Toronto musician Aiko Tomi exudes an untamed creative energy in a recent music video. Wearing black cat ears, a Fendi crop top, a heavy dangling chain, and black knee-high platform boots, she prowls across the screen in “Animal’s Awake”. The title track on her latest album is from the gaze of a boldly physical woman enjoying a wild night out after the pandemic lockdown.
But when Tomi speaks to Pancouver over Zoom, she has set aside the glam look. Nowadays, the pop artist no longer sports eyeliner and eyelashes in situations like this.
“When I’m meeting people for the first time online, I’m making a point of going bare-faced,” Tomi says. “It’s become dear to my heart.”
One of the core themes in Animal’s Awake is self-reclamation, which Tomi defines as “strength in true acceptance”. Going bare-faced is one manifestation of this. For Tomi, self-reclamation also includes loving the eyes and body that she was born with.
A prime example is her celebratory song “Monolids”. It triumphantly announces her choice to keep her natural single eyelids.
Watch the video for “Animal’s Awake”.
Tomi challenges societal expectations
Monolids are quite common among people of Asian ancestry. However many women in Asia—including beauty pageant contestants—undergo surgery to add the creases. It’s all in pursuit of beauty standards influenced by idealizing western attributes.
“I got monolids monolids monolids/Made in China and designed in Japan,” Tomi proudly declares in her song.
Then, she repeats: “Like I ordered it ordered it ordered it.”
The lyrics speak to the joy of her own heritage. Born in Taipei, Tomi’s grandmother was Japanese and her grandfather was Chinese. Her family immigrated to Canada when she was three. As a child, she was mocked by kids because of the shape of her eyes.
But then as Tomi became older, people of Asian ancestry—often with folded eyelids from birth or due to surgery—would comment on her monolids.
“I would get eyelid-shamed from fellow Asians, which is really messed up,” Tomi recalls. “I remember taking metal objects and trying to scrape wrinkles into my eyes.”
She adds that she attempted practically everything else short of surgery. And she notes that the sale of double-eyelid products and procedures is a lucrative industry.
“It’s really unsettling,” Tomi says, describing a meme that shows various Asian women looking eerily similar after undergoing the same procedure.
In response, her song opens with: “I fight the bias but I’m good with the slant.”
Another track of self-reclamation is “Handful”, which opens with a pulsating, almost punkish feel. The high-energy delivery and body positivity make it an alt-pop anthem for small-chested women.
“Body dysmorphia plagued me for many years,” Tomi reveals. “I’m sure many Asian women can relate to drinking papaya milk to try and grow boobs. As you can see, that didn’t work.”
A major turning point came in 2020 when a friend showed her a digital influencer named Lil Miquela. Even though this influencer is a computer-generated character, it marked the first time that Tomi had seen someone with a small chest portrayed in such a positive and stylish light.
“Her feed is impeccable,” Tomi says. “I realized that since she was created by an amazing creative team, those A-cups were a choice. I always knew that representation matters, but it took boobs to make me truly feel it.”
This inspired Tomi to write a song about the perks of having a small chest.
“I call it a power banger for the IBTC,” Tomi says. “When I sing it, other girls who have small chests come up to me and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I feel so seen.’ Some people say they wished they had this song when they were teenagers. I wish I had this song when I was a teenager, too.”
Singer aims to refresh the narrative
Furthermore, she thinks that her monolids and small breasts give her a unique and androgynous look that she can either play up or play down.
Tomi has even spotted older women experiencing joy when she sings “Handful”. In fact, the musician believes that she’s “refreshing the narrative” by performing songs from the perspective of a woman who grew up Asian in North America.
“I feel that’s definitely an underrepresented point of view in pop music,” she states.
Tomi acknowledges that she spent many years looking for acceptance after being bullied and experiencing racism as a kid.
“It’s only recently that I realized how much it shaped my people-pleasing tendencies,” she says.
Her song “Gladly”, from Animal’s Awake, offers an explicit repudiation of the need to please. (Warning: some of the language may offend tender ears.)
See the video for Aiko Tomi’s single “Gladly”.
The other three themes on Animal’s Awake revolve around Asian joy, giddy romance, and social media. It’s a follow-up to her 2021 EP, For the Love.
Moreover, Tomi likes putting a playful spin on her songs, even if the topics are serious. One example is the melodic and lighthearted “Better Version”.
“If you’re a serial monogamist with a type, you’ll understand what I mean when I say ‘Romantic partners are like iPhones; you keep upgrading very couple of years, but in the end, it’s all the same shit,’ ” she quips.
Then there’s the crunchier “Mute Me”, which is a humorous spin on social media toxicity. Tomi’s lyrics describe the behaviour where instead of muting some people with annoying online tactics, a person develops a strange fixation with the people they want to mute.
“You wanna mute me, but who else would you flame?” she sings, self-aware that we might all be that person to someone else without knowing it. “You wanna mute me, but where would you be without me babe?”
Animal’s Awake also includes a collaboration with Juno-nominated DJ Korea Town Acid, entitled “Umami”, It features lyrics that all bubble-tea drinkers can relate to: “pace yourself sucking these balls to the last drop.”
Check out “Umami” with DJ Korea Town Acid
Pretending to fall in slow motion
On August 26, Tomi will perform at TAIWANfest Toronto. At this free event at Harbourfront Centre, she’ll share the stage with Taiwan’s DJ Dungi Sapor, who’s a member of the Amis tribe in Hualien. Like Tomi, DJ Dungi Sapor also sings of self-acceptance—after experiencing a great deal of discrimination due to her Indigenous heritage.
As for the “Animal’s Awake” video, Tomi’s happy to share the story behind its creation. When she was recording “Handful” in 2021, her producer, Andrew Rasmussen, misheard the words “any more is a waste, though”. He thought she had sung “animal’s awake, though”.
When Rasmussen said that, Tomi had an epiphany. “Animal’s Awake” summed up her feeling of being like a caged animal during the pandemic. So, she decided to write a song with those words, reflecting her desire to break out with new energy.
Fellow Asian creatives Josh Yune and Megan Kong of JMEG Studio were the team behind the music video.
Tomi visited JMEG Studio with various outfits and accessories, including the chain, crop top, and cat ears. With Kong and Yune, they initially set out to create a short performance video, but ended up with a full project.
“It was all very impromptu. One moment I’m performing on some blocks and another moment, I was sitting on a stool in front of the green screen,” Tomi says. “In one scene, I had to pretend I was falling in slow motion. That was an ab workout.”
Kong used a hair dryer to manually generate the effect air currents tousling Tomi’s hair as she was descending from the sky.
According to the musician, the goal was to film something slightly in the future but also nostalgic and having the vibe of a video game.
“I think it definitely let people in on sort of the spazzy, weird, and colourful energy of the entire album,” Tomi says. “I think this was the perfect introduction.”
TAIWANfest Toronto presents Aiko Tomi with DJ Dungi Sapor at 8 p.m. on August 26 on the Concert Stage at Harbourfront Centre. For more information, visit the TAIWANfest Toronto website. Follow Aiko Tomi on Instagram @aikotomic.
Read a review of Aiko Tomi’s performance at Vancouver’s Jade Music Festival on October 20, 2023.