Shortly after Ariana Miyamoto was crowned Miss Universe Japan, the country’s first ever mixed-race beauty queen, Crystal Kay took to social media to voice her approval: “You go girl, I’m proud of Japan.”
Speaking to The Japan Times, Kay once again points out her pride in the Japanese people who chose Miyamoto as their queen.
“Slowly, but surely, we’re getting there,” she says. “People are now generally more accepting of artists and celebrities from various backgrounds, and one of the main reasons for that is the growing number of multiracial musicians and celebrities on TV.”
Kay (whose real name is Crystal Kay Williams) can count herself as one of those trailblazers. She was born in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, to an African-American father and Korean mother. Like Miyamoto, Kay says she was bullied as a child and has more recently suffered her share of online abuse because of her nationality and skin color. But rather than getting upset about it, she chooses to stay positive. Japan still has a problem with racism, but she believes things are slowly starting to improve.
“After I became famous there were a lot of comments about me being Korean and black. It felt like I was a double minority,” she says, laughing. “I think (that prejudice) is something that will always be there, closed-minded people aren’t going to disappear. However, I think progress has been made over the past few years.”
Kay was one of the first mixed-race celebrities to make a major impression in Japanese entertainment. She made her debut in 1999 at the age of 13 with the track “Eternal Memories,” before her career took off with the release of her third album, “Almost Seventeen.” She fell off the radar somewhat in the past few years, but fans were delighted when the 29-year-old released a single this month titled “Kimi ga Ita Kara” (“Because You Were There”); the theme tune for popular Sunday night drama “Wild Heroes,” which stars Takahiro Tasaki from the group Exile.
“It’s a great melody with meaningful lyrics (written by Carlos K.) and a hook that sounds more climactic each time you hear it,” she says of the ballad. “When I was younger I wasn’t really interested in doing songs like this because I always wanted to dance while I sang. And I didn’t think I had the life experience to justify making powerful ballads. Now that I’m that much older I think it makes more sense. I just hope many people like it.”
Early indications suggest they do. Reviews have been largely positive and the track peaked at No. 1 on the daily Chaku-Uta chart, which measures cell-phone downloads. As for the Oricon chart — the one that really matters according to Kay — “Kimi ga Ita Kara” entered at No. 27 in its first week; a satisfactory position for the singer, but still nowhere near the level she was at 10 years ago when songs like “Koi no Ochitara” (“If I Fall in Love”) and “Two as One” narrowly missed out on the top spot.
Kay believes the increasing dominance of pop idols in Japan has made it more difficult for artists like her to “appeal to the masses,” but still believes she has what it takes to make it back to the top. She plans to “work (her) butt off over the next few months,” focusing mainly on the domestic market.
That doesn’t mean she’s given up on her American dream. In March 2013, Kay moved to New York hoping to “build some momentum in the States and get (her) music out there.” Things didn’t turn out quite as she wanted, but she managed to “plant some seeds”: meeting producers, playing her first U.S. concert and releasing songs digitally. She also learned a lot about herself.
“I became aware how Japanese I am in the sense that I’m not pushy enough,” she says. “I’ve grown up in a bubble where people don’t like to stand out. Over there it’s the opposite, you need a kind of hustling mentality and I found that really difficult. Perhaps it looked as though I was being snobbish, but I genuinely didn’t know how to promote or express myself. I even took anxiety classes!”
It’s surprising to hear Kay felt she lacked assertiveness as she seems quite self-assured in person. She says it grew over time, though, and recalls one performance — a show at a small venue in New York called Eastwood — that gave her self-confidence a particularly hefty boost. It sold out quickly and she was asked back the following night.
“It was just me and an acoustic guitarist,” Kay says. “I felt naked being up there on stage singing live in New York for the first time. To see such a packed crowd was an amazing feeling. It made me realize I could do it and should give myself more credit.”
Another highlight for Kay during her time in the U.S. was this year’s Grammy Awards. Having featured on the opening track of Sly & Robbie and Spicy Chocolate’s “Reggae Power” record, which was nominated in the Best Reggae Album section, she got to walk the red carpet; a dream she’d had since childhood.
“I’m making baby steps,” she says. “Hopefully one day I’ll be nominated for my own album. That’s a long-term goal. For now, I just want to sing to as many people as possible. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Crystal Kay’s single, “Kimi ga Ita Kara,” is in record stores now. For more info, visit www.crystalkayusa.com.