Both W-A.I., aka Waiyan Kyawni, and Steph KoKo seem like pretty typical millennials — mindful of the latest trends, tuned into the hashtag zeitgeist, and always down to laugh about hating and loving Kanye West.
You probably wouldn’t recognize them if you’ve only listened to or watched W-A.I.’s music videos. His face is routinely hidden behind a mask — either drawn or worn. She’s behind the camera, away from the spotlight, but crucial to the finished product.
But together, they form a potent one-two punch, that’s hoping to usher in a wave of fresh young talent, in a music industry many see as increasingly stale.
While tracks like Red Spaceship, Bullchit and Chillin WYD have been making waves in Yangon’s EDM scene over the past two years, it’s the psychedelic quality and distinctly Burmese elements in their videos that carry the promise of breaking out to a wider audience.
W-A.I. is the creative force behind the mask on those songs, while KoKo is the business mind of the duo, dealing with the marketing and distribution of W-A.I.’s projects across multiple platforms.
This agent/producer role is informed by her experience as the COO of the Yangon-based Legacy Music Network Company, a digital content aggregator founded by her father, Dr. Ko Ko Lwin, who managed the legendary Myanmar rock band Iron Cross.
That second-generation music industry know-how has helped create a stable framework for W-A.I.’s experimentation with EDM and visual art, a sound sometimes suggestive of hip-hop, often reminiscent of a childhood past, and always interesting.
When W-A.I. first began releasing his EDM remixes after moving to San Francisco for college, a full-time career in music hadn’t even entered his mind.
“I just wanted to make people dance and to get some club gigs,” he said when Coconuts recently sat down with the duo in Legacy’s 10th-floor Yangon office.
Like many international students from Myanmar who go abroad for college, when they were studying in California — in San Francisco and Orange County, respectively — W-A.I. and KoKo both found themselves searching for community as well as a sense of belonging,
“We think in terms of our identity, because when we left [for the US], we realized even more how close we are to our culture and how important and unique the Burmese identity is. I think that transfers to everything we make,” KoKo said.
As W-A.I. began experimenting more with combining visual art with music production, he began to take the process more seriously and pushed his finished products towards telling a story, he explained.
And while his music is largely based on electronic loops with a distinctive lean towards glitch and chiptunes, his visuals are distinctly Burmese.
“Aesthetically, my music is very Burmese-influenced. When I see a lot of music videos out there, I don’t see something that represents me. I don’t see music videos that have ‘Pyit Taing Taung’ (a traditional toy that always stands when you throw it) or any Burmese element in it,” he said.
“When I make a video, I have that in mind: What would I want to see in a music video that represents me, represents something Burmese?”
“Basically, I like to use a lot of Burmese symbolism,” W-A.I. continued. “For my Red Spaceship video, I wanted to do something with puppets, so I used Burmese puppets instead of something else. My first video, called Mindsets, I used a Pyit Taing Taung in the video.”
For W-A.I., the conscious emphasis on aesthetics makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
“I think music and visuals should always be paired, because it provides more of an emotional impact. When I see a music video, I end up liking a song more, because I know there is a story behind it and it just sticks with me more than it would when I just listen to a song.”
A quick look at W-A.I.’s work quickly reveals an obsession with faces, the eyes in particular. Consistently throughout his music videos, he manipulates his own face and add surreal stop-motion-style effects in which drawn eyes are added to his own hands or various inanimate objects.
His music videos also invoke a nostalgic quality, at least if — like much of his audience — you grew up in the ‘90s and early 2000s. His videos routinely play around with visual cues from old Windows XP software, everything from the file folders to Microsoft Paint.
“I like putting my audience in a very surreal space and I like this contrast between nostalgia and modern day things,” he explained. “By including nostalgic elements, I can have a bigger emotional impact because people recall their earlier memories.”
Both W-A.I. and KoKo are keenly aware of their position between Myanmar and the world, between tradition and the experimental.
In the song Move Me, for instance, a computer screen spreads its roots into the ground, only to zoom out to reveal the humanoid spinning out against the background of the Golden Gate bridge and a walkway up to a pagoda.
But while the visual conceptualizations lean heavily on Burmese aesthetics, the language is a different matter.
W-A.I. feels more comfortable singing in English. Considering that he graduated from an international school and studied in the US, it’s perhaps not surprising to find that English is very nearly a first language.
“I listen to a lot of English songs more than Burmese songs,” he said. “I would say my videos are more Burmese influenced than my music.”
But while W-A.I. might sing in English, the end goal, both he and KoKo insist, is to represent Myanmar globally while simultaneously expanding the local scene. That means working primarily with other Burmese indie artists, as a recent collaboration with singer-songwriter Youn Ni Ko attests.
“It’s because we’re not represented [internationally]. I want to represent dope ass Burmese artists on a global scale,” W-A.I. said. “That’s the main reason I want to work with Burmese artists.”
In their own home market, they face the challenge of overcoming the longstanding dominance of a peculiar brand of Burmese pop music — “copy tachin,” or “copy song,” Burmese-language covers of major Western hits.
Many, if not most, of the chart-topping hits from the past two decades have been examples of this strange hybrid of innovation and plagiarism.
Growing up in Myanmar, it was difficult to escape the sounds of copy tachin. Michael Learn to Rock’s Blue Night and Bon Jovi’s You Give Love a Bad Name were transformed into A Pyar Yaung Chit Nyar (Lover’s Blue Night) and A Twin Kyay (Heart’s Contusion).
It was a phenomenon that dominated the Burmese music industry, catapulting singers to national fame. It’s something KoKo, who grew up in the industry, is all-too-familiar with.
“Since my dad started, we couldn’t rely on the country’s law, because the IP laws literally states that if you steal someone’s content – the original owner, the proprietor – you pay them x amount of rupees which equates to about $7. You can get away with anything,” KoKo explained.
One of her dads own bands, Iron Cross, rose to legendary status in the country by singing and performing an extensive collection of copy tachin, including international hits such as Blue Night, alongside their original works. They’ve even performed internationally before large audiences of Burmese diaspora in Singapore, London and the US.
But that relaxed attitude about intellectual property invariably affected the entire industry. Not only was it difficult to determine who would be paid and how much, artists who were just starting out found it difficult getting off the ground in a country where piracy is rampant.
“We have all these dope ass artists, but we don’t have the infrastructure to promote the small indie artists. If you’re a small indie artist, it’s hard to make a living here. You need to become a legend,” W-A.I. said.
Producers, artists and instrumentalists all faced the same challenges: how do you make a living as a musician when people don’t want to pay for music?
“Hopefully in a few years, we’ll be able to have a small scene where [musicians] are able to support themselves while pursuing their art.”
For younger artists like W-A.I. and music managers like KoKo, the path in the social media age is clear: online distribution.
Putting their primary focus online has a dual purpose, explained KoKo, it allows them to remain relevant at a very low cost while actually allowing them to enforce copyright through new technologies available on Facebook and Youtube.
“When an artist gives their original content to a digital content aggregator, we have the original links,” she said. “With these links, Facebook or YouTube can determine if a copy out there is being used without our permission, and through that [management companies] can recoup the ad revenue and pay the sum back to the original artist.”
It’s still a relatively new path, but for a duo that’s only just now making its mark, it’s one that is crackling with potential.
You can check out W.A.I.’s music on Soundcloud, Youtube, Instagram and Facebook.
Stay tuned for his latest, Classic Addiction, with Kevin.