Crystal Kay performs at The Stowaway in Los Angeles on Sept. 11.

Crystal Kay on Nearly 25 Years of Being a ‘Black Girl Singing in Japanese’

Writer Amanda Walujono talks to the legendary songstress about her career in Japan, representing mixed-race Black Asians, breaking into the U.S., and more

Crystal Kay performs at The Stowaway in Los Angeles on Sept. 11.

Aya Shimizu

As a household name in Japan, Crystal Kay has performed at the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome multiple timestonight, she’s navigating the herculean task of finding Los Angeles parking, from the driver’s seat of her luxury SUV. This is particularly daunting for a new Angeleno like Kay, who has been living off and on in California since April, flying back to Japan for gigs when needed. When she’s not stuck in traffic, Kay is still exploring the area, figuring out which neighborhood she would like to call homeor at least one of her homes, as she settles into a new “bi-coastal” lifestyle between LA and Japan. But first, the parking situation.

Kay and her team are parked in a loading zone in front of tonight’s venue, The Stowaway, an intimate cocktail club reminiscent of the jazz clubs of Old Hollywood: plush leather booths, art-deco wallpaper, and moody lighting galore. Kay and her team mill about, hesitant, conversing in Japanese amongst themselves, before Kay’s manager arrives to save the day (park the car). The show must go on, so Kay and her team carry their equipment from the SUV and scramble.

The host of Le Petit Paris, an upscale French restaurant above The Stowaway, studies the scene with amusement. Kay is a presence to behold in person. With her lithe figure, height (5 '7, tall by Japanese standards), hair styled in a blowout, and relatively natural makeup (apart from complimentary dark gray eyeshadow), Kay is reminiscent of a beauty pageant queen. Tonight Kay is performing a sold-out show at The Stowaway, her second-ever show in LA. Like her first (an acoustic set at Hotel Ziggy on Sunset Boulevard, just over a week before this one, also sold out), tonight’s show was promoted solely through Instagram with less than two weeks’ notice.

In Japan, Kay is an illustrious singer with a career spanning almost 25 years, since she debuted in 1999 at the age of 13. In addition to her hit songs such as “Koi ni Ochitara,” Kay is known for her unique cultural background: born and raised in Yokohama to a Korean mother and Black American father, she is ethnically Korean and Black but culturally Japanese. The Le Petit Paris host, a white man, nods with empathy, citing his experience as an Italian man working in a French restaurant. But he’s nice enough: despite not being affiliated with The Stowaway, he agrees to watch the equipment as Kay, her team, and I head down the stairs to the venue.

At her second LA show, Crystal Kay performs for a diverse crowd.

Aya Shimizu

The parking situation has resulted in Kay being 30 minutes late, but she remains poised and perfectly polite. Kay has an easy and genuine smile displayed frequently on album covers and in interactions with her staff, The Stowaway staff, the band, the fans who line up for hours, and me. She doesn’t say a word as she takes in the grimy green room, a smattering of couches next to a supply rack and security footage panel, with her trademark smile. It is here that, as her stylist adds waves to her already seemingly perfect hair, Kay recounts her story from the beginning.

Crystal Kay Williams was a military kid born on a naval base in Yokohama on Feb. 26, 1986. She mostly grew up in a single-parent household: her parents divorced when she was “8 or 9,” so her mom, a fellow singer who released an album before Kay’s birth, took over the reins of parenting, and later mentoring her music career. Kay clarifies later during the show, to the sound of collective gasps from fans, that she’s been singing in commercial jingles since the tender age of 4. But Kay is insistent that her mom wasn’t a stage mom, despite people from the outside labeling her as one because she was “on it,” always looking out for Kay’s best interests.

“Eternal Memories,” Kay’s first single, is an expanded commercial jingle for Vitamin Water. In the music video, released in ‘99, a 13-year-old Kay is introduced voice-first: soft, girlish, but with a vulnerability that makes her sound wise beyond her years. The video is moody, darkly lit with deep blues that glow off her skin. Kay faces the camera in silver hoop earrings, a hot pink satin slip dress, and hair in cornrow braids with beads added. During last week’s show, Kay told the audience that she is just now understanding the lyrics of “Eternal Memories,” at the grown age of 37, explicitly citing the English lyrics “gotta find myself / gotta find myself.”

When I ask Kay to expand on this, she says that as a young girl, she would relate to her music on a sonic level, “surface level.” She would connect with the sound, the production, the beat. She would ask questions such as “What’s cool? What's hip?” and found her answers in ‘90s and ‘00s American R&B, telling producers: “I like Destiny’s Child. I like this style better.” At 13, Kay had trouble connecting with the lyrical themes of “navigating life, the importance of love, and what your mom said,” citing specifically “when you and your mom bump heads, the stuff you don’t understand as a child.” Kay had to experience “growing up, moving out, and loving someone” for herself to fully understand.

Kay expands on the relationship with her mom growing up, attributing it to enmeshment: “She’s a mom, but she’s also a dad. She was my manager. She was my boss.” It probably didn’t help that Kay, determined not to be “lacking in any area” of life, insisted on completing high school, though her mom later is the one who insisted on college. Kay still doesn’t know how she did it, living what resembled a Hannah Montana life (sans blonde wig). Her mom suggested skipping school if she was tired, but Kay refused every time, afraid of falling behind.

Kay went to an American military school, getting up at 4:50 a.m. to catch the bus. She was an honor roll student and played in the marching band and on the basketball team, but weekends were dedicated to work. Kay estimates that she didn’t sleep more than five hours a day from seventh grade through college, but she would still try to hang out with friends. Hangouts ranged from haunted houses with fellow military kids to dinner with K-pop superstar BoA.  (“We had the same choreographer. We decided to schedule dinner. We were both 14 or 15 at the time, young girls getting to know each other. It was like a first date.” Kay performed at BoA’s 20th-anniversary concert last year in Japan.)

Meanwhile Kay was steadily becoming a household name. She collaborated with the beloved and legendary rap duo m-flo  (“They’re like my brothers”). Her albums were selling well, regularly certified gold and platinum by the Recording Industry Association of Japan. In 2005, Kay released her most famous single, “Koi ni Ochitara.” It’s a song that everyone in Japan knows and loves, though Kay herself felt differently for many years. It was very different from the earlier R&B work that she loved—a pop song with a sing-along chorus and a “kira kira” (sparkly in Japanese) that is a J-pop trademark. It was an “eternal struggle,” Kay says, for her to accept the success of “Koi ni Ochitara,” but she has since come around to it. Tonight, it’s the last song on the setlist, the encore she gives to her audience.

During the 2010s, Kay explored outwards, figuring out what she liked, as her album and single sales declined. She collaborated with Far East Movement (remember “Like a G6?”) and the Japanese legend Namie Amuro (her dream collaborator). She moved to New York in 2013, releasing a few self-funded English singles that didn't get any traction in the United States or Japan. She healed her relationship with her mom—moving to New York and transferring to LDH Management helped. After returning to Japan, Kay dabbled in musical theater (she won an award for Pippin in 2019 as The Leading Player).

Today, Kay is still releasing music in Japan (she hopes to announce something soon with m-flo) while working on new English music (Kiana Corley, an upcoming American songwriter, is also at the VIP table tonight). Her 25th anniversary is in 2024, and she hopes to celebrate it by touring more extensively in the United States early next year. When I ask Kay about the legacy she wants to leave behind, she cites two things: One, serving as the musical bridge between Japan and the West; two, for being representative for “half Black and half Asian” folks.

Kay is undoubtedly a pioneer for mixed race, specifically Black Asians, in the Japanese music industry. Traditional Japanese enka singer JERO told Kay: “Man, you really paved the way”— nowadays mixed-race celebrities are common in Japan, but that wasn’t the case in 1999. AISHA, who I meet in the booths of the tiny VIP section, tells me she would sing karaoke to Crystal Kay songs in middle school with friends every weekend. The next day, I realized I’d actually seen AISHA before. I and 7.3 million others have viewed her music video “Shy Demo Ii Yo (It’s Okay if You’re Shy),” a certified bop.

In Japan, Kay doesn’t see a lot of Black fans in the audience, though she does see mixed-race kids, the legacy of the fans who’ve grown up along with her. At both LA shows, there’s a sizable number of Black folks, which Kay says she was expecting but happy to see show up in person and not just online. During the first show, Kay asked the audience how they discovered her, explicitly asking if they “saw a Black girl singing in Japanese?” Intrigued by this, I ask Kay if Japan classifies her as a Japanese or foreign singer.

Kay turns to her manager, asking him, “Japanese?” (in Japanese), to which he agrees. After almost 25 years, Kay says, “When Japanese people hear ‘Crystal Kay,’ they know me as a Japanese artist, but I will always be looked at as a foreigner.” This is one of two times she asks her manager for reassurance. The other is when Kay says, “Slowly but surely, I think Japan is becoming more and more accepting,” before she quickly stops herself, hesitating. She repeats “accepting,” not entirely convinced. She then asks, “Accepting?” this time, a question to her manager, who responds: “A little, a little.” Kay and her manager both agree on this: “getting there.”

Tonight’s performance is a celebration. Kay performs with a live band, some of whom she’s never played with until tonight. Her fans, who waited in the bar befriending others or lined up outside, were enthusiastic. The diverse crowd, many of whom look like Anime Expo attendees, sing along with Kay, knowing every lyric to songs such as “Kirakuni,” which is currently unavailable on Spotify and YouTube in the United States. (You can watch a snippet of “Kirakuni “on TikTok, intercut with a scene of Christain Bale in American Psycho. It currently has 38.2K likes). They shout their love for Kay in Japanese.

Many are enthusiastic when she performs the ballad “Motherland,” from the anime Fullmetal Alchemist, with a special guest: Jacob Scesney, an accomplished Black and Filipino saxophonist in his own right. Scesney, too, grew up listening to Kay’s music as a child, starting with “Motherland.” Tonight is a full circle moment for him. After she regales the audience with the origin story of “Eternal Memories,” Coral, a fan who attended both shows, tells Kay that her voice sounds “better now.” Kay laughs, “I hope so.”

After the show, Kay comes out for an impromptu meet-and-greet that moves slowly as she takes her time with each fan. I’m reminded of the end of Kay’s 2008 music video, “Konna ni Chikaku de,” where she briefly conducts a Japanese orchestra as she sings, “You don’t understand / I’m so in love with you.” Kay turns around, facing the camera again with her trademark smile, as someone offscreen literally hands her flowers. Kay walks off the scene, but not before giving the camera an exaggerated, cheeky wink. After the song ends, Kay walks by a life-sized black Barbie with anime doll eyes, who returns her wink. Crystal Kay grins in acknowledgment but keeps walking forward into uncharted territory.

Published on October 4, 2023

Words by Amanda Walujono

Amanda Walujono, an Irvine native currently based in Los Angeles, is an interdisciplinary writer with a digital media day job. She has written numerous anime-inspired scripts for the TV screen, and is currently working on her first literary novel.
Find her on Twitter at @misamandary and Instagram at @curvyazngurlfits.