MOJO JUJU: Let's Talk
Mojo Juju is a Melbourne musician all too familiar with labels. Growing up as one of the few people of colour in the many towns she lived in as a child, Mojo experienced racism and ignorance from an early age, yet learned to embrace her difference following some sage advice from her grandmother.
As an adult, Mojo continues to be labelled many things and while the labels still sometimes focus on outward appearance, Mojo has received praise for her music too, which has been described as 'remarkable', 'stunning', and Mojo herself as the 'hidden Australian gem' behind the sound.
Mojo is currently creating an album focused on cultural identity that explores personal stories through her own family history. A perfect match for The Pin.
THE PIN. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and where you grew up?
MOJO JUJU. We moved around a lot when I was a kid. Mostly throughout regional New South Wales. I think this contributed to me being placed as an outsider often as I was often the 'new kid'. On top of this, I was usually the only Asian person or person of colour, which just made the experience even harder. We lived in some tiny places most people haven’t heard of. Although even though we moved around a lot, Dubbo was always the base for us. My grandparents lived there, it’s where my mum grew up, we ended up settling there and I went all the way through High School in Dubbo.
Do you recall when you became aware of race?
M. I remember when I was in pre-school I got a sense of a cultural difference through language, not really race, but culture.
We were living in Lithgow and we had Chilean neighbours. Dad would speak Spanish with them and I thought it was really fascinating and cool. I also think I kind of understood that we looked different, but I don’t know where that idea came from.
I was in kindergarten when I became hyperaware of my own race and unfortunately that went hand in hand with learning about the the prejudices I would face because of that. I was teased and bullied a lot. I would be called names, usually anti-Chinese slurs, which was confusing because I'm not Chinese. I think in the '80s, and in the places we were living, a lot of people were ignorant about it and considered anyone who was Asian to be Chinese. As I got older I got called other names like 'Little Buddha' or 'Pocahontas'. I would also be bullied or harassed for being Aboriginal. I am, as a friend of mine put it 'ethnically ambiguous' and as a result I've been called all sorts of names.
I think I was very confusing for a lot of people and there were A LOT of racial prejudices. For me, this has created a real feeling of solidarity with other racial minorities, but also a weird kind of cultural displacement as I feel like I’ve never really fit in anywhere.
Did your parents ever offer words of advice or support in the face of racism and that feeling of being different?
M.Of course. I specifically remember coming home from school one day, when I was very young, and being upset because the kids had been mocking me, calling me 'Chinese' and pulling their eyes back. I was upset because I didn’t understand why they would say that. My grandmother (Mum’s mum, who is amazing!), told me that I shouldn’t be upset 'because Chinese people are beautiful!'. She took out the encyclopaedia and we read about China and Chinese culture together. After that it didn’t bother me so much what people called me.
There was a small Filipino community in Dubbo that we would connect with from time to time, gatherings were mostly focused around food and Karaoke!
That was cool, but sadly my dad never taught us to speak Spanish, Ilonggo or Tagalog. I think mostly because Mum didn’t really speak any of the languages, but also because I think Dad is of a generation where assimilation was considered very important. Sometimes I think he doesn't understand the longing my brother & I have to connect to our heritage.
As a teenager I also became very active in the reconciliation movement. Discovering my mum’s Indigenous heritage (Wiradjuri) made me want to be more active in advocating for change.
Who are your music idols?
M. [laughs] It’s so hard to narrow down! It changes a lot; I've always been a Tom Waits fan. He’s a lyrical mastermind.
Bill Withers is another one I always go back to for feel. Billie Holiday is one of my favourite voices, there are few who come close to the emotional integrity in her voice. In terms of more contemporary artists, I’m a big Kendrick Lamar fan and I love Frank Ocean.
I think some of my biggest heroes right now though are Australian artists!! And I feel like so many of my favourite Aussie artists are people of colour and in particular women! There’s a real a sense of community and solidarity happening right now. It inspires me to see artists like Sampa the Great, Kira Puru, Ngaiire, Ecca Vandal andRemi… they’re all amazing people, and artists, and they are killing it!
You’ve described your 2015 albumSeeing red/feeling blue as a collection of short stories, and the songs by all accounts do have a very personal feel, how important is music to your identity?
M. Music has been part of my identity since I was a young child. It’s crucial to who I am. It was a big part of my family, and yeah, there have been times when pursuing a career in the industry has been hard, but I actually couldn’t stop if I wanted to. I keep telling this one particular story over and over but I actually think it was a really important moment for me… when I was promoting ‘Seeing red / feeling blue’ someone said to me, 'Mojo, I really like what you do, but I'm surprised you’ve been so successful'. When I asked him why, he said it was because I am a 'queer woman of colour and that is very confronting for people'.
I think prior to that I had always tried to keep the conversation about my music. But in that moment I realised I can’t separate all these things. I am a queer woman of colour as much as I am a musician and vice versa. And so if we need to talk about it, then maybe we NEED to talk about it. So the next album, it’s all about cultural identity. This one comment has been the catalyst for a really introspective, reflective, creative journey, and I think a total reassessment of who I am and how I make music. For a while I thought being visible was enough, but I think I need to be vocal too. So, I’m really grateful, I’m lucky and I’m blessed to have music as a way to process all these thoughts and ideas. As well as having music as a platform for the things I want to talk about. It’s an absolute gift, but it’s also something I need to nurture and yes, it’s a huge part of who I am.
Do you feel the Australian music scene is receptive to difference in both performance and identity?
M. Yes and no. It’s very easy to get pigeon-holed and 'other-ised'. I think the Australian music industry wants to be open to difference. It wants to be diverse...or it want’s to see itself that way but maybe doesn’t always realise when it’s not being those things.
I’ve seen a lot of people of colour and a lot of queer artists having to prove that they are more than a ‘world music act’, ‘queer act’, ‘political act’ or a 'novelty act', you know?
Or, if a certain subculture identifies or lays claim to what you're doing, it's hard to get the rest of the industry to notice or take it seriously as anything other than that. There's all these preconceptions about what you do. I do think it's changing though, but this seems to have a lot to do with what the artists themselves are doing. They're working overtime to be seen for their musical merit as well as, you know, carving out the space for their unique stories.
You’ve been referred to as gender-bending and a Pinoy by some media outlets. How do you feel about labels and categorisation?
M. Sometimes I find labels frustrating, but I guess I’m less frustrated by someone referring to me as Pinoy than I am about someone saying I’m a 'blues artist' or a 'soul singer'. I guess as far as that kind of thing goes, yes I identify with my Filipino heritage, even though I grew up in Australia, and at least it’s something I am connected to that isn’t going to change. As an artist however, I definitely don’t want people making assumptions about my music.
There are so many kinds of music, as well as life experiences that have informed the music that I make, but I’m not trying to emulate anyone and I’m definitely growing, evolving and experimenting as an artist. Hopefully improving too [laughs]! So yeah, it always pisses me off when people think I’m a revivalist or that I’m a 'genre' artist. I’m not. And the minute you think you’ve got me figured out I’m going to reject it.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
MOJO JUJU. You are beautiful and your voice, your perspective is valuable. Trust yourself and speak up.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.