Raised by the harmonies of Destiny’s Child, En Vogue and SWV, Nina Nelson and Queenie Villaluz were primed for their girl group world domination. With a renaissance of new girl groups coming onto the scene in recent years, Nelson and Villaluz bring into it their own special heat that the American music industry has given little space to—they’re both powerful Filipina American women, forging themselves the visibility we’ve been waiting for.
Nelson is one of four members in the heaven-sent girl group, Citizen Queen, who started off as an acapella cover group that went viral for their “Evolution of Girl Groups” video in 2019—now surpassing 26 million views. The group recently released their first EP, CLIQUE, breaking from their former acapella style and partaking in a new blend of pop and R&B excellence.
Villaluz is one of five members in the fiery enigma of a girl group that is Boys World. From their smash hit of a debut single, “Girlfriends,” that was a masterclass in serving the ferocity of the girl group icons of the past but with a modern twist, to their recent release of their R&B-heavy single “Gone Girl,” they embody the power of women one hit at a time.
Nelson and Villaluz are shifting the traditional blueprint of what a girl group can look like to an even better one. The two stars have gotten closer in recent years, tethered by the shared cultural background they represent while taking on nationwide tours and creating singles surpassing millions of streams worldwide. Simply put, they are Filipino American history being made in front of us. However, being the driver of this history and representation is not an easy feat.
“I think people pursuing what they love to do and doing it fearlessly, despite any challenges, or anything that stands in the way, and being a beacon of success to other people that look like me that they can do it too–and absolutely be flawless while doing it–it's a really good feeling to be that for someone,” Nelson says.
As hyper-visible figures in pop culture, Nelson and Villaluz believe it’s their responsibility to be vocal about their culture while taking on this journey in the spotlight.
“I think Queenie and I are more vocal about being Filipino than I've experienced other people being in the past,” Nelson says. “There's so many people after 10 years down the line where I’d be like, ‘Oh wait, she’s Filipino?’ So, I think it's our unspoken responsibility to be vocal about and proud of [our culture] because there's so much to be proud of.”
“In the beginning of this, I just went into it like, ‘Oh my god, I can sing and I can live my dream,’ but no, I also have to acknowledge that I am a Filipino woman going into this because it's the representation I'm holding,” Villaluz says.
Although both songstresses have Bay Area roots, they bring into the industry two different Filipino American experiences, with Villaluz being raised in the Philippines before coming to the United States and Nelson being born here. These experiences were formative in these women deciding who they wanted to be and what they wanted to represent in the industry.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but it's pressure that I want,” Villaluz says. “I was born in the Philippines. I speak very fluently…even though there's Olivia Rodrigo—and I love her, I absolutely love her—there is an Americanized version of being Filipino, which is fine. But to have someone [in the industry] born in the Philippines, who grew up in the Philippines, can speak the language, can cook the food? I love that I’m showing people that I am that and I can do it very well.”
“And as much beauty as there is in being Filipinx, I think there is also a little bit of pain associated with Filipino identity in America,” Nelson adds. “I’ve talked to my mom recently about why she chose not to teach me Tagalog, and her answer was painful, and sad to hear. She said, ‘I was harassed for my accent, and for knowing the language, and it made it harder for me to assimilate here. So subconsciously, I think I chose to not make it hard for you.’ So now I'm taking it upon myself to wear [Filipino culture] with pride. I think it is my responsibility.”
These two Filipina artists have had a flawless execution in taking on this responsibility in honor of our culture, a beautiful sight to see after hearing their thoughts on how being Filipino, and our culture, has played a dynamic role in solidifying their craft.
“I mean, Filipino singers sing their faces off, my lola is constantly singing around the house,” Nelson says. “At Christmas, I go to Ohio where my Filipino family lives right now, and the karaoke machine? It gives you a grade, babe! [Laughs] And if it’s anywhere under 92, you didn't win! So I just remember, like, everything that mom taught me at home, I brought for the test during Christmas!”
“My whole family is filled with dancers, singers, and musicians, so for me there was more of a pressure to get it together,” Villaluz says. “My grandma was a professional singer in the Philippines, she taught me the Whitney Houstons of the world, the Donna Summers, all of that. So I think when it comes to my vocals, I get that from her, and her being like, ‘Bitch, you better sing your ass off cause your mama is watching you in the crowd right now!’”
With family holding such a special place in their genesis stories as singers, I asked if the typical Filipino pressure to become a nurse ever came up in their upbringing as creatives.
“Luckily, I never felt the pressure to take the academic route,” Nelson says. “The way my mom did it was like, you have to do good at your academics if you want to do the thing that you love. So get an A on your tests and then you can go to your cringe theater rehearsal. It wasn't cringe to me, okay! [Laughs] But, I'm grateful to her for that.”
“My grandma was never like, ‘Okay, do the nursing thing,’ which is very stereotypical in Filipino families,” Villaluz says. “But with her, I was very thankful in the fact that I could do what I want to do, but, just bitch make sure you do it good!”
While these foundations were strong, they ultimately could never fully prepare these women for the journeys they’d have to endure as Asian women in an industry dominated by white men.
“Before I was in the girl group, I was in the acting world, and I remember the agent that I was with for the better part of a decade, would say things like, ‘Let's capitalize on how ethnic you look,’" Nelson says. “And within the first couple of years of Citizen Queen, unfortunately, all five of us went through some crazy things. There were a lot of men telling us who to be and how to be and where we can't say our piece. There were sessions we weren't let into, but our stories were being written for us, and I'm like, ‘Okay, but what do you know about a Black woman from Louisiana, a Black woman from the Bronx, girls from the Midwest and a Filipino girl from the Bay? Like, I dare you, white 35-year-old man, to write [our] story, because I don't think you know.’”
“And growing up [hearing], ‘Oh my God, you're so cute! Oh my God, you're so adorable!’ Fuck that. I want to be hot. I want to be sexy. Just because I'm this little Asian girl don't mean I'm cute and adorable,” Villaluz added. “I can dance my ass off. I can break my fucking back twerking my ass! Like, stop playing with me! That has made me be this badass woman and not just give in to the adorableness. Especially as an Asian woman, don't let anyone convince you that you're just gonna be this cute little lady for years. You can be a badass bitch! I'm very thankful that I rebelled against it.”
Nelson’s persistence is grounded in fighting for the next generation of women in music, especially after her experience as a songwriter has been affected by her identity as an Asian woman.
“I do feel like in a lot of writing rooms too, especially when I was starting out, I didn't feel like I was taken seriously,” Nelson added. “The more feminine that I dressed, the [more] I was treated in a cute way…and there will be a lot of people in the industry telling you what to think and who you are and what decision to make or where you belong. But my advice is that you know yourself better than you think you do.”
Villaluz’s persistence to represent Filipina women in music is even more powerful given her intersecting identity as an openly queer woman. Her representation of her multiple identities is a powerful beacon of hope, monumental given the cultural stigmas of queerness and the lack of legal protections for queer people in the Philippines.
“It’s even more pressure being a person of color in this industry, and plus being a woman, and plus being queer, but I love being this,” Villaluz says. “Being this person in the industry, you don't see that. Especially as a woman. I love who I am and I just have a whole lot of confidence in being queer and I just want to show people that you can be this one day. My confidence of believing I can love who I want to love? You're not going to stop me from doing that. I think it's a great thing to see for people in the Philippines too, to be like, ‘Oh, there are places where you’re allowed to be this way. There's hope at the end of this tunnel.’ Giving that hope to other people in places where they aren’t allowed to be queer is amazing.”
Worldwide impact is something Nelson also is familiar with, especially as we discussed her evolution of songwriting. From writing songs with Citizen Queen to co-writing a smash hit for the legendary K-Pop girl group, TWICE, Nelson’s pen has power.
“Citizen Queen just dropped an EP called CLIQUE, and we wanted to reintroduce ourselves as the four-member group and as the fully produced, fully written by us identity,” Nelson says. “We started as an acapella group and we've been through a long journey over the last four or five years. We were assigned to a label, we went through some management and had some interesting entertainment industry moments, but it influenced us to write this song called FYP which stands for ‘Fuck Your Plan.’ We have experienced a lot of men telling us how to be women, which is a crazy little statement. So we use that song to do everything musically, which a lot of people told us that we couldn't do.”
Nelson also co-wrote TWICE’s hit single “Moonlight Sunrise” alongside Kaedi Dalley, another member of Citizen Queen.
“We took a session with a producer named Ear Attack and the melody came really easily to Kaedi and I,” Nelson says. “We were just drinking a glass of wine, like, [humming the ‘Moonlight Sunrise’ melody]. We wrote that whole song in a day. It was a crazy text to get when they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, Chaeyoung is in the booth right now. It sounds super slay!’ I mean, people all over the world who don't speak English learned it word for word. And for it to be played in the stadium [at the TWICE world tour], it was like 50,000 people out there! It was very validating and it definitely put a fire under me for the Citizen Queen project.”
Both women have had recent milestones with their groups, with Villaluz and Boys World just passing their third year mark and Nelson and Citizen Queen just passing their fifth year mark. The women had a lot to reflect on looking back regarding themselves and their sisterhoods.
“It's just crazy that it's been three fucking years,” Villaluz says. “We released [“Girlfriends”] in the pandemic and it was probably the hardest fucking year of my life. I was in a very abusive relationship and now it's three years later and I'm in the healthiest relationship. It's amazing to see the growth in Boys World in general. We are now the drivers of our own career. Boys World has completely evolved and we have grown into these beautiful young women who are now writers and doing our own music videos, and this year is the first year we've ever performed live! So that's amazing to see.”
“If I told myself two years ago that we'd have a nine-track EP out that is 90 percent written by us, I wouldn't believe you,” Nelson says. “We didn't have the permission, or the access or the ability to do that. And when I say ability, I don't mean musical ability. There were contractual obligations that didn't allow us to release music or state who we were. So I'm just really proud. I just know that 2018 me would be like, ‘Oh, I'm writing my own songs? I'm engineering this? I'm editing the vocal? I'm writing the damn thing? Like, that's crazy. That's what I've always wanted to do.’ It’s very much proof that I'm capable of things that I never thought I would be, and I hope people feel like they can challenge themselves in more ways than just musically listening to it.”
And now we watch as these two take over the industry, supportive of each other along the way.
“I love Citizen Queen,” Villaluz says. “There's always a sense of competition [in the industry], and when it comes to Citizen Queen and Boys World, it's like, no, there's room for us. There's room for all of us. There's room to appreciate each other. I absolutely love that.”
“It's important for Filipinos to be in each of our groups, you know, so when I saw Boys World come up and I saw [Queenie] in the group I was so happy,” Nelson says. “I think I also had this expectation that there would be competition at some point, but it's not been like that. There really is room for all of us.”
Published on December 5, 2023