Non La Reclaims Mixed Heritage and Rises Up With Not In Love

Photo: Emma Arkell

Under the moniker Non La (the Vietnamese word for a traditional hat style), Vancouver DIY scene mainstay, DJ On, hopes to reclaim his identity as a queer Chinese-Vietnamese Canadian through blown-out, gritty pop.

“A lot of the time our [QPOC] art has to be sad and kind of like torture porn for white audiences,” Non La tells BeatRoute at a Mount Pleasant cafe. ”I didn’t want to take that angle. I just wrote pop songs that I want people to dance to.”

On will release his solo project’s debut LP, Not In Love, after nearly a decade performing in a half-dozen local bands. The album oscillates from personal to political, propelled by every dramatic drumbeat and glittery guitar solo. The album’s brightness irradiates queer love stories while heavy rhythms root the themes to something universal. On’s idiosyncratic vocals capture this back-and-forth between levity and depth, a near-staccato approach that has On singing multiple notes across single syllables.

The multi-instrumentalist spent eight years playing bass and drums in various Vancouver pop and punk groups — amongst them, Thee Ahs, TV Ugly, Maneater and Megamall — while completing a degree in English and Gender Studies at SFU. Jaded and tired of prejudiced barriers in the music industry, On boarded a plane to Taiwan without even attending his graduation ceremony. There, Non La crystallized. With ample alone time to write songs and reflect, On discovered the impetus for finally venturing out as a solo artist.

“Growing up and listening to indie rock I never saw and still don’t see gay asian men fronting popular bands and that’s the reason I never wanted to focus on [a solo project],” he explains. With Non La and Not In Love, “I’m trying to be what fourteen-year-old me needed to see reflected in the indie rock scene.”

Not feeling represented in media damaged On’s sense of identity. “It’s caused me to internalize racism and homophobia,” to the point where he rejected his maternal and paternal languages. Now he feels ready to reclaim all aspects of himself. “That’s why there’s both Vietnamese and Chinese on the album art.”

These personal ties lend a sense of honesty to the album’s more political notes. On sings about the corporatization of pride and the fetishization of asian people with wit and candour. With the release of Not In Love, On adds his voice to a crucial dialogue gaining momentum every day. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time before this chorus of indignant artists washes out the noise.