and Black Belt Eagle Scout. They hold their identities in such authentic and honest ways. These are just a few among the many artists that inspire me in this way.

How and when did you start making music?

I grew up in a musical home and have been singing for as long as I can remember. During adolescence, however, I left singing behind. It wasn’t until I was 23 years old that I rediscovered my love for singing and creating music. I went all in after writing a song with a friend in Seattle, which motivated me to quit my desk job to pursue music full-time. I started out as the lead vocalist for a couple of projects, then began creating and producing music as ZEMBU about two years ago.

You mentioned that this song is, in part, a reaction to losing your mother 11 years ago. Can you tell us a little about her and your relationship with her?

My mom was a creative, compassionate, and complex human. After growing up in Japan, she immigrated to the U.S. in her mid-20s, solo. She spent her life as a singer-songwriter, vocal teacher, artist, activist, mother, wife, and friend to many. Growing up, my mom and I were really close. She encouraged me to spend time doing what I love, to embrace who I am, and to participate in social change. Recently, I have found myself doing a lot of new self-reflection and exploration — something I recognize and appreciate has been a privilege. It wasn’t until last year that I began to acknowledge the cultural loss I experienced in the wake of my mom’s death and how important it is to me to reconnect to my ancestry. It took me these past 11 years to heal and process the loss of her as my mom, but it wasn’t until last year that I finally had the space in my grieving process to explore the loss of my Japanese culture.

Are there any particular reasons that you’ve been doing this reflecting and exploring right now, specifically? Just… the events of this year? Or did it start from something else?

With the implications of COVID, staying put at home, and the years since my mom’s death, I feel like there has been time and space for me to reckon with the cultural loss of my Japanese heritage. The sociopolitical climate, the Black Lives Matter movement, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more have also significantly contributed to deeply unpacking who I am racially and ethnically in the context of the world, particularly in the context of this country. My light skin affords me so much privilege in the U.S. where anti-Blackness is rooted in our culture. It is critical for me to understand what it means to be a half-Japanese and half-white person with Jewish ancestry — writing “Mixed” has been a small part of that journey.

To me, there are three distinct parts of the song, which represent 1) being disconnected from my racial and cultural identities, 2) remembering my identities, and 3) celebrating this process of remembering.

That’s lovely. I do feel those stages, from restlessness to joy, when I listen. How is your relationship to music influenced by your mother’s musicality? Any memories you’re open to sharing?

Absolutely. As a singer-songwriter and vocal teacher, my mom was such an advocate of me pursuing music. Both my mom and dad deeply believed in the power of music and really wanted all of my siblings and me to foster our musicality.

I remember waking up in my bunk bed on weekends to her vocal students singing warm-ups and belting their hearts out. It was like my weekend alarm clock. Once her students left, I’d roll out of bed and sing on the karaoke machine that she had for her students. I have a distinct memory of singing “Hero” by Mariah Carey on repeat. I loved it so much.

In addition to being a musician and teaching artist, my mom ran an organization called “The World Peace Project for Children” with a mission to teach/instill the concept of peace in youth through education and music. Through presentations she would give for the organization, I would often accompany her in singing songs. When I was in 5th grade my mom took me out of school for a month to go to Japan to essentially do a tour together. We played shows at schools and in community spaces across the country singing songs in both Japanese and English. She sang and played guitar and I sang by her side.

Have there been any specific discoveries, or instances of cultural reconnections, that you’ve made now that you’ve had some space to process your more immediate grief?

One reconnection that has been pretty profound for me recently has been creating an altar for my mom and my ancestors. In Japan, households often have a family altar for ancestors where offerings and prayers are made. In this journey of reconnection and remembering, I created an altar in my room where I sit to give an offering and meditate each morning. It has been a very connecting practice to intentionally take time to sit with my ancestors each day.

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