In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag’s monograph that appeared a mere three years before the existence of HIV came to light, she inveighs against victim-blaming and the cultural habits we take on when dealing with the unwell. Diseases like cancer and tuberculosis, Sontag wrote, leap out of the domain of medicine and take on a moral dimension — even when the illness is not communicable and unrelated to their personal behavior of the afflicted. In the case of Jennifer Lee, the DJ and electronic musician who performs under the name TOKiMONSTA, we might almost ask a different question: What does it mean to suffer from an ailment that is almost beautiful, if in a terrifying, life-threatening way? What does it mean when complications from that disease strike at your abilities as an artist?
Moyamoya disease develops when a blockage of an artery in the base of the brain forces auxiliar blood vessels to grow in size, in order to provide that crucial organ with the necessary oxygen. In X-rays, those blood vessels can appear like a puff of smoke, which is what “moyamoya” means in Japanese. If untreated, the condition is fatal.
Moyamoya doesn’t have the sublimely mindless terror of a virus, those possibly-not-even-fully-alive agents that cannot metabolize or excrete on their own, but only rewire our cells to make copies of themselves. (They’re almost like crystals.) Instead, it can almost be read as the human body valiantly attempting to keep itself alive by finding a workaround to a serious problem, only to injure itself further. And its effects almost beg for the tower of metaphor to come crashing down on it. while Lee is candid about it now, for a period after her illness and initial recovery, she didn’t tell anyone what she had been through — even though it had nearly destroyed her ability to comprehend and appreciate music. As her injured brain healed, she has said, music sounded like unpleasant metallic noise.
That experience has filtered through her subsequent work. Whether it’s an inborn trait or something her battle with illness gave her, Lee conveys a sense of groundedness. If you thank her for a fantastic DJ set, she replies, “Thank you for being present!” She has had several high-profile collaborations throughout her career, including bringing festival headliner Anderson .Paak on stage during her set at Lightning in a Bottle this year. Since her time at the Red Bull Music Academy, she has put out five full-length records, with 2017’s Lune Rouge being a document of her malady. 2018 hasn’t been a normal year, though — and not simply because it won a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album.
“This year has been the year of remixes for me,” Lee says. “I didn’t put out any solo music, but I think by the end of the year, I’ll have five remixes out, including one for George Fitzgerald, who’s an artist that I’m really excited about. Across the pond, he’s a really big deal.”
She’ll perform on New Year’s Eve at the Midway, on a fantastic bill that includes Little Dragon, Mayan Warrior, and Modeselektor — an artist she remembers from a lecture during her Red Bull days, which has stuck with her years later for being inspiring and enlightening. That’s a fair distance from where she started, as a classically trained pianist.
Lee once referred to classical musicianship as being a “highly paid cover artist,” and she’s thrilled to have her childhood instrument come back to her. She’d recently moved house, and while it had only been down the block at a friend’s house, she was finally able to welcome her piano back into her home. As a kid, she would alternate Chopin and Schubert with Westside Connection on her Discman, she says, and hints of that influence began creeping up on Lune Rouge. However maligned pianos may be in a rock idiom, and they can certainly be gaseous, they can bring heft and genuine emotion to electronic music.
“I have composed maybe four classical ideas, but haven’t really figured out what I plan to do with them,” Lee says. “My hope in the future would be to release and album that is classical at heart, but I haven’t trained as a classical musician in a while and I’m not active in the classical scene, so it would be my interpretation of what I would consider classical. But in my music, going forward, I find myself using more piano — not synth sounds, actual piano.”
Whatever the individual components, a TOKiMONSTA set has a definitive beginning, middle, and end. It is linear and methodical, and she’s there, on the decks, smiling like a benevolent priestess. (This was definitely the case at Lightning in a Bottle, when she followed Monolink in probably the best back-to-back sets of the festival.) Lee compares it to the way classical music, except for the very oldest stuff, operates.
“I do process it sometimes by letting everyone know we are going on this journey — we’re going on this journey together,” she says. “And it will never happen again. Even if we meet again, or if someone’s present for another show, it will be a different environment with a different group of people.
“When you saw me at Lightning in a Bottle, that was just then,” she adds. “It doesn’t mean it’s better or worse.”
Lee seldom records her sets, and seems to prefer that no one else record them, either. All she will say of a venue or a promoter that does it without her permission is that it’s “usually not chill,” but one exception is The Do LaB, the producers of Lightning in a Bottle who maintain their own stage at Coachella.
“I don’t really post any of it online,” she says. “I want people to be present and to really be there.”
This doesn’t always sit well with her fans, who may not have the means or the time to travel to see TOKiMONSTA shows around the world. But she takes a serene approach.
“It’s not farfetched to say that I might not be able to play someplace closer,” she says, “but people are always surprised at the lengths I go to to be present for people. I always hope that people show up.”
By her own admission, this comes back to moyamoya. After she chose to make her illness public — and she mentioned it at L.I.B., too — Lee went through a phase where discussing it would make her “visibly and noticeably upset.” She refers to her candor as “taking on the responsibility of sharing it with people,” which is a profoundly humane way of grappling with something that other people might simply say is simply too traumatic to bring up.
“But I think addressing it again proved that it really had a very strong impact on my psyche and my willpower and my emotional resilience,” she says. “I wasn’t as resilient as I thought I was — and even to this day, it’s become easier. By sharing my story, it became therapy, because I had to talk about it over and over and over again, to the point where I was able to look at it more objectively and not be taken by it, basically.”
While unpacking after her move, apart from reacquiring her piano, Lee also came upon a notepad she had kept while in the hospital. She was capable of drawing, but writing was more difficult.
‘All I wrote down through this entire thing was that I was bored, over and over,” she says. “And I was spelling ‘bored’ incorrectly. I think I spelled B-O-R-E-D. I’m fully capable of spelling ‘bored’ correctly — it’s not the most difficult thing in the repertoire of words.”
She also used the notepad as a sort of cheat sheet. Every hour or two, doctors would rouse her to perform simple neurological tests, pointing to their watches and asking her what they were called, or asking her where she was. She wasn’t able to answer in a satisfying way until she forced herself to write down the answers, then read them.
“It kind of defeats the purpose, but I didn’t toss it — I kept it,” Lee says of the notepad. “It was a good reminder of my state of mind, because at the end of the day, these things we go through become memories.”
Ever since then, in the little mistakes she’s made, Lee reminds herself to be responsible in whatever she does because she’s only here because of luck. And even when recollections of that period “transport me back to the hardship of that time,” she is filled with nothing short of the joy of being alive, of never stepping into the same river twice, of having time when in her recent past it seemed like there might not be time. What a terrific perspective for an artist whose next duty is to convey a few thousand people into 2019, a year we all hope is a better one.
TOKiMONSTA with Little Dragon, Modeselektor (DJ Set), Mayan Warrior, and more, Monday, Dec. 31, 9 p.m.-4 a.m., at the Midway, $89.50-$250, themidwaysf.com
Read more from SF Weekly’s New Year’s Eve issue:
New Year’s Eve: A Carefully Controlled Explosion
‘The sky is our canvas, and fireworks are our paint,’ says Pyro Spectacular owner James Souza.
New Year, Old Mint
With a planned restoration of the Old Mint, this may be the last year before New Year’s Eve partygoers at the New Bohemia start to notice some changes.