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Pop Star Crystal Kay on Singing Anime Songs and Growing Up Mixed-Race in Japan

by Richard Eisenbeis,

Photography by Yulia Shur
Recently, Anime News Network was able to sit down with singer-songwriter Crystal Kay and talk about not only her involvement with anime over the years but also what it was like to grow up in Japan as the child of a Korean-Japanese mother and an African-American father.

Anime fans likely know of Crystal Kay through her two mid-2000s anime theme songs: “Motherland” the third ending to 2004's Fullmetal Alchemist, and “Konna ni Chikaku de…”, the first ending song for Nodame Cantabile. She was several years into her career when she sang these songs but the effect was noticeable.

“I think for a lot of foreign fans, their gateway was Fullmetal Alchemist,” Kay began, telling me about the sudden attention she was getting outside of Japan at the time. “'Oh, something's happening. Like, foreign people know me,' and I didn't really understand why because I hadn't seen the anime and I only knew the Japanese title [Hagane no Renkinjutsushi]. So I was like, 'Why do people know Motherland? [...] What is full metal algorithm?'” She laughed. “But even when I went to the states—and when I performed—a lot of people are like, 'Oh, I got into you through Motherland and Fullmetal Alchemist.'”

As for Konna ni Chikaku de…, “I think it helped me spread to an audience who might have not been familiar with my music,” Kay told me. “To this day, I still see people tweeting about Nodame and Konna ni Chikaku de…

Kay's next brush with anime came in 2008 with the film Pokémon: Giratina & The Sky Warrior. She not only sang the movie's theme song, “One,” but also voiced Nurse Joy's Chansey in the film. “It wasn't really like a human speaking words, so it was quick [to record], but it was really hard just even trying to get the emotional bit of it—like the tonality and the tension and stuff like that,” she explained. “I think I just said 'lucky, lucky.' But, yeah, even just that, just saying one word in different emotions... It's difficult.”

While Kay hasn't done an anime theme song since, she's still very much open to the idea of doing more in the future—especially for her favorite anime as a child: Sailor Moon. “I actually had CD albums—like Sailor Moon albums and photo books and all that stuff. And I remember really listening to that album from front to back—and they had really good songs on it. I would love to write or compose and sing for Sailor Moon. I think that would be really cool.”

“If I could do something with Studio Ghibli, that would be a dream,” Kay added before explaining the type of sound she'd like to bring. “Like, this mixture of J-pop and R&B—but then this essence of an Asian-esque kind of sound. Like my very first single, which is still my favorite single to this day, 'Eternal Memories.' It has a very nostalgic feel. Like, sonically, it's very beautiful. [...] And I feel like Ghibli has that essence. It kind of pulls your heartstrings in a very beautiful, nostalgic way.”

Kay is often seen as a pioneer for interracial acts in Japan, paving the way for those to follow like Thelma Aoyama and JERO. “It's really nice to hear that and it makes me proud,” Kay smiled. “Because they saw that there's representation, they had the motivation to be like, 'Oh, I can do this, too.' To be acknowledged that you're the reason that helped them pave their way. That's an honor.”

Of course, at the time as a teen, the thought of being a trailblazer never really occurred to her. “There wasn't a moment where I was like, 'Oh, I'm alone. I'm doing this all by myself,' because I was just so busy. I didn't really have a moment to just stand there and think about that, really, because I was like, 'I have homework. I have basketball. I have a promo on the weekend.' So I was just surviving day to day, trying to get through it.”

Photography by Yulia Shur
That said, Kay was more than aware of being different from most Japanese people. She found herself in a perpetual identity crisis when it came to being mixed-race and the idea of being Japanese. “[I remember] not really understanding where I stood or not really being able to be proud that I'm half-black and half-Korean, because it was kind of like, I'm a double minority—especially being here,” she told me. “[Japan is] a homogeneous society and country, so there's no place to really stand up and be out and proud about that kind of stuff.”

Luckily, over the years, Kay seems to have found her center—largely thanks to going abroad. “It presents me an opportunity to kind of think of that kind of stuff when I'm outside [of Japan] because everywhere else is so diverse and blunt and it's kind of like, you have to be sure of who you are, and where you're from,” Kay explained. “I feel more comfortable about who I am, and I see my uniqueness as a charm or a weapon and not a minus.”

Kay also had some advice for anyone growing up in a mixed-race situation like her own. “I think my advice would be to embrace your uniqueness. [...] If you see or know you have something you really like to do—drawing or singing or dancing or sports or whatever it is—just really focus on that and just be the best at it.”

“I think the more confident and happy you are, the more people will gravitate towards that. That's just kind of how it works. Embrace the uniqueness and just really hone in on whatever craft or talent you have because that's probably going to really help in the near future,” Kay continued. “And be proud, because people are finally starting to see that it's cool to be mixed—and people can't deny it when you're good at something.”

Crystal Kay's latest single, “That Girl” is out now and can be viewed on her official YouTube.

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