88rising’s Ollie Zhang Talks Head In The Clouds’ Rise As Festival Expands To Two Days

Sky Greene
ATARASHII GAKKO! made their U.S. debut by taking the stage at Head In The Clouds Nov. 6.
Japanese girl group ATARASHII GAKKO! made their U.S. debut in style by opening the third edition of Head In the Clouds festival Nov. 6 with a spirited performance complete with delightful choreography, an on-stage fight with an alien and a guest appearance from Indonesian rapper Warren Hue. Sporting their signature school uniforms, the quartet also donned helmets and vests when showing off their rendition of a song from their “favorite band” – “Intergalactic” by the Beastie Boys.  

“Our first show in overseas in LA! We were excited! Our excitement hasn’t cooled down yet…

“Thank you for dancing with us. Thank you to everyone watched the stream. AG! revolution has occurred. We can’t stop!!” ATARASHII GAKKO! posted on Twitter Nov. 7.

The Nov. 6-7 event also marked a big moment for Head In The Clouds, the festival founded by Asian music and media company 88rising and produced in partnership with Goldenvoice. In addition to being the first post-lockdown fest for Head In the Clouds, the 2021 edition was the first time the event expanded to two days and its first time in a larger location at Brookside at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., after previously taking place at Los Angeles State Historic Park. 

Head In The Clouds, like 88rising itself, is a love letter to Asian culture. When Head In The Clouds launched in 2018, it marked the first Asian-centric music festival in the United States.  

Attracting 25,000 fans per day, the festival featured pan-Asian artists from seven different countries across a variety of genres including hip-hop star Saweetie, Indonesian singer/songwriter NIKI, indie rock darling Japanese Breakfast, viral punk band The Linda Lindas, Filipino-British alt-rock singer/songwriter Beabadoobee, Indonesian rapper Rich Brian and Japanese alternative R&B singer/songwriter Joji. 
Pollstar spoke with Ollie Zhang, chief of staff at 88rising, to learn more. 
Pollstar: What was it like to bring back the festival after the shutdown? 
Ollie Zhang: We were originally going to hold our first international Head In The Clouds festival in Jakarta in March 2020. But unfortunately, we canceled that, pretty much the week out from the festival, literally the day before I myself was getting on the plane to Jakarta.  
So [the 2021 event] was really surreal. There was a lot of excitement and anticipation for the festival. But it also felt really special for our artists who were taking this performance extra seriously because in many cases it was their first time performing in two years or in some cases their first time performing in the United States. The artists put their all into the performances and kind of left it all there on the stage. From the staff side, we were working tremendously hard for the last couple of months to make sure everything was the best experience possible.  
Can you talk about putting together the lineup?  
The lineup was a dream lineup of incredible Asian talent from around the world. Being at the festival and backstage with all the artists, it really felt like a community coming together. A lot of the artists had collaborated with each other before, you saw artists pop up in other artists’ sets and I really got a sense of community between all these different artists. That was exactly the type of feeling that we were striving for when putting together the lineup. 88[rising] has always been about building a platform for amazing Asian talent. But within that, we’re building relationships.
Sky Greene
Japanese singer/songwriter Joji returned to Head In The Clouds to headline the 2021 festival on Nov. 7.
The festival began with the U.S. debut of ATARASHII GAKKO! Tell me about their set.  
I think [we] really could not have asked for a better way to kick off the festival and to set the tone for everything to come. … Performance is in their nature. They did a lot of amazing choreography and just brought so much energy. And regardless of whether you were familiar with their music 
or not, I think you came away from that set being a fan of the music. We feel really lucky to be working with them, just having released their debut EP [SNACKTIME] through 88rising. 
There’s a lot of Beasties Boys energy in what they do. Even for this EP, they worked really closely with Money Mark, one of the Beastie Boys’ original producers and collaborators. So there’s a thread that you can draw between the two acts and there’s no better way to honor that than an amazing cover.
What was it like hosting the event at the new venue, Brookside at the Rose Bowl?
It’s a great venue. It definitely felt like we leveled up by coming to that field. … It made for a really comfortable fan experience. There were a lot of great angles to watch the show. And it also allowed us to do a lot more on site – expanding all of our food options, expanding a number of activities at the festival. We had giant VR machines. We had a human claw machine. 
We really improved the VIP experience as well. We partnered once again with 626 Night Market. They do a lot of different night markets across Southern California. We worked with them as our food curator for the festival and they brought together just a great list of restaurants.  
What did it mean to bring back the festival after the increase in anti-Asian racism during the COVID era?
It was really powerful to bring together so many people – 25,000 people a day – in one place, but in a really celebratory way … celebrating amazing Asian talent, Asian creatives, Asian youth culture around the world. It was definitely a joyful event. It’s really a powerful message that’s not lost on me, especially having grown up in San Gabriel Valley and not having anything like this ever existing when I was growing up. It felt really special to be able to bring something like this to life, especially when Asian artists were [previously] only represented very minimally on other festivals. I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done at 88. And I’m also really grateful to the broader Asian American community for embracing the festival and participating in it and also hopefully having a great time above all.   
We also had a livestream through Amazon Music as well as Twitch. There were 25,000 people at the festival site but many times more were watching online around the world. And I think that was also really, really powerful. My parents were even watching the livestream from their home. (laughs)
What’s it been like working with Goldenvoice?
Working with Goldenvoice is a dream. They organize festivals like nobody else and they’ve been just tremendous partners throughout this entire process. They’ve been really supportive in letting us do what we want to do. We really appreciate that and I look forward to continuing that collaboration.
What’s next for Head in the Clouds?
We’ll definitely be returning with another festival next year and then looking to expand and bring the festival international. Everyone will have to stay tuned for those announcements.