AMBER AKILLA IS BUSY LIVING

AMBER AKILLA IS BUSY LIVING

Words by Mia Besorio / Photography by Sly Morikawa

Styled by Tara Chandra / Makeup by Maggie Mu

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The modern dream can’t ladder up to a white picket fence if nobody can afford to buy a house. Replace the lens of the modern dream with the lens of modern reality; and the focus quickly shifts from owning a home, to forming a sustainable framework for success. In this variable pursuit of self-validation, the realist’s framework continues to morph, their goal posts continue to change, and their timelines become increasingly infinite. Sounds daunting, but honestly, anything is better than being bored on a dying planet.

Amber Akilla is a modern realist. When we last spoke for Filter, she was balancing her full time career with her DJ career, and somehow squeezing everything else in-between. In the span of a few months she flipped her headspace to working smarter, not harder. Being at maximum capacity is cool and all, but is anything actually cooler than self-care? It seems simple in theory, but it’s freakishly easy to forget that living is what life is actually about. For self-preservation, Amber has taken a conscious step sideways: she’s made a commitment to doing less, learning more, and working on herself above all else. And she’s right in doing so - because legacy isn’t bought; it’s built over a lifetime.

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It was really inspiring to see you work the room at your headline slot at Settings in Sydney. It truly did feel like a journey to your taste, and not simply pandering to the crowds clear desire for club and rap bangers. Is this education process something you’re committed to, does the crowd just drown out when you’re in the zone?

Thank you. I enjoy the challenge of finding common elements in different genres, and mixing them together when I play. DJing is like a conversation with the dance floor - you’re feeding off each others’ energy. There will always be people in the crowds that know what they want to hear, it think its my job as a DJ to provide surprises and combine music in unexpected ways. I want people to be dancing, and Shazaming in the club!

I lost it when you opened your set with ‘Tia Tamera’ and then mixed into ‘Bitch I’m Nasty’. It felt like a real bad bitch moment, and totally what Doja Cat and Rico Nasty are all about. Do you consciously include a diverse mix of artists in your sets?

Yes; always. It's a priority of mine to ensure that my sets are balanced, and include female, LGBTQI+, and smaller independent artists. I want my sets to be an expression of my taste and personality. Rico Nasty and Doja Cat are both very talented artists that embody Big Bitch Energy - it would be rude not to include them.

Your NVSHU女术 project has started receiving global recognition, attracting collaborations and coverage from brands like Red Bull, The Eaton Hotel, and Nike. These are some big co-signs for a project that addresses both niche and progressive subject matter. Are you selective about who you work with? How important is it for you to work with brands whose values align with your own?

NVSHU女术 is still a young project, so it means a lot to be approached by brands to work together - but yes, we are selective. Ultimately we are about centering female and LGBTQI+ stories and skills in a landscape that proves itself over and over again to be male dominated, and we want to show that we are more powerful when we work together, and not in competition. Our community and what we try to represent is more important than being a part of a campaign if it doesn’t serve us in a meaningful, and tangible way.

We want to continue developing the direction of the project, and for our message to be accessible. It’s hard to run a DJ workshop because equipment is expensive, and venues are hard to secure. Working with brands has given us the resources to continue developing the project, and to help provide opportunities for the creatives we work with. People are quick to criticize corporations for exploitation and co-opting social movements but we are really grateful for these opportunities, and for the people that we’ve worked with that have been generous, understanding, and supportive of us.

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Do you feel ‘diversity’ is a trend that brands and organisations are trying to cash in on? Is it better that brands care enough to support social initiatives–even on a surface level–than not at all?

These changes need to happen, and they can only happen in a gradual way. People in positions of power at brands grew up in a different time to us, and a lot of them probably haven’t been exposed to/had to acknowledge social issues the way that our generation does. It’s unrealistic to expect people and companies to be non-problematic in a fundamentally problematic world, which is one of the reasons I think cancel culture is too reductive. If they start on a surface level, and work to build deeper and more sustainable engagement, isn’t that good? If the messaging is whack, then of course they should be called out, and hopefully can adjust their approach accordingly rather than be defensive - you can’t know if you don't try.

Would you rather the same bland communication, or would you like to see companies take more responsibility with their platforms and resources? It’s  strategic but also mutually beneficial for brands to branch out and support upcoming artists, collectives, models, and talent, as well as building more diverse teams. When I speak to people who have started independent projects, we can all identify a cheque that allowed us to continue doing what we do as authentically as possible. If we just sit and over think instead of taking action, and being ready to learn from our mistakes, no progress occurs. Sustainable change takes time and effort from all sides. As long as companies are compensating people fairly for their work, and developing nuanced engagement then go forth and prosper!

When oppressed minorities are publicly visible, there is a tendency for them to be asked to speak on social issues on behalf of an entire body of oppressed people. I feel it is not the emotional responsibility of the individual to pander to this request, nor to be expected to be versed in how to speak for a whole populations identity and oppression, as experiences are subjective. What are your thoughts on this?

Yeah, it's annoying. An example I’ve been asked a lot about is ‘feminism in China’ in a general sense. China is home to 1.4 billion people. The way that feminism has developed in China is fundamentally different to the west, and I still don't have a full grasp of western feminism as it is. People dedicate their lives to research and academia on these topics, and I am somehow supposed to summarize these issues in a short paragraph… I can’t!

What can people in positions of power do better when addressing their questions to you?

Ask more personal questions such as ‘How has your feminism developed over time? What has influenced this change whether it be people or experiences? What are some obstacles that you've personally faced, and how did you overcome them? What are some changes that you’ve observed and what do you hope to see moving forward?’. These kinds of questions are easier for an individual to draw from experience, before asking them to make general sweeping statements if they’re not ready for them.

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The last time we spoke for Filter you were in turbo-mode balancing your DJ/creative career, and a full time agency job. At what point did you know it was time to let one go and bet on yourself?

When I was at university, my mental health suffered a lot. I was lost and unsure of myself with no guidance. After I graduated and moved to Shanghai in 2017, I told myself that as soon as a situation was taking more from me than it was serving me, it was my responsibility to switch things up instead of waiting for someone to save me. I am so grateful for my agency job, because I learnt so much from it, but after a year-and-a-half of full time work with numerous side gigs, I was burnt out. I was devoid of inspiration and it permeated every part of my life. Building your career will always come with sacrifices but you should enjoy the process as well. I’d stopped growing and learning in my position, so I did the math on my financials and decided to actively make space in my life to reassess my direction.

How did you feel afterwards? What is still left on your plate?

It’s been just over a month, and I’ve been traveling for the past two, so I’m still trying to work in some kind of structure but having down time to rest and reflect has been good. I’ve been reminding myself to take things step-by-step, booking gigs, doing a bit of consulting and dedicating more time to growing NVSHU女术.

When I stopped working full time I realised that I still had the equivalent of full time side hustles to dedicate my focus to. I honestly can’t fathom how I managed to do both in hindsight. Do you feel the same?

When I was working full time, the side hustles were still baby seeds. I really started my ‘career’ from scratch - working in a field I had no formal experience or education in, and DJing in a country I’d just moved to. I was still building a DJ resume, so it was easier for me to time-manage because the two jobs didn’t clash as much. Closer to when I decided to resign, that's when I was actively declining work that required me to be out of the office on weekdays. I left at what I felt was a tipping point - if I didn’t free up my schedule then the side hustles would be limited. I want to grow my life into a lush garden not random pot plants scattered on concrete.

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We’ve had offline conversations about whether true art and culture can be commercialised. As we touched on earlier, in our capitalist society we need money to fund initiatives if we want to truly impact culture and society on a wider scale. What advice do you have for inexperienced or emerging creatives who want to commercialise their work/secure the bag, but not ‘sell out’?

Capitalism is fucked but like… if you don’t at least learn the game you’ll never know how to break the rules. I think it's important to always do creative work or have hobbies that are not pursued with money as an end goal. Your practice suffers if you only create with the intention of securing the bag. As we’ve spoken about, most established creatives are doing or have done commercial work/had another job in one way or another, you just might not see it if they don’t share it. I’ve met so many people I thought were full time stylists, writers, musicians that have other jobs to finance their passion. Some are working towards full time creative work and others prefer to have something to balance with. Don’t compare yourself to other people or make assumptions about how they work, rather see what you can learn from them and apply to yourself. When someone is too willing to give up it means they don’t really care about their craft and are just pursuing the illusion of success which has no longevity or substance. Focus on enjoying your journey and adapting to different obstacles and opportunities. Doing well should be defined for yourself not in terms of how other people perceive you because you can’t guarantee those people will stick around.

In terms of avoiding “selling out” make sure you communicate with clients about what you need in order for the collaboration to be genuine for you. You will usually have to make compromises when working with other people. If you feel like you’re sacrificing more than you’re gaining, then be confident in the belief that if you pass on an opportunity now and continue to create honestly, then another opportunity will come along in the future. Growth mindset, people! Plant those seeds and water the garden!

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