Full disclosure: Lavurn is one of my closest friends. I’ve known him for over a decade. Our conversation for this interview bordered on the personal, sometimes delving too deep into topics neither of us felt comfortable being made public. For you, the reader, and for brevity’s sake, the conversation below has been edited for both clarity and content.
Better known as Cassius Select - or, as his recent alter-ego FAKE - Lavurn Lee has found 2018 to be a year of growth. After living in Australia for the better part of a decade, his visa expired in April with limited options to remain. For the launch of Hue and Saturation, he gave his first interview since his departure.
Lee is living back at his parent’s house in Toronto, Canada in the neighbourhood where he was born and raised. His mom appears to say hello on Facetime as he walks around, phone in hand, talking loudly. He switches between Cantonese and English effortlessly. A week from flying back to Sydney for a mini-tour and extended stay, his life in Toronto is at a standstill. He’s adjusting as an adult to a city he’s only seen through the lens of childhood.
He’s a few days away from playing in Montreal. Things are picking up for him. He’s being recognised, again, after starting from a blank slate. It’s because he’s delving back into music in a vicious way. After a brief hiatus, there’s now a fire burning beneath him, as if he’s making up for lost time; months spent adrift, impatient and lost.
Trying to discuss the mix that accompanies this article, we found ourselves straying. We kept circling back to race, identity politics and happiness - topics that have dominated conversations throughout our friendship. All three are facets of Lavurn’s character that he finds he struggles with often.
Lavurn spent his adolescence in a white-dominated high school. To this day, it has left its imprint on him. His formative years, the period of his life that truly shaped him so far, was spent outside of the city - and neighbourhoods - that he grew up in Toronto; a city and a neighbourhood that he carries as a weight he’s slowly unpacking from his shoulder. To him, a person of colour, finding his own identity within white-dominated spaces and niches is important. It’s crucial that he sees himself reflected in and a pioneer for the representation he aspires to achieve.
Though Lee discussed music a lot, especially with upcoming Cassius Select tours and FAKE releases, conversation kept coming back to identity, to race. Around tea-cups and ash-trays, late-night walks in the park and dinners, these topics remain a mainstay. It found itself coming to the fore again when we spoke on Facetime through a blurry internet connection.
DB: Tell me about this mix.
LL: It’s an ambient mix thats got some close friends DJ Logic and Jon Watts on some headier tips. It’s meant to be ambient in a v functional sense, not overtly pretty, it should just sit there in the room with you and you shouldn't notice it.
DB: What kind of music do you make?
LL: [laughs for a while] Okay, I make dance music. Very drum-based. Percussive dance music and then I also try and make….I'll just talk about Cassius Select. I make dance music.
DB: How would you describe FAKE though?
LL: Fake is...With Cassius Select, I feel like there's one function. And the function is that it's dance music and it's in a club. It's very narrow-minded. It has to be in a club. It has to be a certain speed, it has to have bass frequencies. It has to have all this stuff. It has to be all these things. Whereas with Fake, it's more about a sonic experience where it's not so much about movement, character and rhythm, getting a party going. It's about exploring my interest in music in general. There's less structure in it. It focuses on my interests in rap music and popular music.
Experimental pop music. That's the easiest thing to put it [FAKE] as.
DB: Is FAKE influenced by anyone or anything in particular?
LL: I think it is, yeah. It’s influenced by a lot of Partynextdoor, Vybz Kartel, like a lot of their vocal sirens are really cool. Like, the way Partynextdoor affects all his vocals; no one else is doing it in pop music as well as he is, I think.
DB: What about with Cassius? Who influences you there?
LL: All dance music. [laughs] Right now, I've been listening to [the genres] Kuduro, Baille Funk and the feels of that stuff is way more different than to -- even though it's 4x4, it's not 4x4 in the same way that techno is. There's way more pockets to things. And there are so many more feels within the kuduro rhythm. That stuff is always interesting.
DB: Is that your aim with Cassius Select?
LL: My aim with Cassius is to find interesting pockets with dance music. Like, something becomes defined in a genre and then it’s like “oh there's a really different feel to this.” You know a lot of it has to do with drum sounds you're using, but then a lot of it has to do with “yo this is a hip-hop feel.” And then this is a house feel. There's always more pockets to figure out. I always think that “oh shit that's the end of it.” We won't be able to find any more rhythms to extract from grooves and stuff, but it's not the case.
DB: There’s a better way to frame that question. Do you think there are politics involved in the music you make? As a person of colour?
LL: Specifically in the music I make? I'm not trying to comment on dance music as a political thing. I don't really think that my subject position being an upper-middle-class Chinese Canadian has much interest in terms of being politically active if you know what I mean.
With Cassius, I'm just trying to make party music. That's just strictly what it is. That's not to deny that within dance music it's extremely political. I think it’s good to be self-aware and to also be aware of dance music history. It has black roots. Its roots are in protest music, in a way. So not to deny that at all.
I obviously think representation matters. If some Chinese guy sees me DJ'ing, I'd like to think like they’re thinking, "Wow that's cool. Hopefully, I can do that one day." Because I feel like that whenever I see someone [Asian] DJ'ing.
DB: Yeah, I get that.
LL: Representation matters. But I don't know if my music is politically charged other than trying to put small personal effects; personal self-referencing is maybe the most racially aware this project is.
DB: Do you think you taking up space as an artist is a political act in and of itself? Something that wasn't granted to you 20 years ago?
LL: Yeah. I think there's a bit of that. I do also think it's how much you're willing to put that part of yourself into the music because a lot of people we know are flexing their identity through music which is something you have to do if you are going to try and make a career as a musician. Like, you have to do in any sort of business right? Like, if you're running a business, you have to self-brand. And a lot of people use their identity to do that which is fucking awesome. I think it's fucking amazing that we have the options as Asians to do that but I also want to feel the freedom to be like I don't want to talk about my identity or my politics because white artists can do that. You never go up to white artists and ask "oh what is you being white have to do with your music? "
DB: Yeah, word.
LL: I want to be able to do that. I want to live in a world where everyone can do that. If you are Black, white, Asian or Indian whatever.
DB: You just want to be.
LL: Yeah. While I do think there is strength in representation and empowerment, there is also strength in just being like, “we're visibly Asian”. Like you and me. We can never be white passing. Your name is really fucking Indian. They look at your name and they're like, “that dude is fucking Indian.”
I guess it depends on what you want to flex and with what you’re comfortable with flexing. Like, I'm comfortable talking about political ideas and things to do with race. And talking about them in my inter-personal circle and to doing things within my family. It takes me a while to translate that into my music and what I want to put out. And I think that mostly has to do with me. I don't want to sort of criticise people that are flexing their identity.
“While I do think there is strength in representation and empowerment, there is also strength in just being like, “we're visibly Asian”. Like you and me. We can never be white passing. Your name is really fucking Indian. They look at your name and they’re like, ‘That dude is fucking Indian.’”
DB: Like you're essentially looking for your music to be your music and not your identity.
DB: You're not trying to interweave your identity into the music like other artists?
LL: No, I'm not yeah. But my hope would be like that even though I'm not doing that, my people, my kin “yo big up for you doing that” but I don't know if that's the case. Maybe I do need to flex more of my identity to reach out to people, but I don't want to, you know what I mean?
DB: You're in this push and pull, catch-22 of whether you should flex or not flex because then, it's kind of like you're exploiting your own identity.
LL: Yeah, but maybe exploiting is not the right word. [Laughs] I want to be recognised too. By people who look like me. Yeah, I don't know. That's something you can't control either. Like I've often thought, why don't people in China fuck with me because I want them too. It’s a tricky area.
DB: You've been away from Sydney for the last 8 months? 9 months? You're heading back soon. What are you missing most about the city?
LL: I miss the lifestyle there, to be honest. I guess if you spend anywhere long enough, you're going to miss the people and the place. I don't miss so much -- well, I miss my dance music community and my community. Sydney as a place objectively, I don't know. Since coming back to Toronto and going to parties and shit, you don't have to think about lock out laws. You don't have to think about a bunch of shit. It's been a new nightlife. It's been super refreshing that people can party until after 3am. its fine, you know what I mean? The things I miss about Sydney is the lifestyle.
DB: Do you think these months away from Australia has been easy for you? Because you spent so many years there?
LL: Yeah, in a way, because my folks are here [in Toronto]. They're always there for me. My family is here. So that has made it a bit easy. But in terms of everything else, it's a bit hard to get used to a new city again and to try find people and meet people. It's hard to find yourself at home again.
DB: Have you found yourself growing from this experience?
LL: From any big experiences you've had in life, you want to feel like you've grown from it. But yeah, it is a big learning curve in terms of inter-personal stuff and how you can navigate personal relationships. Like, essentially trying to be happy. It’s kind of hard to be happy. Like, straight up it's weird. I didn't think this - even when I was in my 20's and shit - I am still in my 20's, early 20's or my teens. Even though I was depressed, it feels weirder now, it feels hard to be happy. Maybe that has to do with coming back to Toronto. Maybe it has to do living a peaceful life.
DB: Do you find that happiness to you comes as a state of mind, or does it come in waves?
LL: Yeah, I guess happiness is not the best word to use because I sort of feel a pursuit of peace.
LL: Yeah, contentment is what I want to pursue.
DB: How are you pursuing contentment?
LL: I don't know. I think it happens every day a little bit by reminding yourself. This is getting too personal. I guess: trying to be a responsible son because my parents are old. I want to give them kids and a career and stuff. Stuff like that has been racking my mind. Because they deserve that because they’re good parents.
DB: How do you think you're doing this in the next year of your life?
LL: I'm not really. I think one of the things is playing shows in Europe because that's a good thing because I've wanting to do that for so long. I want to give this music thing one big crack, go to Europe, try and meet people.
DB: You want to take that leap. Is it a final leap?
LL: [silence] Yeah, it’s not the be all end all, though. But I want to treat it like if you really want it and if nothing happens then at least you gave it your all.
DB: That’s true. Do you want to have a discussion about that?
LL: Not really. The thing about identity…I want to talk about that again. How do you feel about it? Because you’re an Indian writer and we’re both interested in race.
DB: To a degree, I sometimes think I’m occupying a space that could be given to someone who is lower-caste and lower-class. But then there’s that other part of me which pushes me more into writing and writing about my experience. I’ve had to realise that there are people like me - upper-middle class South Asians immigrating to a Western country whose family have had to work hard to stabilise ourselves because we’re now “poorer.”
“I think my favourite thing about right now, about 2018 is that I don't have to like every brown creative or every brown person that's visible. There's a selection: I can pick and choose like you're dope, you're shit. Whereas ten years ago, there's like 3 of you, I have to like you all.”
I wonder if me writing can help be that voice for people who don’t have the privilege to have done what I have which is travel and go be a writer, which in and of itself, is a privilege. It’s a privilege to go into a job and career that is so financially unstable when other immigrant children have to be stable and rooted to support their family.
I guess I write and use my identity to write with the hope and intention of affecting others. But I don’t want to be known as an “Indian-Canadian writer”, if that makes sense? I don’t want it to be part of my pull. I want to be recognised for my craft. I don’t want to always be a tick on that diversity box in a newsroom or publication.
LL: I want to stress that that's not a bad thing.
DB: Definitely not.
LL: People need to flex that.
DB: What pushes me is being that person for other people is that we can come to a day where we don't have to be that tick.
LL: I also feel like you being successful, you putting your name out there is good enough, you know? When I read a piece of work, or hear something or listen to a piece of work and then I find out that they're a person of colour and their work has nothing to do with their race and the fact that they're successful, that's huge. Anybody who's in the diaspora will be like big ups.
DB: I think my favourite thing about right now, about 2018 is that I don't have to like every brown creative or every brown person that's visible. There's a selection: I can pick and choose like you're dope, you're shit. Whereas ten years ago, there's like 3 of you, I have to like you all.
DB: We can pick and choose now which white people have had forever.
LL: And then it's really cool to see people who live in our homelands, people who live in China, people in India who are doing shit because that's amazing to see. There are [so] many people in China and India who make art.
DB: Them even having that opportunity is incredible. Before we finish though, anyone you want to shout out?
LL: DJ Plead.
Dhruva Balram is an Indian-Canadian culture journalist based in London, England.
Exploring interests in pop culture; music; communities; societal issues; and South Asian, masculine identity, Dhruva has written for NME, Media Diversified, Future Perfect and The Lifted Brow.
Dhruva is the former resident writer and head of content for The Wild City, India's essential online guide for alternative culture. He was also one of the first co-hosts of the Goodgod Sound Unlimited show on FBI Radio in Sydney, Australia. Check out more of his writing here.