88rising’s Head in the Clouds was supposed to be my first music festival — a dream I had nurtured since November 2021.
That was the year when a group of my online friends from all over the world gathered, booking an Airbnb together in K-Town and attending the festival. The FOMO hit me hard, and I made a promise to myself that someday, I, too, would experience it.
Fast forward to the present, where I found myself equipped with over $200 worth of festival gear and determined to survive the all-day event in scorching 80-degree weather. A cooling hat, mist spray fan, earplugs, Tylenol, two portable phone chargers, sunscreen, wet wipes and a small Bulbasaur backpack — you name it, I had it. I had planned every detail meticulously since I booked my flight from Seattle to Los Angeles months ago.
But even with all that meticulous planning, I still couldn’t fully prepare for my own limitations. As a person living with Cerebral Palsy, every day is like navigating a carefully crafted maze. What if I walk too much and become exhausted? What if I burn through my energy too quickly and find myself drained? And what if, despite me always keeping my head down to look for tripping hazards, I fall in public? The moment of stumbling, followed by the collective gasp from passersby who rush to ask if I’m okay, is the only dance I’m an expert in. It’s a scrape on my left knee, bloodied palms as I catch myself on the concrete, brushing off the dirt and blood on my jeans and a practiced smile as I say, “I’m fine.”
I knew the risks, for they were the consequences of my existence. Yet despite being well aware of them, I was determined to rise above and seize the opportunity presented by 88rising. As an entertainment journalist at NextShark, I have had the privilege of covering and amplifying the voices of numerous Asian artists through their music releases and concerts, many of which were facilitated by 88rising. To attend their flagship event, their crown jewel — especially in celebration of their fifth Head in the Clouds — was the perfect culmination of my time at NextShark.
As I entered the stadium and received my ADA wristband, I felt a glimmer of hope that maybe I could make this all work out and have fun after all. However, even the journey from the parking lot to the stadium entrance proved to be taxing. I ventured deeper into the festival grounds, but finding the media tent took several attempts, walking from stage left to stage right and asking for directions multiple times from different people.
Some might wonder why I didn’t immediately utilize the available accommodations. The ADA wristband granted access to seated areas with better views of the stages, where water bottles were conveniently provided. At the ADA kiosk, one could even get umbrellas for shade. I don’t rush to use accommodations because I want to live life without them as much as possible, trying things at least once by myself to test my capabilities.
By early afternoon, I found myself in the media tent, feeling spent and disheartened. I hadn’t even had the chance to see a single artist perform yet, and I was already struggling to keep up. It was then that I had to face the reality of my limitations. I mustered the courage to text Auden, one of the event’s publicists, and inquire about a golf cart escort back to the Uber parking lot. It was a moment of vulnerability, a recognition that I needed assistance.
But to my relief, Auden and the festival’s team were nothing but understanding and accommodating. They swiftly coordinated the golf cart pick-up, and Sierra, the kind driver, gave me a ride back with the utmost kindness. For the first time ever, I found myself leaving an event uncovered. I had to cancel planned interviews and alert several publicists about the matter.
It was frustrating, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was disappointing the contacts who were counting on me. Fear and pride often intertwine, and in that moment, I feared that by admitting my limitations, I would be perceived as incapable or unreliable. I didn’t want to be seen as a burden or an inconvenience to professionals I admired and colleagues I considered friends, some of whom I wanted to meet in person for the first time. Most of all, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this. I had successfully covered the Oscars and Golden Globes, so why not this? The truth is, the genuine smile in those photographs hides the effort it takes to stay on my feet, the fatigue that sets in and the physical toll of being on the go for hours.
With Head in the Clouds, I had managed to secure some dream interviews that couldn’t come to fruition: MILLI, a talented and humorous artist from Thailand who transcends language barriers and spotlights her culture with unabashed love and epicurean joy, and Spence Lee, a musical tour de force and fashion guru whose music video “On God” was one of the most raw and enthralling releases I had seen in a long time.
And for my final planned interview of the weekend? It was with none other than NIKI, 88rising’s darling storyteller and trailblazer.
NIKI’s music has been a source of comfort and solace for me since 2022. Her journey as an artist has become one of my favorites to watch unfold, from gracing the cover of Vogue Singapore to compiling her music videos into a short film and releasing her album “NICOLE,” with songs like “High School in Jakarta” and “Keeping Tabs” holding a special place in my heart. I will always cherish my memories of her North American tour, including her unforgettable Seattle stop, which I likened to a stripped-back Friday night party with friends.
During my Uber ride back to my accommodation, I held back tears, trying to process the day’s rollercoaster of experiences. I had thought a lot about what my final articles at NextShark would look like, and I certainly didn’t set out for this to be one of them. But sometimes, the most meaningful moments come from the unexpected twists that shape us and strengthen our resolve.
88rising’s mission is to increase visibility, amplify voices and tell the stories of Asian artists worldwide, making them feel represented. And though my time at the festival was brief, I represented something too — myself and others like me, the disabled Asian American who has lots of limitations but dares to dream beyond them. Someone who can’t always rise to every occasion but does not think less of themself by admitting that. For in these moments, we have a community, even among strangers, who lift us up.
Where I go next is a path of uncertainty. I’ll stumble and I’ll fall a lot. It’s going to hurt sometimes, but just as it takes a community to make a harmony, I know I’ll rise again because of them. Head in the clouds, heart in pursuit.