Meet: Gina Karlikoff, a.k.a Kimchi Princi

Amy Tong
Photo by Arnad Hajdic

Kimchi Princi has been described as a rapper,  DJ, and an “internet artist”, but she is more than your typical musician. Collaborating closely with her sister, Danielle, Gina combines poetry, fashion, and satire to create a thrilling visual and aural experience for her audience. Using music as an avenue to explore what it means to be a millennial, Kimchi Princi is one of Australia’s most relevant artists. It’s difficult to imagine Sydney’s club scene without her.

Vertigo met up with Gina to talk about everything from her creative process, to her upbringing in Australia, and even managed to get a tip-off about UTS’ ‘secret bathroom’.

Vertigo: You’re frequently described as an “internet artist” who makes “internet pop”. What the fuck does this even mean? Do you feel like this label is dismissive of your work that is an honest reflection of the millennial experience?

Kimchi Princi: I don’t find it dismissive at all because I understand where that label is coming from. I find that the internet is so inherent in what all of us millennials do, so of course I’m going to be talking about it a lot in my music. A lot of my work has been put out through the internet; my first major social interactions were via the internet, so I understand the label. Also with the aesthetic, all the videos I’ve created with my sister are DIY. We don’t have a huge budget or expensive cameras, so I think that makes the ‘internet look’ come about; some of our videos feature screenshots or chat screen recordings. We’re just soaking up the world around us and reflecting it in what we create.

V: A lot of articles have also implied that you represent millennials in your music and you’re perceived as sort of a role model. Do you feel pressured that you’re seen in this perspective at all?

KP: Not really, I feel like it’s something that I’d love to be! It feels really good when people hit me up and say that they enjoy my work and find it so relatable. In my lyrics, I usually talk about the millennial experience, or what it’s like to be a cross-cultural Australian — or speak out to marginalised people. When that response kind of happens, it’s really flattering. It’s a sign I’m creating something meaningful and I want to create more. I’ve received a lot of support from young girls out there as well, which means a lot to me.

V: In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about not being very attached to your parents, especially your mother who comes from a very conservative part of Korea. She featured in your video, Shine 4 Me, where you’re both wearing hanbok. Can you give us a bit of a rundown of that song and the process that went into creating the video?

KP: Yeah, definitely! Well, the song was about seeing boys. I wrote it in about 10 minutes because it was so obvious to me. Our mum is really conservative, as you said, so lyrically that’s where the song came from. Every time we mentioned a guy friend, she would ask, “Are you pregnant?!” It makes sense to her but no sense to us, so I have to dodge that a lot when I’m on a night out. She’s always saying to my sister and I, “make sure you find rich husbands,” as well, so that’s how that song came about.

V: How does she feel about the Kimchi Princi persona?

KP: I mean, she doesn’t really know. But now that I’m doing shows quite often, it’s becoming more evident to her. I think she’s really proud because she just wants me to be successful in life, and I’m getting paid and people are paying attention. To be honest, she doesn’t know much about Kimchi Princi, and she’s freaked out that I’ve dropped out of uni for a bit. Now, though, I feel like I’ve come to understand a lot more about my parents and how we come from a completely different place to them.

V: I totally get what you mean!

KP: Yeah, like, my mum moved to Australia from Korea when she was 36 years old. As a nun in a convent, she could only come to Australia by working really hard. Unlike her, we grew up in a society where you can have whatever you want; people can be whatever they want to be, you can just be yourself. I feel like my mum’s life was spent just trying to almost deny that way of thinking in order to be successful in the workplace.

V: Have you been back to visit where your mother came from in Korea?

KP: We’ve been back several times and it’s incredible and powerful. She comes from a rural part of Korea — time moves slowly and nothing really changes. As kids, we used to hate going in the summer holidays. My sister and I would always be like, “Why aren’t we at the beach with our friends? What is this foreign place? Our cousins don’t speak English. This is the worst.” And now, I’m so regretful for that because I’m old enough to understand how growing up in a privileged society has made me feel that way. Like growing up here, did you ever feel like you wanted to be ‘white’ and erase your ‘Asian-ness’?

V: Yeah definitely, like all the time.

KP: Yeah, same here. I think that ideology kind of seeps into that attitude.

V: So then, how did this affect you growing up?

KP: It affected me a lot, in almost every aspect of my life. You just want to erase your Asian-ness because it’s pointed out, especially amongst young kids. As a kid, you don’t want to feel foreign. I remember feeling embarrassed when my mum spoke to me in Korean, or feeling insecure about how small my eyes were and my physicality. I think I used to feel this way because you don’t see much Asian representation, or any minority for that matter. Yeah, I didn’t really enjoy being a kid that much.

V: If there was one thing that you could say to your younger self, what would it be?

KP: Embrace it! Learn your mother’s language! Nowadays, I feel regretful because I didn’t understand how hard it’d be for my mum to move here, not speak the language, and raise us as kids who refused to speak Korean. So it hurts me a lot and it’s really heartbreaking. It’s hard for her to express herself in English — so when she gets angry or frustrated, I can see it but she can’t voice it.

V: I totally understand what you’re getting at. I imagine that you’d be close with your sister, and you mentioned earlier that you collaborate together quite often. Can you tell me what that process is like?

KP: It’s so fluid and easy. It’s probably like a dream situation, and I’m so lucky! She speaks so well visually and I speak through poetry and music, so when those two combine it’s very honest and we’re brutal with each other. She gets what I see and I get what she sees, so it’s very quick and natural most of the time.

V: Your sister helped you shoot your music video, Internet Friend. Was the bathroom in Internet Friend the secret bathroom at UTS?

KP: Yes! Oh my god, it’s so good! Shout-out to UTS: Thank you — probably the most useful part of my degree thus far. We went in the holidays and put a sign on the door saying, “filming for student project”, and a few teachers came in and were like, “Oh my god, so glad someone’s using this bathroom finally! It’s the best.”

V: Can you describe your experience of studying at UTS in three words.

KP: Oh wow… Uneventful. Lacklustre. Menya Mappen. I feel like with uni, I could’ve made it the most insightful time of my life, but I just didn’t feel that way and I wasn’t inspired to do so.

V: You’ve deferred for a while to focus on Kimchi Princi. What originally fostered your love for music?

KP: Well, I played classical piano for my whole life until I finished high school. At the same time, I was writing a lot. I used to write poems as a kid. In music class, I would try and put poems to soft soundtracks, or get people to read poems and make little cut-ups of it. So, that fused those two together. It just came naturally. Music means a lot to me.

V: What are the sorts of challenges you face in the music industry?

KP: Everyone faces challenges if you’re building your act up from the ground, especially if you don’t have guidance with a manager or a booking agent. Getting deeper into the industry, you definitely face the obstacles that people usually talk about; the cut-throat nature or how people make promises that fall through.

V: But I guess by not having an agent or a manager, you learn how to do things for yourself and you become a stronger person, right?

KP: Absolutely ­— so true! I also realised that if I did have someone telling me what to do, I would immediately not want that. I don’t want to take my agency for granted or anything, but autonomy is the best.

V: One final question, who is Gina and who is Kimchi Princi?

KP: Oh god, that’s hard. They’re definitely one and the same. I don’t know what to say because I feel it’s all the same to me. There aren’t any limitations. I can’t think of a situation where I’ve been like, “Oh, that’s Gina!” or, “Oh, that’s Kimchi!” This is the first time where I’ve done stuff publicly in terms of work and life, and I’m working really hard as Kimchi Princi. I’ve been pushed around a lot as Kimchi — it’s made me more cynical, but I’ve learnt a lot and have become a stronger person.

Interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.